Coopted by the UN? Time for NGOs to take up the challenge, argues Eva von Oelreich

October 9, 2007
Eva von Oelreich

Disparate NGOs or Co-opted by UN – Where is the debate?

In a recent paper on the Future of Humanitarian Action Peter Walker from the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University claims that “the present ‘international humanitarian community’ is an unplanned agglomeration of disparate parts evolving out of the post-WWII consensus”. He says it is time to move on, time for a greater diversity of humanitarian actors to act with more coherence and “for individual agencies to trump agency growth with contribution to the common good”.

Meanwhile, at the 4th Autumn School of Humanitarian Aid of URD in Provence in late September, a group of humanitarian practitioners and researchers, including from NATO, discussed if humanitarian space is in jeopardy and also looked at possible threats of becoming part of one big UN humanitarian machinery with risks of being instrumentalized, causing loss of identity and independence.

Are NGOs disparate parts of an unplanned agglomeration or climbing to sit on the UN lap? What lies between the extremes? Probably a huge area waiting for initiative. A lot of analysis is going on right now in the hundreds and hundreds of humanitarian organisations, which make up the exponentially growing non-UN humanitarian sector. Some of these organisations are larger than UN agencies and are continuing to grow? What are the issues? What factors are decisive for NGO decisions for the future? Where is the debate?

Most of the open debate has so far been about how to relate to three UN humanitarian reform pillars: Clusters, CERF and Humanitarian Coordination. ERC, Jan Egeland, added a fourth informal pillar about partnerships with NGOs, when it became obvious that the reform was seen as UN-centric and that the invitation to non-UN actors was felt as conditioned.

It is high time for NGOs to take up the challenge and more clearly articulate their position: how to relate to other humanitarian actors, the UN as well as fellow NGOs and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. “What does the UN want from NGOs with the clusters?” was a question often repeated this spring. Time to turn the question around and look at what NGOs see as essential for global humanitarian response to be as good as it gets. NGOs, large and small, northern and southern, need to take a hard look at where they want to be in the coming years, and what type of relationships they need to contribute to humanitarian response optimally.

Are “implementing agency” and “service-provider” becoming obsolete? Are we not hearing about being equal partners…?

Maybe the first important relationship to consider is increased dialogue and interaction between non-governmental humanitarian actors themselves? In the URD Autumn School the researcher Xavier Zeebroek from GRIP in Brussels put forward the idea of creating and reinforcing networks of humanitarian NGOs “on the ground” to lobby together and put pressure for change in countries, when and where integrated missions override humanitarian needs. NGO national fora may be an essential starting point for other reasons too – to get greater diversity by including national NGOs in the discussion, to link NGO and INGO discussion, to initiate relevant partnerships on an equal footing with the UN and to test them on operational realities.

This will take place as a follow up to the NGO, UN and Red Cross dialogue 12-13 July 2006. The so-called Global Humanitarian Platform will look at principles and realities of cooperation in operational countries as well as in its platform meeting next July.

But surely it is not only about global platforms. It is time to think of flexible, “light-footed” mechanisms that work for a specific situation. IWG, the Interagency Working Group of seven large NGOs working together on an Emergency Capacity Building initiative, may be an example of such an “energy grouping”. Time to show more clearly what diverse and complementary action means in practice for NGOs. Time to show what is missing on the UN agenda. And time to fill more capacity gaps? Food security and livelihoods are continuously mentioned as gap areas. The cross-cutting issues (gender, environment, human rights, HIV/AIDS) continue to fall through the cracks. And yet there is NGO expertise in these areas, ready to be identified.

And finally how can the huge area around quality, standards and accountability to the affected and assisted population be brought back as centre-piece in the discussion?

So where is the reflection and debate among ourselves to sharpen views and come forward with solutions between the extremes? The analysis is there in individual organisations – now share it.

Time to have the NGO side of things.

Eva von Oelreich

SCHR – Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response

The views expressed do no necessarily represent those of SCHR

Footnotes :

URD – Urgence, Réhabilitation Développement, Plaisians, France

GRIP – Groupe de recherche et d’information sur la paix et la sécurité, Brussels, Belgium


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