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Transformative agenda (IASC)

Key points
  • In both sudden and slow-onset L3 emergencies, the TA's overarching objectives and principles should be given the same attention and priority.
  • In refugee situations, UNHCR is mandated to lead and coordinate international action (sector coordination, as established in the refugee coordination model, precludes the establishment of clusters).
  • When L3 emergencies are declared, UNHCR is expected to commit staff, resources and expertise to its cluster leadership responsibilities.
  • In complex emergencies affecting IDPs, UNHCR should be fully engaged in the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) at Representative level to ensure that the situation of IDPs is fully taken into account in operational planning and implementation.
  • In complex emergencies affecting refugees, UNHCR should share information on its operations and conduct these in the spirit of the TA, as laid down in the refugee coordination model.


In light of the growing recognition of the weaknesses in the multilateral humanitarian response, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Principals decided to review the approach to humanitarian response and made adjustments, building on the lessons learned from the Haiti and Pakistan disasters of 2010 and 2011. In December 2011, the Principals agreed on a set of actions, known as the ‘Transformative Agenda' (TA), focusing on three areas: leadership; coordination; and accountability.

It commits humanitarian agencies to a reform process designed to improve the effectiveness of humanitarian responses by making them more predictable, accountable and responsible, and by promoting partnership. The TA aims to improve the quality of leadership and strategic planning, and further strengthen the coordination between IASC actors, who include UN agencies, international and national NGOs.

The TA created a set of procedures for a collective response to humanitarian crises. Central to the TA is the declaration of a ‘Level 3' (L3) emergency, which is a major sudden-onset humanitarian crisis, triggered by natural disaster or conflict that requires a system-wide mobilization and response, as determined collectively by the IASC Principals under the leadership of the Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC). Level 3 emergencies have set activation and deactivation mechanisms (see entry Humanitarian system-wide Level 3 emergency declaration policy). For Level 3 emergencies, additional protocols such as the Humanitarian System-Wide Emergency Activation: definition and procedures;Inter-Agency Rapid Response Mechanism and Empowered Leadership are also applicable.

The TA recognizes the unique mandate of the High Commissioner; a footnote included in its protocols states the following: ‘Noting that in emergencies which involve refugees, the UNHCR representative has the mandate to prepare for, lead and coordinate the refugee response'.

Relevance for emergency operations

The Transformative Agenda represents a renewed commitment by humanitarian actors to work together in an accountable manner to achieve collective results. The TA's main aim is to strengthen and streamline humanitarian responses; for emergencies especially those declared L3 ones. For determining an L3, five criteria have been agreed: scale, urgency, complexity, national capacity, and reputational risk.

The implementation of the humanitarian response to an L3 emergency is guided by the set of protocols referenced below.

Humanitarian system-wide emergency activation (specific for Level 3)
This document sets out the activation procedures for an IASC system-wide L3 emergency declaration, applying the five criteria set out above. Following an initial analysis led by OCHA and based on a recommendation from the Emergency Director's Group, the ERC consults with IASC Principals and determines whether or not an L3 declaration is warranted. The IASC Principals meeting generally also examines the most appropriate leadership model; the composition of the Inter Agency Rapid Response Mechanism (IARRM) to be deployed; the initial period for which the declaration will be in place; common advocacy priorities and messages; and other context-specific arrangements.

An L3 declaration triggers a number of measures, including the following, if not already in place:

  • Establishment of an HCT (with the current RC hatted as HC on an interim basis pending a decision on the most appropriate leadership model);
  • Deployment within 72 hours of a Senior/Emergency Humanitarian Coordinator for up to 3 months;
  • Deployment of an IARRM core team on a ‘no regrets' basis;
  • Immediate implementation of the Multi-sector Initial Rapid Assessment (MIRA), particularly the Preliminary Scenario Definition;
  • Elaboration of a strategic statement within 5 days (laying out priorities and a common strategic approach);
  • Immediate initial CERF allocation of US$10-20 million
  • Activation of the ‘empowered leadership' model

Concept paper on ‘Empowered leadership' (specific for L3 only)
This paper focuses on the ‘empowered leadership' of the Humanitarian Coordinator during the initial 3-month period following the declaration of a system-wide L3 emergency. It also acknowledges that the HC can only be effective as leader if the other leaders within the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) are also empowered to meet their responsibilities. As ‘empowered leader', the HC takes decisions on behalf of the HCT when there is no consensus and a delay in decision-making could have a serious effect on the welfare of people for whom the humanitarian operation exists.

Responding to L3 emergencies: what ‘empowered leadership' looks like in practice
This protocol describes empowered leadership in practice. It includes a summary of what needs to be done in the first 10 days of an L3 emergency.

Reference module for cluster coordination at country level
This module summarizes the main elements of cluster coordination. (Note: clusters are not established for refugee emergencies.) It is designed to ensure that cluster coordination is geared towards ensuring effective operational delivery and humanitarian outcomes. New tools for measuring cluster performance and the impact of their work are currently being finalized.
The humanitarian programme cycle (HPC)
The HPC is designed to highlight and streamline core processes of the humanitarian response and improve the coordination on which the accomplishment of objectives depends. It has six key elements: (1) preparedness, (2) needs assessment and analysis; (3) strategic response planning; (4) resource mobilization; (5) implementation and monitoring; and (6) operational review and evaluation. An additional continuous dimension of the HPC is emergency response preparedness (illustrated below ).

The sequencing and timelines of sudden onset emergencies differ from those of protracted emergencies; however, the HPC's overall objectives and principles (effectiveness, accountability, evidence-based planning, inclusivity, inter-agency collaboration and field ownership) are the same. In sudden-onset crises, decisions need to be taken quickly based on limited or incomplete information, because of the need to act; the HPC timelines in emergencies is therefore accelerated. In protracted crises, humanitarian actors have more time to consult at national and subnational levels and more time to assess need.

Accountability to Affected Populations
In 2012, the IASC Principals endorsed 5 commitments on accountability to affected populations (AAP) and collectively agreed to apply these principles in their organisations, and to promote them in clusters and with partners. An IASC Task team on AAP and prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse (PSEA) was established to provide technical guidance, tools and other resources. This is currently co-chaired by UNHCR, and enhancing our accountability to affected populations in emergencies is a corporate priority for UNHCR. An operational framework guides agencies in how to be more accountable to those they serve.

Inter-agency rapid response mechanism (IARRM) concept note (specific only for Level 3 )
The IARRM articulates the commitment of IASC agencies to maintain a roster of senior, experienced and trained L3 capable staff on standby for immediate deployment, to support the HCT in defining and implementing a humanitarian response. It describes the activation process and its various functions in a system-wide L3 emergency.

Common framework for preparedness
The Common Framework for Preparedness supports the development of preparedness capacity in a systematic manner at country level. It enables humanitarian actors to collectively assess capacity, evaluate risks, and plan and train for foreseeable emergencies in advance.

IASC Principals statement on the Centrality of Protection
In October 2013, the IASC Principals agreed that ‘protection in humanitarian action' was a strategic priority for the period 2014-2016. The decision was motivated in part by the findings and recommendations of the Secretary General's Internal Review Panel on United Nations Actions in Sri Lanka (IRP Report), and the subsequent adoption by the UN of the Rights Up Front Action Plan. This declares that the UN has an overriding obligation to protect people in accordance with human rights, wherever they may be, and must prevent and respond to violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.

Following this decision, the IASC Principals endorsed in December 2013 a statement on Centrality of Protection in Humanitarian Action. The statement affirms the commitment to ensuring the centrality of protection in humanitarian action and the role of the HC, HCT and Clusters to implement this commitment in all aspects of humanitarian action. Protection lies at the heart of humanitarian action, and must be central to preparedness, immediate and life-saving activities, and throughout the humanitarian response and beyond.

Humanitarian programme cycle (IASC)

Humanitarian programme cycle (IASC)

Main guidance

Underlying process – how does this work?

Following the declaration of an L3 emergency by the Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC), the IARRM is activated: UNHCR must be prepared to deploy staff with the required level and profile to ensure it can deliver on its cluster coordination commitments.

Note. Leadership at the start of crises may vary according to circumstances, but ideally responsibility will quickly be assumed by a humanitarian country team (HCT), which differs from a UN country team (UNCT) in its terms of reference and membership. It is usually composed of UN humanitarian agencies and NGOs; Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement attend as observers. For HCT ToRs see: http://www. =77.

UNHCR’s role and accountabilities

In IDP and complex emergencies, where a HC has been appointed and an HCT established, the High Commissioner has committed that UNHCR will engage fully at Representative level in the HCT and will play a meaningful role in planning, priority-setting and coordination of the response.
The High Commissioner has also undertaken to ensure that UNHCR's leadership and coordination capacity will be adequate to discharge its cluster lead responsibilities, and contribute to the inter-agency response.

Main contacts

Julian Herrera, IACS, DER. At: [email protected].
Stefanie Krause, DESS. At: [email protected].

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