Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia

A history of UN relief coordination activities in Ethiopia


The unprecedented scale of the 1982-84 sub-saharan drought caught the United Nations and donor community alike ill-prepared and unable to avert disaster. By November 1984, when Michael Buerkís pictures from Korem hit TV screens across the world, many tens of thousands in Ethiopia had already succumbed to a famine that had reached "biblical proportions". Confronted by the enormity of the disaster and facing a growing clamour for action from around the globe, the then UN Secretary General, Peres díCuellar, assigned the seasoned Finnish diplomat, Kurt Janssen, to Addis Ababa as his personal representative, tasked with the job of coordinating the international relief effort.

To further bolster the capacity of the UN to provide practical support to operations in the field, the Office for Emergency Operations in Africa was created in December 1984 in New York with a "coordination unit" in Ethiopia reporting directly to Janssen. Hastily cobbled together with staff taken from the UN agencies (the UN Disaster Relief Organization - UNDRO, Unicef and the World Food Programme) as well as a number of relief specialists seconded by donors, principly the Scandanavian countries, Great Britain and Switzerland, the unit quickly established a capacity to track the delivery of aid destined for the northern highlands and monitor the effectiveness of food distributions. At the height of the relief effort, in early 1985, when the unit was directly reponsible for managing the airlift of food to the

The Office for Emergency Operations in Ethiopia (OEOE) was created in mid-1985 as a relief coordination and monitoring unit reporting directly to the then Secretary General's Special Representative for in Ethiopia - a post specifically created by Secretary General Peres díQuelea in response to the 1984/85 famine crisis. The task given to the OEOE was primarily logistical in nature and the work of the unit's 40 or so expatriate and national field workers was to monitor and coordinate the delivery of food aid to drought-affected northern regions of the country.

The civil war raging in the north at that time and the propensity of both sides to manipulate food aid - the diversion of food consignments to militia camps and the selective granting of registration rights to poterntial beneficiaries being just two examples - often made the work of the unit difficult, dangerous and politically highly sensitive. However, the high degree of mobility enjoyed by OEOE field staff led to the unit becoming an important part of the human rights and "behind-the-scenes" advocacy work of the UN and donor community. In fact, OEOE Field Officers became to be regarded as the Ďeyes and earsí of the UN and donors in those parts of the country where, due to the civil war, diplomats and senior UN officials were rarely permitted access. As a consequence, the unit routinely prepared two kinds of report: (1) general monitoring reports providing detailed background to relief operations and food distributions for unrestricted circulation, and (2) highly confidential reports for senior UN officials and donor ambassadors on observations of misuse of food aid, human rights abuses, political issues of concern and the impact of the war on ordinary people in the north.

Formation of the Emergency Prevention and Preparedness Group (UN-EPPG)

In late 1986, with the worst effects of the famine largely overcome, the Secretary General ordered the dismantling of the OEOE and the incorporation of its responsibilities into a new officeto be called the Emergency Prevention and Preparedness Group - EPPG. The name was supposed to reflect the new priorities of the UN system in the aftermath of famine - emphasising prevention, early warning and disaster readiness. The EPPG was to be a more permanent mechanism for promoting disaster prevention activities and to improve inter-agency and UN-government coordination.

With the civil war still raging and bringing an ever widening area within its deadly thrall, in practice the mandate of the EPPG remained very similar to that of the OEOE before it. The focus continued to be on monitoring the delivery of food aid (food stocks, truck logistics, warehousing, distribution plans, beneficiary numbers etc.,), assisting in the field coordination of relief operations (in particular, the 1987/88 and 1990-92 airlifts and "cross-lines" initiatives such as the 1990/91 "Southern Line" and "Northern Line" operations into Welo and Tigray) and keeping the UN system and donors briefed on all aspects of the humanitarian situation in the country - especially the war-affected regions of the north.

Throughout the period leading up to the cessation of hostilities and change of government in May 1991, the EPPG was essentially a field-orientated monitoring and relief operations unit, with the efficient delivery of food relief being its primary pre-occupation. The Technical Coordinator of the unit reported directly to the SGSR/Resident Coordinator and EPPG field staff were very much considered as a special resource available to the Resident Coordinator for deployment as he felt fit. In agreeing priority tasks for the unit, the SGSR/Resident Coordinator would consult widely with UN heads of agency and with donor representatives through a variety of formal and informal contacts. The prime forum for debating the work of the unit was the EPPG Executive Committee - a meeting of UN heads of agency chaired by the Resident Coordinator and, and particularly prior to May 1991, the informal donor ambassador group.

Having said this, and despite a very rocky relationship with the RRC, which dated back to the very beginning of the OEOE and which stemmed from the unit's field work, in 1987 the EPPG did play a crucial part in starting a process which ultimately culminated in late 1993 with the official launching of the Ethiopian Government's Policy on Disaster Prevention, Preparedness and Mitigation - now the cornerstone of the FDRE/UNDP Programme 4 of the Fifth Country Programme. In those early days, EPPG consultants worked with the government's central planning authority on the formulation of the first draft of what became known as the "emergency code", giving substance to many of the central components seen in the policy today: formation of local disaster management committees, linking relief to development, employment generation schemes and the food security reserve to name but four.

This new spirit of cooperation and engagement with the government on policy matters concerning disaster prevention and management were written into the first formal mandate of the EPPG as articulated in the 1989 UNDP project document. Apart from support for the formulation of the emergency code, however, if anything in the last months of the civil war the unit became more operational not less, becoming heavily involved in land, air and sea transport operations into the war-affected north as well as helping to coordinate the delivery of food to refugee camps in the east and west of the country - the Refugee Logistics Unit (RLU) being part of the EPPG until late 1990.

The EPPG mandate post-May 1991

The end of hostilities and fall of the Mengistu regime in May 1991 did not immediately bring about any sudden change in the mandate or work of the EPPG. In the aftermath of war, the unit became heavily involved in managing airlift operations bringing immediate relief to demobilising soldiers and ex-fighters and their families throughout the country and later in delivering much needed food to the Ogaden. The involvement on the ground in the Ogaden (now Region 5) continued well into 1992 and even after WFP took over responsibility for the airlift, EPPG Field Officers remained in the area to work with the RRC in organising and managing food distributions for returnees and local drought-affected people alike. Following the virtual withdrawal of UNHCR from the region in April 1992, the EPPG became the only UN presence in many areas, including those sheltering many hundreds of thousand of returnees from Somalia. At this time, the field staff of the EPPG, working closely with the RRC, local administrations and UNHCR became instrumental in developing what became known as the "cross mandate" approach - a method of collaborative action which provides humanitarian assistance on the basis of need not entitlement and using community development principles.

Though not apparent at the time, for the EPPG the mode of working was beginning to change. The operational side of the unit's work started to be down-played and more emphasis placed on inter-agency coordination, information sharing and institutional support to the government. Rather than look at food aid alone, the unit began to examine wider issues such as those of ethnic conflict, demobilisation, urbanisation and poverty alleviation. A number of special studies were prepared which were enthusiastically received by the donor community and the unit worked closely with other agencies on the formulation of post-conflict rehabilitation strategies. Cooperation with the NGO community was enhanced during this period with the unit regularly invited to attend and address meetings called under the auspices of the Christian Relief and Development Association (CRDA) - the principal umbrella organisation for NGOs - international and local - in Ethiopia. Likewise, donors, media and NGOs alike came to the EPPG for an overview of the general situation in the country, to be provided with background materials and for briefings on needs and other issues. In many cases, practical assistance was given to donors and media people wishing to travel to the field and this almost certainly helped raise the profile of Ethiopia internationally and bought the EPPG considerable credibility.

During this period, the EPPG also saw the development of a new role as a policy advocate and "think-tank" within the UN system. It used its influence to help re-structure the former EPPG Executive Committee as the UN Disaster Management Team (DMT) for Ethiopia - now perhaps the single most important forum in the country for UN inter-agency coordination on matters that extend well beyond just emergencies.

From the middle of 1991 the EPPG became the focal point in Ethiopia for liaising with the newly created UN Department for Humanitarian Affairs and, until the end of 1993, the DHA's Special Emergency Programme for the Horn of Africa (SEPHA). In addition to working with the agencies on compiling regular situation reports for submission to SEPHA, the EPPG acted as focal point for the preparation of two consolidated appeals for Ethiopia submitted to SEPHA in December 1991 and again in 1992. Though the return from these appeals was not felt to be commensurate with the effort put in, the consolidated appeal process did help the EPPG establish its credentials as the primary mechanism in Ethiopia for promoting inter-agency cooperation and coordination.

Though the new government was at first rather disparaging about the EPPG (see comments below on attempts to draw-up a new mandate in 1992/3) - perhaps still perceiving it in its old role of being the "eyes and ears" of the donors and as an attempt by the UN to maintain a parallel organisation to the RRC - by the end of 1993 a very healthy spirit of cooperation and mutual support had been established. In addition to conducting joint operations under the "cross-mandate" approach and working on a number of joint needs assessments - most notably in the Ogaden, at the end of 1993 the EPPG was invited by the RRC to make a major input into the preparation of the Government's national relief and rehabilitation appeal for 1994.

January 1994 to-date: the UN-EUE - new name and a new approach

To reflect the many significant changes that had taken place since May 1991 - both in the country and in the work of the unit - in January 1994 the EPPG was renamed the UN Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia. Though essentially only a cosmetic change, it was hoped the new name would help emphasis the fundamentally different approach of the unit over its former incarnations. Though a new mandate was never formally agreed with the government, it was tacitly understood that the unit would focus more on the provision of technical support and capacity building assistance to the RRC, particularly in the fields of needs assessment, relief management and coordination, public relations, information management and early warning, while at the same time avoiding an active role in field operations unless explicitly asked to do so by the government. The unit, however, would continue to conduct independent monitoring of needs in the country as this was seen as fundamental to the unitís role as a focal point for disaster preparedness and coordination within the UN system in Ethiopia.

1994 was a year of crisis with large scale food needs in many parts of the country including the north, east and certain critical areas of the south (Wolaita, in particular). The EUE worked very closely with the RRC throughout the year, helping in the re-launch of a national relief appeal in April and conducting wide ranging needs assessments in many of the most severely affected areas. In cooperation with a group of donors, in mid-year the EUE began a more formal programme to assist the RRC in a number of sectors, including the formulation of a "rolling" relief plan; the development and implementation of a management information system; technical support to the Public Relations and Fund Raising Units and assistance to the Transport and Logistics Department. This programme was very well received by senior RRC management and did much to forge an even closer working relationship between the two organisations.

Though the possibility was broached on a number of occasions, this new spirit of cooperation did not extend to any agreement that IPF funds could be used in any way to support the work of the unit. The RRCís positioned remained that the EUE was a UN institution principally serving the coordination needs of the UN system and as such should be funded out of UN regular resources. This position did not, however, exclude the EUE from an informal role as a source of technical expertise that the RRC could draw upon in an ad hoc fashion to support both its regular work and in the implementation of Programme 4 - UNDPís support for the National Programme for Disaster Prevention, Preparedness and Mitigation.

During the latter half of 1994 and the beginning of 1995, the unit became actively involved in two new areas of work that effectively expanded the scope of its current mandate. Firstly, given the potential for further conflict in Somalia following the withdrawal of UNOSOM, and the possibility of new influxes of refugees into eastern Ethiopia, the DMT asked the EUE to maintain a "watching brief" over the situation in Somalia and to keep the agencies informed of any significant developments. A "Somali Affairs" consultant was recruited by the unit in October 1994 and tasked with the job of monitoring developments throughout the Somali-speaking region of the Horn of Africa and to provide detailed analysis of the background to events.

The post proved its worth in the months that followed when an upsurge of fighting around Hargeysa in NW Somalia led to the sudden influx into Ethiopia of several tens of thousands of new refugees. On the basis of information provided by the Somali Affairs officer, the EUE was able to help agencies working in both Ethiopia and NW Somalia develop a strategy of "balanced" assistance which would help stabilize cross-border movements and avoid the creation of points of attraction that could lead to the formation of new permanent refugee camps.

Secondly, at the February 1995 Regional Horn of Africa Coordination Meeting of Resident Coordinators and operational UN agencies, the EUE was asked to act as a interim "Information Secretariat" to facilitate the exchange of reports and documentary materials between agencies working in the sub-region. The materials were to include reports and minutes of meetings concerning the proposed new mandate of IGADD and any other issues of importance to inter-agency/inter-country coordination and collaboration. The EUE also agreed to prepare a proposal for the possible creation of a more permanent Horn of Africa "Information and Documentation Secretariat" within the UN system for later consideration by the Horn of Africa Coordination Team. This work led, almost incidentally, to the EUE becoming a prime focal point within the region for sharing information on the process leading to the development of a new mandate for IGADD and the UNís support for that process.

1985-95 OEOEð EPPGð EUEð ? - different times; different mandates

As far as is known, there was no formal written terms of reference given to the OEOE. Its job, however, was very clear and determined by the humanitarian imperatives of the time: to help expedite the delivery of relief food to famine affected areas of Ethiopia and so save lives. In the first year or so of the unitís mandate little regard was given to either prevention or preparedness. Though the work at the time was largely practical in nature, there was at least a tacit understanding that the unit could help contribute to other efforts aimed at moderating the worst effects of the civil war and policies of the Mengistu regime through quiet observation, analysis and dissemination of confidential reports. This role, which today might be seen in terms of conflict resolution and human rights advocacy, was clearly only possible due to the access enjoyed by OEOE field staff and the "cover" afforded by the practical humanitarian work of the unit.

The need to incorporate the elements of prevention and preparedness into the terms of reference was implicit in the formation of the EPPG in 1987, and was written into various internal discussion documents that led to the current project document signed by UNDP and the government of Ethiopia in March 1989. However, apart from the unitís involvement in the early formulation of the national emergency code, these concepts saw little practical exposure in the work of the unit until after the end of the civil war in 1991. The UNís collective fear of being caught yet again unprepared for another disaster kept the EPPG mainly field-orientated and largely operational throughout this period.

Post civil-war, the first true attempt to articulate a new mandate for the EPPG came in 1993 when a series of discussion papers were presented to the RRC in the hope that a new project document could be drawn-up and mutually agreed upon. The papers attempted to present an EPPG which, while continuing to maintain a field monitoring presence in vulnerable regions of the country, would no longer be operational, in the sense of directly managing relief assistance in the field, unless specifically asked by the Government. The papers also positioned the unit more closely in support of government efforts to build a capability to effectively assess relief needs, mobilise relief resources, manage relief operations and implement policies designed to reduce vulnerability to disasters.

At the time, however, the government still viewed the EPPG with considerable suspicion, seeing it as a parallel organisation, competing with the RRC in terms of needs assessment, disaster early warning and resource mobilisation, and as a "policing" mechanism of international community that was now out-moded given the supposed integrity and transparency of the new government. The RRC position was made very clear - the EPPG had no role to play and should not look to the IPF as a source of funds. This was not the position of either the UN agencies or the donors in Ethiopia, who both saw a continued role for the EPPG. Faced with a complete impass on the issue, formal discussions on the new mandate were terminated. Strangely enough, once the issue had been dropped, the RRC became much more accommodating and began, at least tacitly, to endorse the main elements of what had been discussed i.e., the EPPG would be largely non-operational, and work in support of the RRC while retaining a capacity to independently monitor the situation in the field.

Also in 1993, the EPPG developed and tabled a draft proposal for the establishment of a "Regional Technical Support Unit". This grew out of two considerations: (1) that the EPPG comprised a valuable source of technical expertise that could be used in support of emergency operations outside of Ethiopia as well as within the country, and (2) both DHA and UNDP at various times had mooted the need for mobilising regional resources to meet emergencies in Africa. The proposal suggested that such a unit, which could be either under UNDP or DHA whichever was felt to be more suitable, could provide short term technical or operational staff at short notice on temporary assignment as and when requested by interested UN agencies or NGOs. Staff would be provided from those already working with the EPPG (if available) or taken from a roster of both nationals and international consultants pre-selected and known to the EPPG. Although the idea met with some interest in the region, there was no formal response from either DHA or UNDP in New York and the proposal was shelved. The EPPG/EUE has, however, seconded staff to other countries or projects and many agencies use its roster.

Though traditionally the EPPG/EUE has employed generalists (mostly with an NGO background) as Field Officers, over the past two years a number of specialists, including an agriculturalist, anthropologist, public relations, engineering and computer experts have been contracted to undertake specific tasks and studies. Apart from the agriculturalist, who became an integral part of the field team, these specialist were normally recruited on a short-term ad hoc basis when the need arose. It was felt, however, that having such expertise greatly improved the range and depth of analysis the unit was able to present to the UN agencies and donors. Consequently, earlier this year, a proposal was drawn up for the establishment within the EUE of a Technical Support Unit staffed with a team of national experts from the fields of health/nutrition, public health engineering, anthropology, agriculture and computer training. It was suggested that these would both work with the regular EUE Field Officers, produce specialist reports on specific issues of interest and provide specialist contract services to other UN agencies when requested. Again, the proposal received considerable local support from the UN agencies but was not taken further at the time pending the identification of funding and clarification of the work to be undertaken by such a unit. Right now, the EUE would like to proceed with the concept, recruiting initially an anthropologist and continuing with an agriculturalist.

Finally, in June this year, a draft project document was prepared for UNDP New York proposing the establishment of a "Information and Documentation Secretariat" for the Horn of Africa. This was prepared at the behest of the Regional Horn of Africa Coordination Team that met in Addis Ababa in February this year. This idea originates from a perceived need for a focal point within the sub-region to facilitate the exchange of information between agencies working in neighbouring countries and thereby enhance the degree of inter-agency and inter-country coordination and collaboration. The focal point would act as a secretariat for the Horn of Africa Coordination Team and could either be established as an independent entity or be based temporarily or permanently in the EUE or another similar unit. It was suggested that the secretariat would not produce documents or comment upon them - simply act as a mechanism to enhance access to materials already existing in the region or being produced by the operational agencies. In addition to traditional methods of disseminating documents, the secretariat would help the UN in the region make use of modern information networking technologies. The proposal was sent to New York for comment but no response has been received to date.

Not yet written down in detail, is the possible continuing role of the Emergencies Unit in the monitoring of potential conflict and political situations in the Horn. In the context of being better prepared to deal with any human "fall-out" from the still precarious situation in Somalia, the unit has already been doing this for about a year. Such activity appears to fall within the scope of the UNDP policy paper on its role in man-made disasters and perhaps could be conceived in terms of the "product" to be channeled in to the various information and early warning networks for conflict resolution/human rights currently being tabled internationally.

Issues for possible discussion


The designations employed and the presentation of material in this document do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever of the UN concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.

UN-EUE  Tel.: (251) (1) 51-10-28/29 
PO Box : 5580  Fax: (251) (1) 51-12-92 
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia  Email: undp-eue@telecom.net.et