May 2016, No. 1 Vol. LIII, Humanitarian Action: A Shared Responsibility

On the morning of 25 April 2015, Nepal shook with a 7.8 magnitude earthquake. When the dust settled, thousands of people had died and buildings had come crumbling down. It was a Saturday, a day off in Nepal, which means that the offices and schools that had collapsed were closed. If it had been any other day, the death toll could have been much higher. A little more than two weeks later, on 12 May, a 7.3 magnitude aftershock struck, resulting in more casualties and destruction.

More than 8,800 lives were lost, thousands of people were injured, and over 800,000 buildings and monuments were left destroyed or damaged. Experts pegged direct damages and losses at a staggering $7 billion.

In those first few days following the earthquake, the first responders were members of local communities, along with Nepalis from across the country. Neighbours pulled neighbours out of the rubble. People shared their scarce resources with those in need. The youth of Nepal mobilized to collect relief items and travelled long distances across difficult terrain to help their fellow citizens recover. Local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) used their extensive networks to provide critical information to the military and humanitarian actors. They deployed volunteers on foot, carrying supplies on their backs to the most remote areas, places helicopters and vehicles could not reach.

With help from the United Nations, the Government of Nepal, thousands of volunteers and over 450 humanitarian agencies responded to deliver critical life-saving aid to affected communities. The United Nations, donors, international NGOs and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies immediately mobilized resources and reprogrammed activities. On 29 April, the Humanitarian Country Team launched the Nepal Earthquake Flash Appeal to provide protection and relief to 2.8 million people. Under the Flash Appeal, from April to September 2015, humanitarian assistance reached 3.7 million people.

Now, as we mark one year since the 25 April 2015 earthquake, we can reflect on what went well and what could have been done better. Recent formal evaluations and reviews of the response by the humanitarian community have been positive, finding that collective humanitarian efforts were quick, well-coordinated and effective. The effectiveness of the response was facilitated by a collaborative approach among donors, as well as by the United Nations and national stakeholders that existed before the earthquake.

The fact that previous preparedness efforts capitalized on existing capacity, and that this capacity was not bypassed once the disaster occurred, likely contributed to an easier transition back to pre-existing structures when the massive international aid machinery left again. Also underlying these successes, however, is the finding that preparedness planning needs to be stepped up even further, with no time to waste. The collection of information and its strategic use needs to better guide the response, and engagement between humanitarian actors and the national Government needs to improve. Stronger linkages with in-country actors are required, and understanding and supporting community capacity are paramount.1 The pockets of residual need require continued monitoring, as well as systematic integration into recovery and development activities to ensure that no one is left behind.

These challenges are not unique to Nepal. Natural disasters around the world affect, on average, more than 200 million people and displace more than 20 million people on a yearly basis.2 The impact of, and preparedness and response to, natural hazards will be a central topic when the humanitarian community and world leaders gather at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May 2016.

When disaster strikes, the humanitarian community can rely heavily on approaches that are already in place in many countries. For example, the Human Rights-Based Approach ensures that there is a concerted effort to reach and serve those who are in the most vulnerable situations; applying this approach in a crisis is critical to promoting an effective response. Only by working together with those already in-country—local communities, local government, development actors, the national Government, the private sector, civil society, the armed forces—can the humanitarian community be truly effective in addressing the needs and concerns of affected populations.

Consideration of how existing models of humanitarian response reinforce or undermine the self-recovery of communities needs special attention when reflecting on the way forward for the humanitarian community at the World Humanitarian Summit. If the core commitment to changing people’s lives, as set out in the Secretary-General’s report for the Summit, One Humanity: Shared Responsibility, is to be achieved, focusing on needs alone may not be enough.

Prior to the 2015 disaster, the United Nations Country team and the Government of Nepal laid a strong foundation for the response in the form of the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium and the United Nations Development Assistance Framework. This foundation enabled drivers of the humanitarian response to draw on existing analysis and data from development efforts, instead of starting from scratch with humanitarian assessments to inform the response. Nepal, like many other nations, is a complex country with unique needs. Those needs were outlined in the Framework, which has a strong focus on human rights, gender equality and the social inclusion of vulnerable groups. It is underpinned by extensive disaggregated analysis and assessments. The Flash Appeal, which was based on this vital data, included an ambitious strategic objective to “protect the rights of those most affected, and promote inclusive access to humanitarian assistance, with particular attention to the most disadvantaged groups”.

From the onset of the crisis, the humanitarian community understood the importance of local engagement and accountability to the affected population, as well as gender and social inclusion issues. Feedback and outreach mechanisms were swiftly established to promote a humanitarian effort that was responsive to the needs identified by communities. This approach facilitated input from thousands of people on a regular basis, reaching 10 million people with communications products, as well as enhanced attention to sex- and age-disaggregated data and reporting.

Globally, the humanitarian system remains focused more on communicating to communities, rather than with them. Significant efforts by humanitarian actors to engage with the affected population have been undertaken, however, because of recent reforms in the humanitarian system. For example, the Inter-Agency Common Feedback Project is an innovative initiative undertaken by the Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator’s Office in Nepal to prioritize and promote community engagement.

The Feedback Project collected community feedback through periodical perception surveys, rumours and concerns tracking, as well as existing agency feedback mechanisms. That information was formulated into consolidated reports. The reports were subsequently shared with humanitarian actors, as well as civil society and district authorities, resulting in adaptive programming and planning to ensure that response efforts were aligned with community-raised concerns and needs. Using local radio and community meetings, enquiring people could gain relevant and accurate information—something highly valued by affected communities.

Nepal is one of two pilot countries in the Asia-Pacific region rolling out the new Inter-Agency Standing Committee Emergency Response Preparedness initiative. This presents a unique opportunity to ensure that systems and tools are in place to strengthen the human rights perspective and engagement with communities in future responses. As part of this ongoing work, UN-Women, together with the Humanitarian Country Team, is testing a gender package, which will contribute best practices as the Emergency Response Preparedness Guidelines are introduced globally.

The principles and commitments are in place. The challenge is now to ensure that the voices of affected people are heard and their rights are protected. This will require context-specific innovations and investment in initiatives such as the Common Feedback Project. The onus is on humanitarian actors to identify practical solutions to enhancing engagement and to promote systematically the participation and leadership of women, men and subgroups of affected communities. One step towards this paradigm shift in humanitarian action is to stop considering the people we serve as vulnerable. We must empower the individuals who, despite hardship, marginalization and/or discrimination, have no other choice but to find the strength and means to recover.  


1       STAIT Learning Reviews, Global Learning from the Nepal Preparedness for Response Learning Review, Senior Transformative  Agenda Implementation Team (STAIT). January 2016; Nepal Earthquake: Humanitarian Country Team After Action Report, Workshop Summary Report 2015.

2       Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) and others, “The human cost of natural disasters 2015: a global perspective”, Research report (Brussels, Belgium, School of Public Health, Université catholique de Louvain, 2015). Available from
Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), Global Estimates 2015: People displaced by disasters, Global disaster displacement data, July 2015. Available from (accessed 28 April 2016).