Humanitarian leadership: More than just about leaders

Effective leadership requires not only the right people in the right place, but also an environment that enables leaders to lead.    

This is particularly relevant for Humanitarian Coordinators, who lack formal authority over their ‘followers’, and therefore rely heavily on a conducive environment in order to deliver on their mandate.[1] In the past six years significant progress has been made in improving the performance of Coordinators. It is now time to broaden our focus to the environment where these leaders are placed: the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) and, more broadly, the UN system.

Strengthening Humanitarian Coordinators: we’ve come a long way

Strengthening Humanitarian Coordinators (HCs) requires interventions not only at the individual level ? relating to Coordinators’ knowledge, skills, experience and attitude – but also at the management level, relating to how Coordinators are managed and supported, and at the institutional level, relating to the environment where Coordinators are placed.[2]

Significant progress has been made at the first two levels. A number of seasoned humanitarian professionals have been brought into the RC/HC track thanks to the HC Pool and the humanitarian community’s enhanced influence in the selection process. Newly designated Coordinators learn early on about their role and partners’ expectations through a systematic induction and orientation programme. Sitting Coordinators have access to a range of bespoke learning opportunities, from mentoring, coaching and shadowing to more formal workshops and retreats, alongside a user-friendly guide, the RC/HC Handbook, for less experienced Coordinators. The main remaining challenge with regard to the individual level is enlarging the pool of potential Coordinators and making it more diverse in terms of gender and country and agency of origin.

At the management level, all the elements of a professional performance management system are now in place. Coordinators’ performance is managed as a matter of routine through annual Compacts, regular performance discussions and appraisals, all of which take into account partners’ feedback. Under-performing Coordinators have been replaced. The quality and timeliness of OCHA’s support to Coordinators has also improved, with structural weaknesses – particularly with regard to protection, advocacy and preparedness – gradually being addressed.

Towards an enabling environment

While no tangible progress has been made as yet at the institutional level, there is growing recognition within both the UN system and the humanitarian community that the environment where Coordinators are placed influences their effectiveness, and that a more conducive environment is required.

Within the UN system, Coordinators must balance the diverse agendas ? development, political, human rights, humanitarian and security – they are expected to deliver on. This places Coordinators in a vulnerable position institutionally, and only those who are exceptionally gifted and/or experienced are able to do this successfully. Creating a space for reconciling these different agendas would do much to transfer this burden from Coordinators to the UN system as a whole. It would also make it easier to manage the risks associated with this balancing act, thereby providing Coordinators with space to take additional calculated risks. It would also reduce the need for exceptional leaders. Two measures proposed in the context of the Rights Up Front initiative seek to create such a space: establishing inter-agency platforms at headquarters level and developing country-specific whole-of-UN strategies. If implemented, these measures will go a long way to making the role of Coordinators more manageable.

On the humanitarian side, Coordinators are expected to lead and coordinate a highly diverse community whose members have very different modalities and levels of engagement with the international humanitarian coordination architecture.[3] The one feature all humanitarian organisations have in common is their lack of formal obligations to the HC. In this context, HCTs are often nothing more than gatherings of agency leaders who come together at best to avoid gaps and duplication in the overall response, and at worse to defend their territory.[4]

The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) has sought to make this environment more conducive to HCs’ leadership by strengthening their authority with HCT members. In the context of the Transformative Agenda, the IASC has endorsed the concept of ’empowered leadership’ for Level 3 emergencies, which has essentially been defined as HCs having the authority to make quick decisions ‘on behalf of the HCT’ in circumstances where there is no consensus, and where a delay in making a decision could have a serious impact on the welfare of affected people.[5] Donors have gone further, suggesting that HCT members have dual reporting lines, both to their organisation and to the HC.

Strengthening HCs’ authority vis-à-vis HCT members can only go so far, however. In order to translate this into action, the authority to make decisions needs to be backed by the requisite financial and human resources. These resources are controlled by agencies, which therefore retain the ultimate say on whether or not to implement an HC’s decisions. This power imbalance will not change soon, as it is rooted in agencies’ governance systems: agencies are legally accountable to their board – not HCs ? for how they use their resources.

From empowered leadership to empowered leadership teams

The ’empowered leadership’ concept focuses only on one side of the relationship between HCs and HCTs: the HC. It does not address the role that HCTs play in enabling or constraining HCs. Moreover, by focusing on only one of the two actors, it presents the issue as a zero-sum game: if HCs are granted more authority, it surely must be at the expense of HCT members.

It may be more promising to reframe the issue as not being about HCs or HCTs, but about both at once. The narrative would then shift from institutionally weak but heroic leaders who ingeniously find ways to persuade others to follow them in pursuit of the greater good, to a team of leaders, led by a primus inter pares, who together seek to achieve collective results. Put differently, the HCT should be seen, should be treated and should behave as a team of leaders who share responsibility for achieving collective results, each through their own agency’s programme: a leadership team.[6]

How do we get there?

HCs should create genuine team dynamics in the HCT, galvanising its members into focusing on collective results and facilitating processes to achieve them. To this end OCHA, in the context of its work on selecting and training Coordinators, should place greater emphasis on the skillset required to be an effective team leader, i.e. team leadership and facilitation skills. It should also provide HCs with advice on team effectiveness.

HCTs should be supported to become effective leadership teams. To this end OCHA, in the context of its HCT programme, should provide HCTs with advice on team effectiveness and facilitation support. It should also coordinate joint training and simulations for HCTs, so as to build team dynamics.

OCHA Offices should support HCTs by professionally managing the processes underpinning their work. To this end OCHA, in the context of its HCT programme, should build the capacity of OCHA Offices consistently to prepare, record and follow up on HCT meetings.

HCT members should behave not only as leaders of their own organisation, but also as members of a leadership team ? the HCT. To this end IASC organisations should first of all tell their country representatives that they have this dual role, either through specific guidance or – better still – by including it in their terms of reference.[7]Second, IASC organisations should ensure that their country representatives are team players, by placing greater emphasis on the required skillset when recruiting and training them. Third, IASC organisations should provide their country representatives with incentives to behave as team members. If anything, the opposite is true today: in a number of organisations the performance of country representatives is assessed among other things on their ability to raise funds for the organisation, which may at times conflict with their responsibilities as HCT members. Country representatives must be confident that they will be supported by their headquarters if they take their HCT responsibilities seriously. Fourth, organisations should hold their country representatives accountable for behaving as team members. Such behaviour could be assessed by requesting feedback from the HC and other HCT members on representatives’ performance as team members.[8] In 2010 the IASC took a decision to this effect, but few organisations have implemented it.

All of these measures are geared at institutionalising collaborative behaviour by HCT members. However, they will not suffice if they are not accompanied by a process of cultural change within IASC organisations. This requires a concerted effort by these organisations to reframe their mandates within the broader context of their contribution to collective results, and to drive this renewed vision through the organisation. Are IASC organisations and their governing boards ready for this?

Donors have a key role to play in providing incentives to IASC organisations for behaving collaboratively in the HCT. At present, donors provide organisations with incentives geared towards the achievement of mandate-related results. Should it come as a surprise, then, if agencies prioritise achieving their own results over collective ones? In recent years donors have started encouraging IASC organisations, both publicly and privately, to behave collaboratively. It is now time for donors to move beyond verbal encouragement and provide concrete, positive incentives for IASC organisations to behave collaboratively.

While each donor will define for itself the form these incentives should take, two possible approaches could be to include such incentives within the context of bilateral funding agreements with IASC organisations, or to allocate more resources to pooled funds, which are predicated upon a collaborative approach.

Institutionalising shared responsibility for collective results

Effective HCs, enabled by well-functioning HCTs, are not an end in and of themselves: they facilitate the achievement of collective results. Yet HCs cannot bring about collective results as they do not have authority over those who deliver results, i.e. humanitarian organisations. The whole HCT is responsible for achieving collective results ? and each and every HCT member has a share of that responsibility. Yet at present this responsibility is not institutionalised: nobody is holding HCTs and individual HCT members accountable for collective results.

As concerns HCTs, the Transformative Agenda has introduced two levels of accountability for collective results. At the country level, HCTs will monitor their own performance through an in-country monitoring framework; this is supplemented by real-time operational peer reviews. At the global level, the Emergency Directors Group regularly review the performance of HCTs.

As concerns HCT members, IASC organisations should start rewarding and holding their country representatives accountable not only for how they work with others, but also for what they do with others – in other words, not only for behaving collaboratively, but also for their share of responsibility for collective results.[9] Once again, donors have a key role to play in providing concrete, positive incentives to IASC organisations to do so.

Claire Messina is the Senior Coordinator of the Humanitarian Leadership Strengthening Unit at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Photo credit: J.Opulencia/OCHA.This article was originally published on 30 July 2014 in the Humanitarian Practice Network.    


[1] In this paper the term “Coordinators” refer to Humanitarian Coordinators (HCs), Resident Coordinators/Humanitarian Coordinators (RC/HCs), Deputy Special Representatives of the Secretary-General/Resident Coordinators/Humanitarian Coordinators (DSRSG/RC/HCs), Deputy HCs, Regional HCs, and Resident Coordinators (RCs) performing humanitarian functions

[2] See OCHA, “Strengthening the HC System: the Unfinished Agenda”, presented to the IASC Working Group in March 2009.

[3] This diversity poses particular problems for NGO representation on HCTs, as NGOs are loath to delegate representation and decision-making power to other NGOs.

[4] This was attested i.a. by the recent system-wide L3 simulation. The IASC noted that “Neither did the HCT/IARRM understand their role in empowering leaders. […] Notwithstanding the individual capacity of the HC to lead the team, the TA has not yet succeeded in changing the priority from individual agency or sector action to collective responsibility.” See IASC, “Level 3 Simulation Summary Findings”, July 2013.

[5] See IASC, “Concept Paper on ‘Empowered Leadership’”, PR/1204/4069/7, 13 April 2012, and IASC, “Responding to Level 3 Emergencies: What ‘Empowered Leadership’ Looks Like in Practice”, PR/1209/4175/7, November 2012.

[6] Similarly, the IASC notes that “Empowered leadership needs to be clearly defined as a two-way street, involving leadership and those being led.” See IASC, “Level 3 Simulation Summary Findings”, July 2013.

[7] Some of them also have a third role as head of a cluster lead agency. As of today, to our knowledge only UNHCR, WFP and FAO have provided formal guidance to their representatives on their role in HCTs. See UNHCR, Field Office Memorandum No. 078/2012, “The IASC’s Transformative Agenda and Implications for UNHCR”, 16 August 2012; WFP, Executive Director’s Circular No. OED2013/015, 21 August 2013; email message from Daniel Gustafson, Deputy Director-General (Operations), FAO, to FAO Representatives, 13 November 2013. The latter states, however, that “The FAO Representative’s role is to represent FAO and advocate for its interests in agriculture, food security and livelihood in the HCT,” which is hardly an encouragement to collaborative behaviour.

[8] In the context of the RC system in 2008 agencies committed to allowing RCs to provide feedback on UN Country Team members’ performance relating to the team; not all of them have done so.

[9] In the context of the RC system in 2008 agencies committed to allowing RCs to provide feedback on UN Country Team members’ performance relating to the team; not all of them have done so.



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