Establishing a standing capacity for critical response

It might seem like critical situations or incidents should be second nature in the United Nations, yet sometimes capacities are stretched beyond any norm or barriers to reallocation of resources put up obstacles. As part of management reform, a dedicated capacity in the Department of Operational Support was created to support the start-up, surge, or closure of Secretariat entities, as well as to better respond to critical incidents. 

In establishing tools to best carry out this mandate, a new standing surge capacity mechanism has been rolled out for experienced staff members in administrative and logistical functions across the global Secretariat who are ready for rapid deployment of up to 3 months in the event of a situation that warrants a surge response. This initiative to ensure that the skills and capacities of existing staff can be better deployed for urgent initial responses when and where these are needed most is well underway.

As a first step, colleagues across the Secretariat were invited to express their interest in 120 functional roles that were identified as typical for an initial response to critical situations. 2,700 staff across the globe responded to the call.  A 'standing capacity' of up to 10 of the most qualified individuals is being finalized for each designated role by applying predetermined assessment factors which include minimum years of experience in the role, assessed level of performance, language skills, and membership in a recruitment roster related to the role. 

The next step will be to secure 'pre-approval' from entity heads that the selected staff member would be released when needed. This is the final condition for membership in the standing surge capacity mechanism. The mechanism will ensure staff are available for rapid deployment, on a temporary basis for a period of up to 90 days, to support special situations globally.

The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the full operationalization of the standing capacity. However, it has been activated to support the response to the Beirut explosion and the establishment of the new United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan. 

"The United Nations could not fully activate the surge mechanism to deploy a person from location X to location Y. However innovative approaches were explored to do the work remotely", said Dushyant Joshi of the Department of Operational Support. "Of course, challenges will remain for reliable supply lines and travel to many locations, but collectively we are finding solutions to facilitate our work as a global body", added Joshi.

As the pandemic continues to impact communities around the world, efforts to finalize the standing surge capacity mechanism are picking up again. The mechanism will position the United Nations to better address issues aggravated by the pandemic such as a rise in poverty and hunger, the destabilization of societies and economies, and threats to human rights. Now more than ever, an adaptable and flexible United Nations is needed to serve the people of the world, as well as support Member States, not only in implementing the SDGs, but in the COVID-19 response and recovery to build a healthier, more sustainable, and more equitable world.


The UN MEDEVAC Mechanism serves as an example of a successful One UN partnership between numerous entities to design, resource, and implement a system-wide medical evacuation framework in the face of the unprecedented circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. Complementing First Line of Defense (FLOD) activities, COVID-19 MEDEVAC is a last resort, which provides life-saving support for severely ill COVID-19 patients who require a level of care not available at their location. This ensures that UN personnel, partners, and their dependents can continue to stay and deliver.

The global human resources strategy of 2019-21 set a goal to become “simplified, decentralized, flexible, and field-oriented” in order to drive strategic human resources management and empower managers. 

Then COVID-19 exposed an overreliance on physical paperwork and signatures in our human resource management. Adopting electronic signatures and migrating paper-based forms into digital systems will help the United Nations strengthen its ability to manage human resources in an ever-changing world.

Due to the global and dispersed nature of the United Nations, system-wide collaboration has always been a challenge. In person meetings are not always possible and entities across the UN system employ different tools and systems for their own work.