A hand-drawn plea for humanitarian relief in Tacloban, Philippines after the community was destroyed by a historic typhoon in 2013.
WFP/Marco Frattini

Understanding L3 Emergencies

In a new animated film based on the agency’s graphic novel, Living Level 3, WFP reveals what life is like for families and aid workers in one of the planet’s most dangerous conflict zones: ISIS-controlled Iraq. But first, what do we mean by “Level 3?”

Hunger feeds on crisis. When violence breaks out or natural disaster strikes, hunger often follows.

For humanitarian agencies like the World Food Programme (WFP) that must respond to multiple emergencies in more than one country, a classification system is used to determine which crises require the most resources. The most severe emergencies are classified as “Level 3,” or “L3” for short.

Right now, conflicts in Iraq, Nigeria, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen have been declared L3 emergencies. A historic drought across Southern Africa has also been elevated to L3 status.

But there are actually two types of L3 emergencies: L3 emergencies across the U.N. system, which apply to most humanitarian organizations worldwide; and corporate L3 emergencies that pertain only to a specific agency like the World Food Programme (WFP).

A system-wide L3 emergency is declared by a committee of United Nations (U.N.) and non-U.N. global humanitarian agencies to ensure that the appropriate leadership structures are put in place for a coordinated, global response to a large-scale event. This need occurs most often when a crisis changes suddenly and significantly, requiring ramped-up efforts on multiple fronts—food, health, support to refugees, and so on. To make this determination, the committee considers the scale, complexity, urgency, capacity and reputational risk involved with the crisis.

Meanwhile, WFP—and other humanitarian agencies—employs its own internal emergency classification system. WFP’s process not only takes into account the complexity of a crisis, but the resources and capacity available to its country offices and regional bureaus to respond.

WFP has three levels of classifications. Any country with a WFP emergency or relief operation is automatically classified as an L1. When the resources of a given country office(s) are insufficient to meet the urgency, scale or complexity—or when the scale of crisis extends beyond a single country or territory—an L2 emergency can be activated, allowing regional resources to be utilized to amplify the response. When an emergency exceeds WFP’s regional support capacity, an L3 designation allows WFP to use its entire global, or “corporate” human or financial resource base to respond.

For families who don’t know where or how they will find their next meal, every day is an emergency.

While this all sounds relatively straightforward, given the dual-track nature of the global emergency designation system, L3 classifications are not always simple to interpret. Quite simply, not all system-wide L3 emergencies trigger a WFP L3 activation, and not every WFP L3 activation is considered a system-wide L3.

For example, slow-onset disasters like the El Niño-induced drought in Southern Africa—a WFP L3 emergency, but not a system-wide emergency—may overwhelm the capacities of WFP country offices and regional bureaus, yet may not meet the system-wide L3 criteria for urgency, scale and complexity brought on by sudden-onset and quickly changing emergencies.

In the same way, not all system-wide L3 designations automatically trigger a WFP corporate L3 classification. Instead, as long as WFP is able to sufficiently address humanitarian needs under the system-wide L3, it can independently classify the emergency in a manner it feels most appropriate.

In the end, WFP takes a “no-regrets” approach to its emergency classification process, preferring to upgrade an emergency to ensure urgent needs are met as opposed to under-allocating resources. As such, WFP can even activate an emergency response level change preemptively, in anticipation of escalating need. This is often done to avoid crises intensifying beyond country and regional capacities to address them. This was successfully done in the 2012 Sahel drought response based on early warning information.

To someone suffering from hunger, though, U.N. classifications are of little concern. While agencies like WFP must categorize humanitarian crises to determine the most efficient and effective use of scarce human, financial and other resources, an L3 classification should not imply that human suffering is in any way lessened in L1 and L2 settings.

For families who don’t know where or how they will find their next meal, every day is an emergency.

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