Martin Griffiths is Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator in the Office for the Coordinationof Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Prior to this appointment, Mr Griffiths served as Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen (2018-2021). He has also served as Adviser to three Special Envoys of the Secretary-General for Syria and as Deputy Head of the United Nations Supervision Mission in the Syrian Arab Republic (UNSMIS) (2012–2014). Mr Griffiths was the first Executive Director of the European Institute of Peace (2014– 2018) and founding Director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva (1999–2010).
The views and interpretations in this section do not necessarily represent the view of the United Nations.
Speed, flexibility and accountability lie at the heart of the humanitarian pooled funds managed by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The creation of the funds – the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) and the country- based pooled funds (CBPFs) – date back to 2005, when the reform process aimed at improving humanitarian response effectiveness was initiated.1 Since then, the funds have become important lifelines for the most vulnerable, between them disbursing US$ 13.7 billion and supporting tens of millions of people.
The emergence of humanitarian pooled funds has coincided with an overall increase in humanitarian requirements. Global needs have reached a peak in 2022, with an estimated 303 million people requiring life-saving assistance and US$ 46.1 billion required for the response.2 Though donor generosity has been significant, it has failed to keep pace. In 2021, for example, only 53% of global needs were met, leaving millions of vulnerable people without critical assistance.3 In this context, providing coordinated, prioritised and needs-based funding through the OCHA-managed funds has never been more important.
The unique role of the funds
CERF and CBPFs are multi-donor pooled funds that provide life-saving assistance to people caught up in crises in order to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain human dignity. CERF, managed by OCHA, covers emergencies anywhere in the world, while CBPFs are hosted in specific crisis countries and respond to needs locally. The funds provide fast and flexible funding to humanitarian responders, enabling them to deliver life-saving assistance where and when it is needed most. The funds are an integral part of the humanitarian coordination architecture and are designed to foster more coherent and timely humanitarian responses, as well as reinforce the leadership of Humanitarian Coordinators (HCs) and Resident Coordinators (RCs). Despite sharing many similarities, the funds have a number of unique characteristics, as explored below.
CERF’s primary role is to provide fast and strategic funding to UN agencies, allowing them to respond to emerging or escalating crises by delivering coordinated life-saving assistance to the most vulnerable under the strategic leadership of the RC/HC. The fund responds to unexpected crises, the deterioration of existing ones, and underfunded emergencies. CERF also has a US$ 30 million loan facility that can help bridge funding gaps while UN agencies await donor contributions.
CERF is managed by the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator (USG/ERC) on behalf of the Secretary- General, aided by a technical secretariat within OCHA and with strategic support from an independent advisory group. Allocations are made by the ERC based on requests from the RC/HCs. CERF has provided country allocations of up to $100 million and project grants ranging from US$ 70,000 to US$ 24 million. Over the past five years CERF has issued an annual average of US$ 571 million in funding for some 40 countries.4 Its monitoring and project audits lie with the recipient agencies, alongside oversight from CERF through its Performance and Accountability Framework and related reporting processes.
Country-based pooled funds
CBPFs operate at the country level and are established by the ERC/USG. Currently, there are 19 active country-level funds and one regional fund covering six countries in the Sahel. The core mandate underlying the funds is to allocate humanitarian funding based on priorities identified at the country level to save lives. The funds make resources available for activities by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), UN agencies and other partners identified in humanitarian response plans or other planning frameworks, as well as for unforeseen events. Given the funds’ unique position in supporting local and national actors, in 2021 localisation was officially recognised as their secondary objective.5
Over the past five years, the funds have allocated a yearly average of US$ 897 million. Decisions on allocations are made by the RC/HC based on advice from advisory boards composed of representatives from donors, NGOs and UN agencies. Monitoring and auditing is supervised by OCHA at the country and headquarters level, and is guided by local-level accountability frameworks.
Making the humanitarian system more efficient
While the funds primarily focus on life-saving response efforts in some of the world’s most complex emergencies, they also play a role in supporting innovative approaches to humanitarian financing and helping
the humanitarian system evolve. The funds have, for example, contributed to the implementation of the ‘Grand Bargain’, an agreement between some of the largest donors and humanitarian organisations, who have committed to working together to ‘get more means into the hands of people in need and to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the humanitarian action’.6
Localisation and ensuring a people-centred response
The funds have placed great emphasis on supporting local actors, thereby ensuring that assistance is tailored to local contexts. In 2021, CBPFs channelled US$ 268 million directly to national and local actors, making them the largest donors to local actors in countries with CBPFs. This corresponds to 27% of total allocations, above the 25% global benchmark set at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit (WHS). While CERF only funds UN agencies, a quarter of its funding is sub-granted to implementing partners, a majority of which goes to local and national actors. In 2020, this amounted to US$ 115 million.
The funds also attempt to strengthen the role played by national and local actors through promoting their participation and leadership in the coordination, prioritisation and delivery of assistance. A 2019 independent evaluation found: ‘CBPFs are fit for purpose to respond to the humanitarian crises of today – both in terms of funding neglected aspects of response, as well as providing life-saving assistance. They are also adaptable and able to accommodate changes in humanitarian priorities and program approaches.’
The pooled funds also ensure that people remain at the heart of the response, and that partners engage with affected communities throughout the programme cycle. Gender-sensitive programming is a key priority, with US$ 91 million going towards gender-based violence/ gender programming in 2021.
Providing cash to those affected by crises
Cash as a response modality – giving money instead of goods in kind – is recognised as one of the most efficient and dignified ways to support those in need. In 2021, CERF and CBPFs between them provided US$ 146.7 million (9.7% of funding allocated by the funds) directly to affected people in form of cash and vouchers, representing an 181% increase since the 2016 WHS. In 2020, CERF also made a special US$ 80 million allocation for cash and voucher assistance (CVA) to help stave off famine in six high- risk countries.7 In a study commissioned by OCHA a year later, the allocation was considered to have succeeded both in fighting hunger and catalysing funding from other donors for the CVA response.8
Anticipatory and early action
In their bid to increase efficiency and ensure a more dignified response, the funds have also promoted early responses aimed at ensuring aid is delivered even before the impacts of crises are felt. Building on growing evidence that acting prior to the onset of a predictable hazard can reduce a humanitarian emergency’s impact and costs, CERF has played a crucial role in advancing the anticipatory action agenda by supporting the establishment of dedicated anticipatory action frameworks in a number of countries. Thus far, CERF has released a total of US$ 60 million for anticipatory action – addressing drought in Somalia and Ethiopia, and flooding in Bangladesh.
Funding the funds
The funds are resourced through donors pooling contributions as unearmarked funds to support humanitarian response efforts. In 2021, OCHA’s funds received
US$ 1.8 billion in funding. Though this is a significant achievement, it falls short of the targets set for both CERF (US$ 1 bn)9 and CBPFs (US$ 1.9 bn).10
Donors channel resources through the funds to support coordinated and prioritised humanitarian action. Pooling of funding allows donors to transfer fund and risk management to OCHA, and to extend support to countries where they lack the independent means to process applications and grants. To date, 139 countries have donated to the funds, in addition to tens of private contributions channelled via the UN Foundation.
The way forward for humanitarian pooled funds
The alarming trend of ever-growing humanitarian needs coupled with chronic underfunding mean it is vital that the funds continue increasing their efficiency and enhancing their impact. Ensuring better connectivity with development actors and international financial institutions is particularly critical when it comes to supporting efforts aimed at reducing need, building resilience and contributing to achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
The Grand Bargain 2.0 Framework lays out how the signatories will work towards the overall strategic objective and enabling priorities through four main outcome pillars: 1) flexibility, predictability, transparency and tracking; 2) equitable and principled partnerships; 3) accountability and inclusion; and 4) prioritisation and coordination.
Louisa Seferis,‘CERF Cash Allocation Review: 2020–2021 Averting Hunger and Promoting the Use of Cash During Covid-19’, November 2021, https://cerf.un.org/sites/ default/files/resources/CERF%20Cash%20Allocation%20 Review%20.pdf.
UN Secretary-General,‘Underlining $11 Billion Gap in Global Humanitarian Funding, Secretary-General Urges Pledging Conference to Support “Super” Central Emergency Response Fund’, press release, 8 December 2017, https:// reliefweb.int/report/world/underlining-11-billion-gap- global-humanitarian-funding-secretary-general-urges-pledging.