DMHA 101 | Disaster Management Primer

Affected Population and Disaster Response Stakeholders

Affected Population

The Affected Population is a group of people who are directly impacted by a disaster or conflict. In both disasters and conflicts, refugees, internally displaced persons (IDP) and vulnerable populations are a significant concern; however, in this discussion IDPs and vulnerable populations will be the primary focus.

The Affected Population may include:

Vulnerable Persons

People who are especially vulnerable to attack, hardships or undue influence, or have special needs, due to their age, gender, ethnicity, infirmity, or unique situation. 
 Vulnerable persons
("Photo" by Julien Harneis / CC BY-SA 2.0)


People who have a fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership to a social group or political opinion, and are outside their country of nationality.


(Photo by hdptcar / CC BY-SA 2.0)


Internally Displaced Persons

People who have been forced to flee their homes to avoid the effects of armed conflict, violence, violation of human rights, or disaster.

 Internally displaced persons

Photo by mdmission / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


Stateless Persons

People who are not considered a national by any state.

 Stateless persons

Photo by physiciansforhumanrights / 


Internally displaced persons are persons or groups of persons who have been forced to leave their homes or places of habitual residence in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, generalized violence, or disasters, and who have not crossed an international border. IDPs have the same rights as other citizens in their country, to include rights against arbitrary displacement, protection and security, the right to ask for and receive aid, and the right to keep and recover their property.

Vulnerable persons are of special concern during a disaster because this segment of the affected population is less able to care for themselves, family, or seek emergency relief. These include persons who are susceptible to attack, hardships or undue influence, or have special needs due to their age, gender, ethnicity, infirmity, or unique situation. Women, children and the elderly are a significant segment of the vulnerable population in most disasters.

Vulnerable persons("Emergency shelter for women & kids" by Julien Harneis is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Vulnerable persons include:

Disaster Response Stakeholders

Disaster Response Stakeholders are generally categorized in three broad groups: the Affected State; Assisting States and their militaries; the Humanitarian Community. The diagram below depicts the coordination between these three categories of responders. Certain regions also have regional coordinating organizations, such as the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre), depicted in the lower left section of this diagram.

Disaster response stakeholders diagram

When a major disaster occurs, national and local actors are first on the scene. If the response requirements exceed national and local response capacity, and if the Affected State requests or consents to international assistance, international civilian humanitarian agencies respond. When the capacity of the Affected State and international humanitarians is exceeded, Assisting States and their militaries, may respond. Most foreign military response is based on bilateral arrangements between the Assisting and Affected States.

The graph below shows a simplification of this process. The key lesson of the graph is that the international military response is limited to what is beyond the capability of the Affected State and international relief effort, and is, or should be, confined to the response, or emergency relief phase.

International Disaster Response

Common themes in major disasters:

  • The Affected State is in the lead, but overwhelmed in its ability to manage the response.
  • There is an international consensus to respond.
  • The International Humanitarian Community is unable to meet the needs of the Affected Population.
  • Civilian national and international responders need assistance from foreign militaries during the initial disaster response.
  • The foreign national military chains of command continue to operate.
  • Foreign militaries are in a supporting role.

Affected State

The primary responder is the Affected State; this includes the civil governmental agencies at all levels (national, provincial/state, local/municipal), the military and other security forces, the national Red Cross/Red Crescent society, local/national nongovernmental organizations, volunteer organizations and other societal organizations. Note that:

  • The Affected State’s sovereignty and integrity must be respected, in accordance with international law.
  • International relief operations are conducted only at the request of the Affected State.
  • The Affected State’s national disaster management structure provides the framework for international disaster response.

The Affected State is more likely to welcome international assistance than request it.  Requesting assistance may convey an impression that the national government is not fully capable of responding to the needs of its population, whereas welcoming international assistance can be perceived as being graciously accepting offers of assistance.

Capabilities of the various Affected State disaster response organizations vary greatly from country to country. Also, the collaboration between the Affected State military and other security forces and the civilian branches of government varies considerably.

Assisting States

Assisting States may provide funds, technical expertise, and military and civil defense assets. Funding is usually the first, and major response provided to an Affected State. U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Australia Department of Foreign Affairs, and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) are examples of donor organizations that provide funds to implementing partners – usually major NGOs – in the Affected State. Technical expertise may include such capabilities as nuclear radiation monitoring and Urban Search and Rescue Teams (trained to International Search and Rescue Advisory Group, or INSARAG, standards).

Assisting State militaries are often utilized to support Affected States. Military forces are:

  • Rapidly deployable and self-sustaining in austere environments
  • Offer unique capabilities available when needed
  • Familiar working with other militaries, including, in many cases, that of the Affected State

Sailors move food and water onto helicopter for Japan relief.
(Photo by COMPACFLT / CC BY-NC 2.0)

What can the military do?

The military provides capabilities:


There are a few key points on foreign militaries in disaster response:

  • Timeliness – show up early or not at all! Timeliness is a key factor determining the effectiveness of military assets.
  • Appropriateness – how suitable is the capability for the response? Are we providing equipment for which the Affected Population is not trained? Is it culturally appropriate?
  • Coordination and information sharing – are we maximizing unity of effort by sharing information and coordinating our efforts with the other responders?

Specific guidelines on the use of foreign military assets are covered in Guidelines for Humanitarians: Use of Military and Civil Defense Assets.

Humanitarian Community

This is a very broad and numerous set of responders. It includes UN agencies, offices and programs, major international organizations and nongovernmental organizations (NGO), and donors.

UN Organizations

Major UN organizations include:

 UNHCR logo

UN High Commissioner for Refugees

OHCHR logo 

UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

 UNICEF logo  

UN Children's Fund

 UNFPA logo  

UN Population Fund

 WFP logo  

UN World Food Programme

 UNDSS logo  

UN Department of Safety & Security

 WHO logo  

UN World Health Organization

 UNDP logo  

UN Development Programme (RC/HC heads UNCT)

 OCHA logo  

Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian  Affairs (UNDAC team, CMCoord  Officer)

 OHCHR logo  

UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

During a disaster, key UN entities include:


  • UNDP – UN Development Programme.  In a country that has a UN mission the UNDP head is the UN Resident Coordinator, responsible for the other agencies. During a major disaster the Resident Coordinator acts as the Humanitarian Coordinator and is responsible for coordinating international humanitarian response efforts.
  • OCHA – Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. OCHA is mandated to assist in the coordination of humanitarian responses. It establishes an Onsite Operations Coordination Center” (OSOCC) in the affected areas, deploys the UN Disaster Assessment Coordination Team (UNDAC), and maintains information sharing websites such as ReliefWeb and the Virtual OSOCC. OCHA also provides civil-military coordination officers whose primary task is to liaise with foreign militaries and assist in maximizing civil-military cooperation.
  • WFP – World Food Programme. In addition to providing food  (over five million tons of food aid to over 100 million people each year), the WFP is the lead for humanitarian logistics, and works closely with foreign militaries during a disaster response.

International Red Cross / Red Crescent Movement

The international Red Cross / Red Crescent Movement consists of three distinct entities with three distinct roles:

International Commmittee of the Red Cross

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

This entity is involved mostly in conflict situations.

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)

The IFRC is the world's largest humanitarian organization, providing assistance without discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions. The IFRC conducts relief operations to assist victims of disasters, and combines this with development work to strengthen the capacities of its member National Societies. The IFRC's work focuses on four core areas: promoting humanitarian values, disaster response, disaster preparedness, and health and community care.

National Red Cross / Red Crescent Societies

The National Red Cross / Red Crescent Societies

The unique network of National Societies - which cover almost every country in the world - is the IFRC's principal strength. Cooperation between National Societies gives the IFRC greater potential to develop capacities and assist those most in need. At a local level, the network enables the IFRC to reach individual communities.  The role of the field delegations is to assist and advise National Societies with relief operations and development programs, and encourage regional cooperation.

Nongovernmental Organizations (NGO)

NGOs vary tremendously in size, capabilities and funding. During a major disaster, foreign militaries may come into contact with the major international NGOs, such as:

  • MercyCorps
  • Save the Children
  • Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders
  • Oxfam
  • World Vision
  • Catholic Relief Services

Oxfam aid for Somalia is loaded up(Photo by Oxfam East Africa / CC BY 2.0)

Nongovernmental Organizations

  • Funded by grants from donor governments or private individuals
  • Diverse in size, structure, motive, resources, function & mission
  • National or international; secular or faith-based
  • Essential to humanitarian assistance operations

It is also important to remember that NGOs are not part of any government, the UN or the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement.

UN Cluster Approach

The UN Cluster Approach is the principle construct, utilized by the international humanitarian community, to facilitate a coordinated humanitarian disaster response to an Affected State.

The Cluster Approach ensures predictability and accountability in international humanitarian responses to disasters, by clarifying the division of labor among organizations, and better defining their roles and responsibilities within the different sectors, or functional areas, of disaster response activities.

Sector or Area of Activity Global Cluster Lead
Agriculture UN Food and Agriculture Organization

UN Food and Agriculture Organization

Camp Coordination UN High Commissioner for Refugees

UN High Commissioner for Refugees

International Organization for Migration

International Organization for Migration

Early Recovery Un Development Program

UN Development Program


UN Children’s Fund

Save the Children

Save the Children UK

Emergency Shelter

UN High Commissioner for Refugees

UN High Commissioner for Refugees

International Federation of the Red Cross / Red Crescent Society International Federation of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Society
Emergency Telecommunications UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (owns process)
World Food Programme World Food Program  (telecoms)
UN Children's Fund UNICEF
Health World Health Organization

World Health Organization

Logistics World Food Programme

World Food Programme

Nutrition UN Children's Fund

UN Children’s Fund

Protection UN High Commissioner for Refugees

UN High Commissioner for Refugees

Water, Sanitation, Hygiene UN Children's Fund

UN Children’s Fund

Lead entities are designated to coordinate response efforts for specific mission areas. Requirements are identified by participating organizations, in collaboration with the Affected State, and UN member organizations volunteer to fulfill them. Cluster leads have no authority to assign missions; they must meet requirements using coordination, collaboration, cooperation, and communication.

Background photo: DoD photo by Capt. Paul Duncan, U.S. Marine Corps/Released (Photo by 39955793@N07 / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)