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Key NGOs Cautiously Optimistic On CERF


April 20, 2006

As the first disbursements of the new Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) are made for relief efforts in the Horn of Africa and Cote d'Ivoire, key humanitarian NGOs expressed cautious optimism on the fund's potential to improve the delivery of aid in sudden-onset disasters and in neglected crises worldwide.

However, it was too early to draw conclusions and some concerns remained as to how the fund would be managed, and whether it would bring new donor money into the humanitarian domain.

Although broadly supportive of building up a global emergency fund, Save the Children-USA (SC-USA) has specific worries on its design. SC-USA Vice President, Rudy Von Bernuth, said he was concerned that the CERF might not make additional resources available to the humanitarian sector.

He said donors might choose to simply divert their existing resources to the fund directly, instead of supporting on the ground emergencies as they happen.

"If there is an emergency tomorrow in Pakistan you wouldn't want donors to be saying 'we just gave [US $] 100 million to the CERF, go to it as your resource', rather than responding to a special appeal," he explained.

The fund currently has $254 million provided by 42 donors, but this is expected to increase as new contributors pledge funds, up to its target of $500 million.

Two-thirds of the fund, which is intended to be replenished annually, will be allocated in response to sudden disasters. The remaining third will be used for life-saving measures in neglected crises.

Another concern for SC-USA was that only United Nations agencies would be eligible to draw directly from the CERF. NGOs should have direct access to the fund, not just indirectly, as implementing partners of UN agencies, said Von Bernuth.

This was based on a rationale that NGOs implemented at least 50 percent of all humanitarian response. They were also consistently faster and more agile at responding to emergencies than UN agencies generally were, and present in areas where the UN could not be, he said.

"Therefore the situation in which UN agencies draw on the CERF and then function as a middleman to engage NGOs in responding is a waste of time and money," he added.

While sharing the concern that the CERF had to bring in 'new' money, Oxfam International's policy advisor Greg Puley said it was an extremely important initiative.

"We are positive because we think that it's an important development. But we are certainly not celebrating, because we haven't seen it make a difference in anybody's life yet - and that is what we need to see," he said.

The success of the CERF would depend on how it was put into operation. "That's up to the UN Secretariat, donors and UN agencies and their implementing partners on the ground," said Puley.

The NGO Action Against Hunger (AAH) viewed the CERF as purely an internal issue, and one closely allied with UN reform. Roger Persichino, AAH desk officer, said that the CERF was "a step in the right direction for UN reform, and for being more accountable and doing a faster and better job".

He stressed that the grant making fund may well boost the UN's capacity to respond to major crises, such as the recent earthquake in Pakistan. However, there were constraints on the horizon. The total amount pledged and how fast the fund would be replenished after the grants were spent remained to be seen, he said.

Even if the fund reached its goal of $500 million SC-USA's Von Bernuth questioned whether the upgraded CERF would significantly affect the way in which NGOs operate in emergencies.

"Even [$]500 million is just a fraction of the total overall money that goes into emergency response around the world," he pointed out.

Robert Enholm, chief of the CERF Secretariat, acknowledged that the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) which is in charge of managing the fund, shares some of the concerns expressed by the NGOs. "We are watching how the CERF is actually used and studying how these problems can be avoided as it will go forward," he said.

For instance OCHA is insisting in its contacts with donors on the importance of generating new contributions to the CERF while supporting the humanitarian efforts that they have historically funded.

Enholm said that the General Assembly established a CERF Advisory Group, formed by 12 experts, which will meet twice a year to evaluate its effectiveness.

"It provides for representation by a broad group of people interested in the fund, including donor countries and NGOs communities. Their voices will be heard," he said.

Despite the concerns, Enholm also believes that "there is a general agreement in the humanitarian community that it's an appropriate role for the United Nations to try to balance up the current situation in which some disasters receive a disproportional amount of donations and others for many reasons don't".

The fund has already been put into service for relief operations in Cote d'Ivoire, where a first grant of $200,000 is being used by the World Health Organization to improve immunisation and provide basic medical care.

Additionally, over $1.7 million has just been allocated for urgent life-saving programmes in the Horn of Africa. This disbursement is meant to give the WHO and its partners the resources to carry out immunization campaigns, epidemiological surveillance and training of health professionals in Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.

Officially launched in early March, the CERF is considered one of the first tangible outcomes of the humanitarian reform process currently being undertaking to improve the humanitarian system.

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