Eleven Ways to Transform Surge Capacity in the Humanitarian Sector

Maduri Moutou

by Maduri Moutou

Senior People Capacity and Development Manager

The CHS Alliance is part of an exciting project with one ambition – improving the capacity of humanitarian agencies to scale up resources in emergency response. Two seminal reports on transforming surge capacity and the state of surge highlighted 11 key findings which CHS Alliance’s Maduri Moutou shared in Bangkok in January 2016.

The CHS Alliance is part of an exciting project with one ambition – improving the capacity of humanitarian agencies to scale up resources in emergency response. The Transforming Surge Capacity project brings together 11 Start Network agencies with ActionAid leading and the CHS Alliance as technical partner. The mindset-changing project kicked off at the end of 2014 and project platforms have been set up in Pakistan (local) by ActionAid, the Philippines (local) by Christian Aid, and by Plan International in Thailand (regional) and the UK (international).

A baseline report led by the CHS Alliance on Transforming Surge Capacity was launched in 2015 to give a baseline of the surge capacity and operational practices of the consortium members. A State of Surge report is currently being finalised and will be ready for launch in April 2016 – just in time for the World Humanitarian Summit. The two seminal reports highlighted 11 key findings on surge, which I shared on behalf of the lead researchers (Lois Austin and Glenn O’Neil) at the Surge Human Resources (HR) conference in Bangkok in January 2016.

1. Collaboration for surge

A 2007 review of INGO surge capacity led by People In Aid for Emergency Capacity Buliding (ECB) recommended increasing surge collaboration across the sector. Almost ten years on, collaboration is still fragmented and the greatest progress has in fact taken place at the very local level. Despite much work done on collaborative approaches, this area is still lagging behind and initiatives remain uncoordinated. The biggest hindrances to collaboration are organisations themselves and their policies.

2. Localising surge responses

The same 2007 report highlighted the need for organisations to scale-up HR and develop surge capacity at country and regional levels. Capacity has been built by all organisations at the headquarters level but much less so at the national and regional levels. Local response continues to be widely recognised as the most effective and efficient approach to humanitarian emergencies and disasters – so why aren’t we doing it? Issues with lack of investment, resources, skills and support remain. However, the conference did share one positive example from an agency which saved time, money and visa applications by responding to the Nepal earthquake emergency with mostly regional staff.

3. The whole-organisation approach

Increasing there is a trend towards a more comprehensive approach to surge as well as growing strength and support from leadership on surge in organisations. However, this trend is less apparent on a regional level. The key challenge in the whole-organisation approach is coordination with other functions, and in particular, the Human Resources (HR) function.

4. Procedures, processes and decision-making

The reports noted an increase in the development of cross-organisational policies to enable support functions to work together on surge. This is good, but the question is – are they working together in practice?

5. HR as a strategic function

For all humanitarian organisations in recent years there has been a reorientation for HR to go beyond administrative support and play a strategic role in organisations; equally the need for HR personnel to be strategically involved in surge responses has been acknowledged. Some organisations have acted on this but not all.

6. Staffing and managing surge

Overall the primary tool for the management of surge staff is rosters. There has been an increase in the development of internal standing teams over the years, and these are seen to be most effective due to immediate availability of staff. The last decade has also seen a growth in rosters or registers offering specialised staff to agencies in support of surge response, for example in emergency mapping, needs assessment, internally displaced person (IDP) profiling, training and cash-based responses. We also found that as the humanitarian landscape has changed, so too have the skill-sets required for surge: staff are now expected to be experts in areas like funding and donor relations, information management, civil-military relations, organisational liaison, and cash expertise, sometimes over and above their technical and management skills.

7. Recovery and longer term surge

Approaches generally differ between agencies. Some don’t distinguish between recovery and longer term surge, but we have seen examples of agencies considering the different skills needed and needs of staff in longer term surge.

8. The role of women in surge

At all levels fewer women were deployed compared to the number of female staff available. The gap was largest amongst national staff. Some agencies have positive discrimination polices, but others don’t on principle. The key issues identified were childcare and length of deployment, as well as safe housing for women. One of the agencies interviewed had a good example of building safe hostels for women as well as being more flexible on deployment lengths.

9. Surge financing mechanisms

Most humanitarian organisations do have rapid access to emergency funds. Inevitability, this was more so at the global level than regional or national. Funding of local and national NGOs remains low at less than 1.6%. Funding given directly to affected governments is around 3%.

10. Surge materials

There have been some notable improvements in the effectiveness of getting the right goods to the right place and improvements in good partnerships. One example shared at the Surge HR conference was the way DHL supported logistics during an emergency, working with airports from Istanbul to Mongolia to “keep things moving”.

11. Staff wellbeing and security

Globally agencies try to maintain the same approach across internationally, regionally or nationally deployed staff. However, differences exist in staff wellbeing and security when it comes to things like evacuation, insurance or security protocols for national staff. Regionally not all staff in the same emergency response have the same benefits or protection – such as salaries, allowances, and rest and recuperation (R&R). This has no doubt created an unequal system. One positive thing to note is that at all levels, training and briefing on staff care issues were common.


Improvements have clearly been made but there’s still much to be done. These helpful  findings will be pivotal in shaping the Transforming Surge Capacity project as it goes into phase two of piloting ideas such as joint rosters, capacity building training for national staff, mindfulness awareness, and bringing these together – an online platform for HR and other practitioners to gather, share, learn and transform the world – or at least surge anyway! We may not get the happy ending at the end of the three-year project, but we will certainly be well on our way to changing mindsets and practices around surge.

Find out more about the Transforming Surge Capacity project here. If you have any information or case studies to share about surge in your organisation please share them below or by emailing info@chsalliance.org.​​​​​