19 December 2011, New York, USA – In a message addressed today to the humanitarian community worldwide, Valerie Amos, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, wrote: “Twenty years ago on 19 December the United Nations General Assembly resolution 46/182 created a system to ensure the humanitarian community work together more effectively to save lives during emergencies. It laid the foundation for stronger leadership, inclusive partnerships, common strategic planning and fast and predictable funding”.

The idea to establish a mechanism to ensure effective coordination of humanitarian relief was born from the experience of the humanitarian crisis in Iraq in 1991, which generated lessons that were later captured in General Assembly resolution 46/182. The spirit of the resolution is to ensure that people affected by conflict or natural disasters receive coordinated and swiftly mobilized humanitarian assistance and protection regardless of nationality, location, social group or religious belief.  This resolution is still today the common basis to support and achieve humanitarian assistance goals by both the UN and the NGO community. It also established the Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC) and three mechanisms: the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) and the Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP). It also created the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs (DHA), the predecessor of OCHA, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The IASC is the main mechanism for inter-agency coordination of humanitarian assistance involving the key UN and non-UN humanitarian partners.

Since 2003, both OCHA and the members of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee are supported by the Humanitarian Rapid Mapping service of UNOSAT, which provides timely geospatial information and satellite derived analysis to all humanitarian agencies to facilitate decision making, in-field coordination, reporting and monitoring. Since its inception, this service has elaborated over 1500 distinct geographic products for an array of over 250 humanitarian emergencies. Since 2007, thanks to dedicated donor support and efficient operational procedures, UNOSAT is able to respond to all activation requests coming from OCHA and the IASC members, 24 hours a day, all year round. In a number of cases each year UNOSAT can count on the support of the International Charter Space and Major Disasters, a mechanism established by several space agencies including the European Space Agency, that provides free satellite data in case of major natural disasters. The data is turned into actionable information by UNOSAT analysts, compiled into maps and GIS-ready layers and disseminated to operators in the field and decision making centres at headquarters in Geneva and New York.

OCHA and UNOSAT have developed strong collaboration ties over the years. For example, UNOSAT manages the geospatial coordination mechanism of GDACS, the Global Disasters Alert and Coordination System for OCHA; it also support various humanitarian clusters, and OCHA action in humanitarian information management. Several current research initiatives being done at UNOSAT operational centre hosted at CERN will bring additional benefits to OCHA and the humanitarian community over the next few years, including a more targeted and scientific based involvement of citizens’ social networks through the evolution of crowd sourcing applications.

Images: top: USG Valerie Amos; bottom: example of UNOSAT rapid mapping product elaborated from Space Charter satellite data.