Following the influx of Rwandan refugees into Goma in mid-1996, hundreds of relief agencies rushed in to offer assistance. While some performed extremely well, many did not.
The numbers of NGOs involved in the response led to considerable difficulties in coordinating activities. Many of those present felt that the experience of Goma revealed major weaknesses in the international humanitarian system, amongst which was the lack of an adequate coordinating mechanism for disaster relief agencies in the field: NGOs competed for staff and premises; rents and salaries were pushed up; local government structures were affected by the loss of staff to better-paid jobs in the NGO sector; agencies fought over turf, competed to run media-friendly projects such as unaccompanied childrens centres, and, local NGOs, some of whom had been present for decades, were marginalised.
As a result of experiences during the Great Lakes crisis, different groups of NGOs have organised themselves to try and develop new ways of working, and to improve standards across the board.
In September last year, after a lengthy consultation process, a number of US NGOs involved in disaster relief, working together under the auspices of InterAction the US NGO umbrella group published a protocol for NGO cooperation in the field. The signatories, which include virtually all the major relief NGOs in the US, agreed that, to enhance performance and accountability, they would instruct their field representatives engaged in disaster response to consult with other NGO representatives similarly engaged to try to reach consensus in dealing with a range of issues: establishing a forum for coordination; relations with local authorities on registration, taxation, policy advice and training for host authorities, and respect for local protocols; local employment practices wage and benefit levels, conditions of service, training, and political involvement of local staff; leasing, contracting and procurement practices; media relations criticisms of other agencies, clustering at media focal points, and local media; security arrangements hostage policy, housing, communications, evacuation and convoy procedures; relations with indigenous NGOs training, funding and involvement in project design and implementation; NGO-military relations; NGO-UN relations; sectoral and geographic division of labour; information sharing; and, adoption of socioeconomic programme approaches.
The US agencies involved do not consider the Protocol as competing with the Red Cross/NGO Code of Conduct largely developed in Europe, but as complementary: where the Protocol focuses on practice in the field, the Code is more concerned with the principles of humanitarian action. They are keen to see others involved in the initiative, and have invited European NGOs to sign up, and to suggest amendments to the Protocol.
No European NGOs have yet signed up, however, and a number appear to be rather bemused by the Protocol, feeling that it lacks substance. It is only two pages long, with just one line on each issue and could be mistaken for the contents page of a larger document, rather than a piece of work that stands alone. Furthermore, it is essentially non-binding, in the sense that agencies only have to try to reach consensus, and there is no discussion of any mechanism for monitoring and enforcement.
InterAction responds that the Protocol is intended to be a first step in improving coordination in the field: the fact that agencies have agreed to consult and cooperate is important in itself.
The Protocol, they argue, is not designed to be prescriptive developing guidelines on good practice will be a longer-term, more iterative process.
Indeed, InterAction was planning to develop detailed performance standards as a complementary initiative to the Protocol, but are now working alongside the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR) based in Geneva, to produce one set of standards for the entire humanitarian community.
Initial experience with the Red Cross/NGO Code of Conduct which, unlike the Protocol, is very prescriptive, has been mixed. While it has generated interesting debates about neutrality and impartiality, it has not necessarily led to joint practical problem solving in the field, or been particularly helpful in encouraging the kind of constructive inter-agency debate that took place in Liberia (see Newsletter 6).
This suggests that the InterAction approach may have its advantages, as it simply asks agency representatives to meet regularly and adopt an agenda that promotes inter-agency coordination on those issues that, on past experience, need the most attention.
Ultimately, experience of using the protocol in the field will reveal whether it is of value. To this end, InterAction is planning to send out teams to discover whether field-based staff are aware of the Protocol, and to monitor its implementation for information gathering purposes.
Those NGOs interested in learning more about the protocol should contact:
tel: ** 1 202 667 8227
fax: ** 1 202 667 8236