2.4 United Nations agencies

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2 4 agencias nac unidasThe United Nations is a vast and complex organization. The UN System is made up of the Secretariat, headquartered in New York, and a wide variety of specialized agencies, funds, departments, commissions and other bodies. WHO (and PAHO in the Americas) is the specialized health agency. View the overarching structure of the United Nations.

The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) is a strategic framework, adopted by United Nations Member States in 2000. The objective of the UNISDR is to guide and coordinate the efforts of a wide range of partners to achieve substantive reduction in disaster losses and build resilient nations and communities as an essential condition for sustainable development.

The UNISDR is involved in a wide variety of efforts to achieve these objectives, including coordinating international efforts in disaster risk reduction and providing guidance for the implementation of the Hyogo Framework for Action (UNISDR serves as the Secretariat), monitoring implementation and reporting on progress. The UNISDR is a global advocate for greater investment in disaster risk reduction. Read about progress being made around the world in the UNISDR publication Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction. Read the UNISDR brochure ‘Connect and Convince’ to learn about the many areas in which they are involved at global level.

The UNISDR’s regional office for Latin America and the Caribbean transforms global strategies into activities with regional partners. The multi-stakeholder ‘National Platforms’ for Disaster Risk Reduction are an important part of this process. The National Platforms are nationally owned and led forums or committees that provide coordination, analysis and advice on areas of priority requiring collaborative action. Because National Platforms serve as a coordination mechanism at national level for the sustainability of disaster risk reduction activities in all sectors, they are important points of contact for partnerships and alliances. Read the guidelines for National Platforms for Disaster Risk Reduction.

The U.N.’s Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) is the primary mechanism for inter-agency coordination of humanitarian assistance. The IASC was established in 1992 in response to United Nations General Assembly Resolution 46/182, to develop and agree on system-wide humanitarian policies and allocate responsibilities among agencies.

The primary objectives of the IASC are to:

  • develop and agree on system-wide humanitarian policies;
  • allocate responsibilities among agencies in humanitarian programs;
  • develop and agree on a common ethical framework for all humanitarian activities;
  • advocate for common humanitarian principles to parties outside the IASC;
  • identify gaps in mandates or lack of operational capacity.

The IASC is comprised of principals, who are the heads of the IASC member agencies or their representatives and a number of standing invitees. In practice, however, no distinction is made between "members" and "standing invitees.” In fact, the strength and value added of the IASC lies in its broad membership, bringing together all key humanitarian actors. It is important to note that while the agencies listed below are IASC members, the scope of their work encompasses a wide range of activities from risk reduction to advocacy to preparedness. Following is a brief review of key UN agencies involved in these fields.

  • Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA): OCHA is the arm of the UN Secretariat that is responsible for bringing together humanitarian actors to ensure coherent response to emergencies. OCHA also ensures there is a framework within which each actor can contribute to the overall response effort. OCHA's mission is to mobilize and coordinate effective and principled humanitarian action in partnership with national and international actors; advocate for the rights of people in need; promote preparedness and prevention; and facilitate sustainable solutions. One of OCHA’s websites is noteworthy for its collaborative approach: ReliefWeb is updated daily with information for humanitarian relief organizations (it also contains a directory of NGOs).
  • World Health Organization (WHO), Department of Humanitarian Health Action: at global level, WHO helps strengthen country capacity to manage all types of crises; mitigate the impact of crises by taking measures to reduce the effects of disasters and crises on systems that support good public health; respond to crises by ensuring effective, efficient and timely action to address public health priorities; and recover from crises by ensuring that the local health system is back to functioning.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) serves as WHO’s regional office for the Americas. For the last 35 years, PAHO’s Area on Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Relief has led regional efforts to create a disaster program in the ministries of health, with leadership and credibility; provide training opportunities to health professionals; develop a body of scientific and technical knowledge; and reach out to institutions, private or public, to create a disaster-resilient community. PAHO advocates for health risk reduction by promoting a culture of disaster prevention, applying an all-hazards approach and convincing the health sector that it makes economic sense to invest in risk reduction, translating this into legislation and building codes. In disaster situations, PAHO/WHO mobilizes its Regional Health Disaster Response Team; strengthens country Emergency Operations Centers (EOC), channels information for analysis and decision making; and ensures that humanitarian supplies and donations are managed transparently and effectively.

  • UN Development Program (UNDP) supports its national counterparts to develop both a disaster risk perspective and human, financial, technical and legislative capacity. It works to strengthen civil society preparedness and coordination systems required to effectively manage and reduce risk. The UNDP Bureau of Crisis Prevention and Recovery (BCPR) strategy for 2007-2011 identifies two outcome areas: prevention and risk reduction and recovery. Click on the links to review the outputs, outcomes and activities for each area.
  • United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-HABITAT). The right to adequate shelter is central to the mandate of UN-HABITAT and is important when addressing the needs of communities affected by disasters. Shelter is often the primary need in the post-disaster phase, but the delivery of immediate shelter needs must be undertaken within a long-term shelter strategy. Read more about UN-HABITAT’s work with displaced populations and human settlements in the aftermath of disasters and crisis situations.
  • The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is mandated to lead and coordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. Its primary purpose is to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees. For example, UNHCR works with a number of health partners in Colombia to ensure displaced populations enjoy the right to health and can access healthcare services. Along with PAHO/WHO, other UN agencies and NGOs, they are among the health actors that come together to discuss strategies and assign responsibilities for assisting displaced populations. One UNHCR priority is to focus on indigenous populations and support efforts to protect special rights under Colombian law. UNHCR has been a valuable partner in the creation of the National “Ruta de Salud” or Access Route to health care, a tool used to teach communities about their rights to access health care access, where to go and what to do if those rights are not granted. Learn more about UNHCR’s work in emergencies and crises in their Handbook for Emergencies.
  • The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) helps member countries develop risk reduction policies and practices in agriculture, forestry and fisheries. Several of FAO’s activities are relevant to disaster prevention and mitigation, including improving access to land; increasing the resilience of agricultural systems to adverse effects of weather and climate change; and assisting countries in better planned, long-term risk prevention and preparedness strategies and efforts. See what FAO is doing in emergencies.
  • The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) works in a wide variety of development and emergency activities. Emergency immunization is one of UNICEF’s priority interventions, along with vitamin A supplementation and therapeutic feeding centers. In non-disaster situations, UNICEF works to ensure a supply of safe drinking water and to improve sanitary conditions for communities and the displaced. To accomplish this, UNICEF strengthens the capacity of institutions working in water and sanitation (WASH) and environmental health by developing instruments to identify vulnerability and risk, conducting training and working with established groups of WASH actors. In response operations, UNICEF provides supplies and equipment to treat and store water, particularly for critical infrastructure (hospitals and schools) and designs interventions for solid waste disposal. Click here to read more about UNICEF activities in disasters and emergencies.
  • The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) works in emergency situations protect the reproductive health of communities in crisis and provide assistance to stricken communities as they move beyond the acute crisis and enter the reconstruction phase. The Fund also supports data collection activities to provide detailed information for planning and rapid health assessments to allow for appropriate, effective and efficient relief.
  • The World Food Program (WFP) works to help prevent hunger through programs that use food as a means to build assets, spread knowledge and nurture stronger, more dynamic communities, thus helping communities become more food secure. It also continually responding to emergencies. WFP has developed expertise in a range of areas including food security analysis, nutrition, food procurement and logistics to ensure the best solutions for the world's hungry. WFP’s extensive expertise in logistics has made it a key partner in the Logistics Supply Management System (LSS/SUMA), in wide use throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction has published an excellent compendium of the roles, mandates and areas of work of key UN agencies, which decision makers and health professionals can use for complete information about the work of the UN in preparedness, risk reduction and response. View or download the publication entitled Disaster Risk Reduction in the United Nations.

Several other UN agencies and mechanisms are important partners as well:

  • The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) is one of five regional commissions of the United Nations (there are other UN Economic Commissions in Europe (www.unece.org), Asia-Pacific (www.unescap.org), Western Asia (www.escwa.un.org), and Africa (www.uneca.org). ECLAC contributes to the economic development of Latin America and the Caribbean by reinforcing economic ties among countries and with other nations of the world and promoting social development. ECLAC has a disaster unit/program and with the support of PAHO/WHO, ECLAC has developed a methodology and handbook for Estimating the Socio-Economic and Environment Effects of Disasters, which is being applied worldwide. Use the link on the disaster unit’s web page for a complete list of publication and reports.
  • UNESCO, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, helps build peace, eradicate of poverty, and achieve sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information. In post-earthquake Haiti, for example, UNESCO continues to advocate strongly for the prioritization and funding of education within humanitarian response.
  • The UN Environment Program (UNEP) seeks to minimize environmental threats to human well-being from the environmental causes and consequences of conflicts and disasters. UNEP is also a leader in the study of climate change and its impact on health and relationship to natural hazards. Read more about UNEP’s role in their publication Disasters and Conflict.
  • The United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (the UNDAC System) is a stand-by team of disaster management professionals who are nominated and funded by member governments, OCHA, UNDP and operational humanitarian UN agencies such as WHO, WFP, and UNICEF. Disaster-stricken countries can request a UNDAC team to be deployed within hours to carry out rapid assessment of priority needs and to support national authorities and the UN Resident Coordinator to coordinate international relief on-site. The UNDAC handbook is a reference guide for members of the UNDAC team in an emergency mission. It contains checklists and a description of coordination structures in the field.
  • The Humanitarian Information Centers (HICs), coordinated by OCHA, are a space where the humanitarian community can share and access information resources in order to improve the planning and delivery of humanitarian assistance. HICs provide information products and services—maps, contacts lists, meetings schedules, etc. HICs are an inter-organizational resource, reporting to the UN Humanitarian or Resident Coordinator, whose products and services are available to the entire humanitarian community. Among their activities, HICs collect and maintain data on ‘Who’s doing What Where’ in the humanitarian community and engage with local actors to support and develop existing information infrastructures. Consult the HumanitarianInfo website for an example of the kind of information managed by humanitarian information centers.