The future of emergency response – the international system v national governments

disaster response 2next week, but it was the humanitarian bit that got my attention. Here are some highlights from the internal discussion paper: “There is growing awareness that global humanitarian response needs to be turned on its head, shifting capacity and power to the South, particularly to national and local government institutions and civil society organisations, to prepare for, respond to, and lead humanitarian action. The world is moving away from a western-inspired, UN-centric model of humanitarian action to one which is much more diverse and localised, and sustainable. This is both a trend and a desirable outcome.   Disaster risk reduction and preparedness, and building resilience must be a large part of the answer and are known to be cost-effective, yet commitments by the international community and national governments in these areas remain limited. In many developing countries, pressure from citizens will be essential if the state is to fulfil its role in DRR, preparedness, response and reconstruction. The international community must do more to support this role with finance, technical assistance, know-how, research, etc. Accompanying this shift must be a re-commitment by established donors and INGOs, regional bodies, national governments, emerging donors and civil society to universal principles of humanity, impartiality, independence and dignity in humanitarian response.”  The discussion on the rising importance of nation states in humanitarian response was particularly interesting. Our humanitarian guys set out a handy 2×2 matrix on this:

  State Willingness
    State Capacity Willing and Able
  • Operational support only in major crises
  • National advocacy for improved state performance
E.g  Vietnam, Brazil  
Able but Unwilling
  • Support for local actors depending on their independence
  • Operational in large crises
  • National/international advocacy for state to assume responsibilities
E.g  Pakistan, Sri Lanka
Willing but Unable
  • State capacity building and support for other local actors
  • Operational in large crises
  • Advocacy for international support
E.g Mozambique, Bangladesh
Unwilling and Unable
  • Operational in small and medium crises as well as large
  • More work with UN and civil society organisations
  • Advocacy to the extent possible
E.g  Yemen, Sudan
We discussed which of the quadrants we are/should be working in, and how NGOs need to adapt their approach. Willing and Able: This is the comfort zone, but increasingly states will build their capacity and NGOs’ role is likely to diminish (for example, India often prefers to respond to disasters without calling for foreign aid). hygieneWilling but Unable: Outside humanitarian actors should focus more on building state capacity, seconding in staff, supporting state relief efforts etc. That capacity building work needs to be done in ‘peacetime’, raising some big funding challenges as long as the serious money follows disasters. One option might be to allocate a small percentage of disaster funding to long-term capacity building and disaster risk reduction work. That would be analogous to the British Government’s recent decision to allocate 5% of any direct funding to governments to assorted watchdogs (parliaments, civil society organizations, media) to ensure the money goes to its intended purposes. Able but Unwilling: Here, the focus is more likely to be on trying to persuade the government to step up. That is likely to involve advocacy and convening, building coalitions with sympathetic bits of the state (eg local governments) and non state actors (churches, business associations) to exert leverage. Unwilling and Unable: This looks more like old school humanitarian work, bypassing the state and saving lives. The practical people reckon the area of expansion is the second (willing but unable), whereas as an advocacy type, I’m keen on the third (able but unwilling). Either way, it will be fascinating to watch how humanitarian work manages to balance what it calls the ‘humanitarian imperative’, with the complexities of engaging with the state.]]>

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2 Responses to “The future of emergency response – the international system v national governments”
  1. Juana de Catheu

    Fair question! The dilemma is stark: is it better to work with local actors bearing in mind there is a sizable risk of corruption? Or to bypass them entirely and work “old school humanitarian style”?
    In Sierra Leone in 2000, there was no banking network and cash transfers had to be done literally by hand: suitcases of money had to transit from the capital to remote provinces by helicopter. In DR Congo in 2004, the World Bank’s procurement manual required that call for bids and ads for key posts had to be advertised in 3 major nation-wide newspapers. DR Congo had just been reunited and had no nation-wide newspaper. So, should we sit back and wait until there are water-tight systems, and meanwhile bypass the state?
    In the Sierra Leones of this world, a zero-corruption approach makes no sense, while in the Somalias and Myanmars it could well be justified. In willing-unable countries, there is political will at the top or in influential social groups for better accountability. In unwilling-unable countries there is no such thing.
    In other words, in willing-unable countries, there is something precious to nurture. The presence of reform-minded constituencies means that there is a basis for stronger systems and accountability. Not engaging with the state means it will never be asked to fulfil its key functions and will never be held accountable. It’s a huge missed opportunity. Give statebuilding a chance.
    Of course, engaging in Sierra Leone, DR Congo or Burundi (willing and unable) is far riskier than, say, engaging in Vietnam or Tanzania (willing and able)—from a fiscal, political and reputational point of view. The risk of corruption is real and should be managed proactively. Pouring aid without strengthening water-tight systems would be fuelling corruption further. Aid, systems and capacity should be the three components of any investment.
    Of course, emergencies are a bit peculiar. One does not have the luxury of building capacity when thousands of lives are at stake. Haiti after the earthquake is a case in point. But after a while, systems and capacity are no luxury: there are the essential pillars of any transition to peaceful societies and accountable states. And main donors in Sierra Leone, DR Congo or Burundi have factored that in.
    Now it would be interesting to think about “borderline” countries (neither Sierra Leone nor Somalia), where vested interests at the top are deeply entrenched and the constituencies for cleaner government are very small. To what extent should donors temper with how the local elites think and with social change, and how?