Rapid emergency and humanitarian responses: how fast is fast enough?

What are rapid response mechanisms, and how can we design effective responses in the face of climate-induced crises and ever-increasing conflicts?


As more countries increasingly face the consequences of the climate crisis, how will the next generations be able to adapt and survive in a more violent and volatile environment? Designing effective and efficient rapid emergency response mechanisms is going to play a central role in averting disasters that cost lives and livelihood.

When the COP26 wrapped up, the message was clear: low-income countries, and particularly women and children in those countries, are suffering the most from decades of carbonisation and greenhouse gas emissions. It is clear that the frequency, size, and duration of disasters and crises – both natural and man-made – are on the rise. The costs of responding to these disasters are also increasing. Not only do we need more finance, but we also need better designed adaptive systems that can help us deal with these shocks.

Context: More disasters, everywhere

Over the past few years, the world has witnessed increasing numbers of natural as well as man-made crises from fires to floods, typhoons, severe droughts, political conflict and civil wars (e.g. Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Yemen) – most of which have happened in the poorest and already harshest living conditions of the world. The bad news is that there is no sign of these stopping any time soon. Quite the contrary, they are on the rise and humanitarian needs are greater than ever.

The latest Food Security Network Working Group’s Climate Alert has forecast another poor rainy season between October and December 2021 across parts of the Horn of Africa. This comes after parts of the East Africa region have already experienced two consecutive poor rainy seasons, particularly, eastern Kenya, southern Somalia, and certain Belg-receiving areas of Ethiopia. A food security alert has also been issued, calling for immediate action in response to expectations of rising food and nutrition insecurity as a result of projected “drier than usual conditions”.

Compounding crises with conflict

Of the 25 countries deemed most vulnerable to climate change, 14 are mired in conflict according to a report published by the International Committee of the Red Cross last year. Countries enduring conflict are less able to cope with climate change, precisely because their ability to adapt is weakened by the conflict. Worse still, climate change is likely to increase the risk of conflict further by exacerbating existing, social, economic, and environmental factors – food security being the most worrying factor. While national governments are supposed to be responsible for mitigating and responding to crises and shocks, they lack the resources to do so and often require assistance from international humanitarian donors and agencies to provide further support.

Rapid Response Mechanisms: How do they work?

A Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM) is a mechanism for the humanitarian sector to have access to rapid funding, in order to monitor humanitarian action, conduct multisector assessments, and respond to households suffering from a crisis. Support through the RRM includes essential household items distributions, shelter, and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) interventions, where there is no capacity on site. The RRMs often work closely with the UN’s “Clusters” set up to facilitate response coordination. The “Cluster” comprises humanitarian organisations, UN agencies and government working in each of the main sectors of humanitarian action, e.g., water, health, logistics, shelters, etc., that help provide a platform for discussion and agreement on approaches and clearly define roles and responsibilities among different humanitarian organisations.

What are the strengths?

Reaching affected populations quickly and with the right assistance is at the centre of all rapid humanitarian and emergency response interventions. Our recent evaluation of a rapid response mechanism in Ethiopia called “SWAN” (a consortium of four INGOs – Save the Children International (SCI), World Vision International, Action Against Hunger, and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC)), found four characteristics   as key drivers for successful rapid response interventions:

  • rapid approval procedures and flexibility in adapting to changing circumstances;
  • a wide pool of potential implementing partners and transparency in grant processes;
  • capacity for integrated, multisectoral programming;
  • coordination and information sharing within and among the international, national, and local organisations. Availability of pre-positioning supplies and having the skills and flexibility to respond to the diverse and changing needs and priorities among affected populations is crucial in ensuring a timely response, as most rapid response mechanisms act across multiple sectors and/or coordinate with each other to quickly fill gaps and minimise duplications.

The need for strong coordination and information sharing between different stakeholders to ensure an effective response was also highlighted in a recent Global review by UNICEF of their Rapid Response Team in the WASH sector in Haiti, Nigeria, South Sudan, and Yemen. In addition, evidence-based early detection/early warning systems also play a critical role, particularly when dealing with natural disasters and disease outbreaks to minimise damage and the spread of the disease. Finally, training and capacity-building for monitoring and evaluation (M&E) and data collection are vital to create an enabling environment, generate learning and improve accountability for the RRMs.

And what are the weaknesses?

Designing efficient and effective RRMs requires strong interest and willingness of national and local humanitarian organisations to work together. However, often there are multiple mechanisms working in parallel and the urgent nature of the response means that there is no time to reflect on how best to manage a system that, at times, has been built in an ad hoc and piecemeal manner. Common shortcomings which have been highlighted from our review of RRMs in Ethiopia as part of the SWAN Evaluation include:

  • lack of transparency on activities and performance and lack of shared or common metrics for measuring performance;
  • weak linkages with medium- and longer-term programming;
  • questions on capacity around protection and do-no-harm; and
  • insufficient work on building sustainable, national response mechanisms, particularly through localisation.

RRMs should avoid focusing only on new and acute crises which are difficult to define and this narrow focus may not be appropriate for communities that suffer from multiple crises at once.

Fixing the shortcomings and designing better RRMs for the future…

As crises are becoming more frequent, the need for designing effective rapid response mechanism is greater than ever and more needs to be done to address the underlying causes of the crises, to have a well-planned exit strategy, and incorporate capacity building components that can help build overall national capacity to respond to acute and unpredictable emergencies. This could be done by increasing partnership between key government departments, donors, and national and local NGOs to empower local organisations to manage and respond to future crises which will ultimately help scale up the RRMs. Long-term social protection systems could also play a greater role since these are already in place and designed to meet the needs of the poorest households, to build resilience and respond to crises. Finally, more evidence-based evaluations and rigorous Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) systems are needed to ensure that learnings are fed into the design of the RRMs as well as help to quickly course-correct and adapt the mechanism to meet the required needs.

About the author:

Dr Donna Harris a Consultant at Oxford Policy Management and a Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of African Economies (CSAE), Department of Economics, University of Oxford, and the Director of Studies in Political Economy at the Department of Continuing Education, University of Oxford.

Areas of expertise