National Governments, Non Governmental Organizations, International Organizations and the International Red Cross Movement

The first and most important group of participants in Humanitarian work is the affected population in the local area, a fact far too often overlooked. The many and diverse organizations that arrive at the scene of events, and those that make policy or provide resources from afar, all work in relation to the affected population. That relationship, between the affected population and those who would assist in times of emergency, can range from productive and mutually rewarding to hostile and mutually suspicious.

Who are these “participating organizations?” in the Humanitarian Community? There are too many to name here – Rajan Gangage, Regional Response Advisor for UN OCHA in Bangkok, recently recounted over 520 organizations having participated in the humanitarian response to the 2004 Tsunami – so it may be necessary to approach the question by starting with categorizing types of organization.

Most of the relevant international agreements, General Assembly resolutions and past practice line up in recognizing national governments as the primary duty-holders in disaster response, so perhaps that is a good place to begin. Following on from the International Decade for Disaster Reduction, a push was made to assist governments in establishing responsible ministries, departments and agencies focused on organizing and preparing for the range of activities involved in disaster response, as well as mitigation and risk reduction. At the present time, there remains a great deal of variability in the effectiveness, capacities, and, it must be said, motivation, with respect to the implementation of national government response planning for disasters.

Nevertheless, within the existing international framework of national sovereignty, national government organs hold the “right of place” in allowing or impeding the activities of all other participants in a humanitarian response. For better, and on occasion for worse, they are the gatekeepers for humanitarian action.

Recalling that disasters, by definition, occur when local response capacity is overwhelmed, we begin to see the place and the role of the international humanitarian community. National governments in the economically developed countries, along with having disaster response agencies in place for response to internal disasters, often also have specialized agencies dealing with external disasters, and these agencies have often been situated in the ministries or agencies mandated to work on overseas aid. Well known examples of this type of entity include the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) within the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), Danica from Denmark, the Australian AusAID, Britain’s Department for International Development (DfID) and others.

While it is useful to know who the national government actors are, and to know that a great majority of aid resources are channeled through these agencies, it is also important to inquire into the humanitarian character of their activities. Knowing that humanitarian action is based in the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence, a clear-headed analysis will recognize that national governments will generally act within a framework defined by national interests. Such a framework does not exclude the possibility of true humanitarian participation, but provides an important point of potential divergence which requires constant ongoing monitoring.

Governments, both in the economically developed countries and those less well-off, have long been recognized as having significant unfulfilled gaps in their provision of social services. In some contexts, the gaps may be larger than the spaces filled. This is true in humanitarian context as well, and one definition of the role of Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) has been specifically to attempt to redress these gaps. NGOs have proliferated in recent years, and also diversified into many underserved areas of assistance. A look at the membership list of InterAction, the umbrella group for American NGOs in relief and development (link in sidebar) gives some idea of how large and diverse the NGO community has become.

NGOs bring many advantages to the humanitarian project, including flexible administrative operations allowing for rapid responses and adaptation to changing circumstances; they are often engaged in local communities in long-term activities with resultant insights and pre-existing relationships; and, in ideal situations, have the independence to act in the impartial and neutral role unavailable to actors encumbered by national interest mandates. While this independence can be, and in recent years sometimes has been, compromised, the benefit of having alternate channels of assistance available provides the humanitarian community with critical options in responding to emergencies.

For a few example profiles of humanitarian NGOs, please look under the Agency Profiles link in the Humanitarian Profiles section of this website.

While the activities of humanitarian NGOs are properly understood to benefit affected publics, the organizations themselves are generally structured as private, non-profit or charitable corporations, legally registered and/or incorporated in one or more specific local jurisdictions. At the other end of the public-private spectrum are International Organizations (IOs). These entities include the United Nations specialized agencies with humanitarian mandates, as well as a handful of others. Whereas NGOs are legally founded in a national registration or incorporation process, IOs are founded by an international agreement. Being founded by a process of international treaty-making, IOs have, to varying degrees, stature in international law and relations.

Mandated specifically to operate in the international context, some IOs enjoy diplomatic privileges, such as laissez-passer, certain immunities, and government-to-government relations, attributes typically unavailable to private NGOs. Being formed specifically from international consensus, IOs may act with some basis on the collective authority of the international community. Although this authority tends to be somewhat ambiguous, even illusory in some situations, there are times when the international standing of an IO in a humanitarian situation makes a great deal of difference in influencing outcomes.

You will find a selection of International Organization profiles under the Agency Profiles link in the Humanitarian Profiles section of this website.

The International Red Cross Movement is another major participant in humanitarian action. Made up of three essential components, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the many National Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies, this network incorporates some of the attributes of all three of the organizational types described above, while having a unique and distinctive character of its own. The Red Cross Movement is widely regarded as the intellectual and organizational parent of the modern humanitarian movement. As such, whether you work within a Red Cross entity or not, time spent becoming familiar with them is well spent. Please read through the attached ICRC publication “Discover the ICRC” (link in sidebar) to get a basic understanding of this many-faceted network.

One more participant in humanitarian action needs mention here, and that is the military services. When disaster events reach very large scale, or when they occur in sudden onset mode, military services are often the only players with sufficient logistical and manpower resources available to match the need. In other situations, where security constraints inhibit humanitarian service delivery, militaries may be actively involved in the same zone as humanitarian workers. In yet other cases, humanitarian workers may find themselves attempting to work in close proximity to actively belligerent forces. The Civil-Military relationship requires careful attention, and will be dealt with elsewhere during this course.

Discover the ICRC

ICRC, Geneva, 2007

This is a detailed introduction to the ICRC’s work and explains in everyday language what the ICRC is, how it came into being and what it does. Additional topics such as international humanitarian law, protection of civilians and detainees, assistance for conflict victims and cooperation with
national societies are also covered.

What does it mean to be a professional humanitarian?

Peter Walker, Tufts University.

Can humanitarianism exist without professionalism? This article examines the environment within which humanitarians work, proposes a framework for understanding the nature of professionalism, and tests humanitarianism against Walker’s model.

Video: The Code of Conduct

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The Code of Conduct for The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief, was developed and agreed upon by eight of the world’s largest disaster response agencies in the summer of 1994 and represents a huge leap forward in setting standards for disaster response. It is being used by the International Federation to monitor its own standards of relief delivery and to encourage other agencies to set similar standards.

InterAction, Setting a Bold Agenda for Relief and Development

InterAction is the largest coalition of U.S.-based international non-governmental organizations focused on the world’s poor and most vulnerable people. This two page flyer lists the goals of InterAction, as well as its members.

Foreign Assistance in Focus: Nongovernmental Organizations in Overseas Assistance

This paper drawns from the insights and experiences of InterAction’s 160 member organizations to provide an overview of how international NGOs work, their systems and philosophies, and and why they are an essential component in meeting development challenges around the world.

Video: What is an International Organization?

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Video: Identifying Participants in Humanitarian Affairs

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University of Hawaii at Manoa; Center of Excellence in DMHA; ICRC

Contact Information

Disaster Management & Humanitarian Assistance
University of Hawai'i at Manoa
2424 Maile Way, Saunders Hall 118
Honolulu, HI 96822