Issue 15 - Article 5

Coordination in Kosovo: the challenge for the NGO sector

June 5, 2003
Nick Scott-Flynn, Regional Director, ICVA

The task facing the international non-governmental (INGO) community in Kosovo is both daunting and complex. It symbolises many of the dilemmas facing the humanitarian sector at this moment. Indeed Martin Griffiths, formerly the United Nations deputy humanitarian coordinator in the Balkans and currently director of the Henry Dunant Centre, recently highlighted some of these concerns when he called for NGOs to redefine and reclaim the ‘heartland’ of humanitarianism in the face of increasing political interference and their own occasional lack of professionalism. Griffiths sees a crisis of confidence in the INGO community arising from a ‘crisis of clarity’, as well as the result of an increasingly critical media which is constantly looking for someone to blame in a humanitarian crisis. The actions of NGOs in Kosovo will show to what extent these key players have redefined this heartland, and coordination among NGOs in the province will be one of the litmus tests in gauging the extent of this success.

The same principles of coordination apply in Kosovo as elsewhere in the humanitarian world. Coordination is generally a good thing: it maximises the utilisation of resources and helps all players involved better achieve their goals. It is not about control but about information sharing and the recognition and clarification of the different agendas of the different agencies. From an NGO perspective it can also result in common advocacy positions towards donors and governments – something which is increasingly important in the current crisis of confidence. This need is compounded by aid flowing away from development to the humanitarian sector – accompanied by the concerns of transparency and accountability – as well as the increasing politicisation of aid.

The situation in Kosovo

The challenge for the international community in Kosovo is enormous. Apart from the physical reconstruction of the province there is also the more delicate task of establishing a true ‘civil society’ where the rule of law is respected and human rights observed, not least of all in the protection of minorities such as the Roma and Serbian population. As with other parts of the region the international community must perform a balancing act between external imposition and local ownership. In this regard the experience of the Kosovo Albanians in establishing their own parallel civil society over the last 10 years must be built upon and not disregarded by the international community. INGOs in both Kosovo and other parts of the region are an extremely valuable resource in this process. Many have been operating in Kosovo for a number of years, long before the bulk of the international community arrived. They are sensitive to the needs of the local community in a way that is often difficult for policy-makers in foreign capitals, and have had time to make links with local organisations and build up trust. This must be utilised, but can only be done so with adequate coordination and sufficient professionalism of the INGOs themselves.

The coordination problematic

The overall coordination of the international effort through the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) is organised under the four pillars of humanitarian, economic, institution building and governance, and civil administration action. The question is how do NGOs fit into this model of organisation in Kosovo? Working within current structures, the first step must be to better coordinate among themselves. This is not an easy task given the number involved: there are currently over 300 INGOs in the province. This has grown from about a dozen two years ago and around 60 just before NATO action.

Coordination among such a number is very difficult, and made all the more so by the different agendas and cultures within the INGO community. It is also not helped by the behaviour of some of the NGOs. Under pressure from donors and their own constituents some have shown a marked reluctance to share information, seeing themselves as competitors for the huge amounts of donor money available. Another manifestation of this has been the competition for beneficiaries. There are accounts of some beneficiaries being courted by these NGOs on the basis that some offer ‘better deals’ than others. In the worst instances this has lead to falsely raising the expectations of local communities to a point that can not be realised as the INGO has been far too optimistic about its capacity to provide.

Given the number of organisations involved it would be unrealistic to think there could be perfect coordination at operational level. However, there is great need for some common policy positions from the INGOs on issues such as the use of donor money and the role of the military. On the former, many agencies are concerned at the pressure exerted by some key donors to spend large amounts of money very quickly. This pressure has been largely political as NATO countries have felt the need to offset any negative impressions of military action by spending huge sums of money on humanitarian activities. In this framework some of the plans of donors have been inappropriate, for example, a proposal to spend US$5m on rape counselling. While a laudable use of money, such work is not possible within the six month timetable initially given by the donor. Fortunately this proposal has been amended but the ability of the INGO community to influence donors in this way is hampered by their own lack of coordination.

Making NGO coordination a reality

Some of the major INGOs in Kosovo have attempted to facilitate NGO coordination through an NGO council. Initiatives such as this should be supported as they provide an accessible forum where the NGO voice can be developed – including that of the indigenous NGO community. At the very least, information can be shared to avoid duplication. This saves time and money by providing a common focal point to address shared problems. At the very best, it allows practitioners to share experience, learn lessons, and find common positions on which to base advocacy work with policy makers. For such councils to work they need to:

  • be accessible to all NGOs, not just the rich and powerful agencies;
  • provide translation services so local organisations and staff can participate equally;
  • ensure commitment from NGOs to put aside resources towards participation in and the operation of such a council (as recommended in the Sphere project’s ‘Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response’).

In the short term this may seem like an extra drain on resources. But in the long term it will save time and expense ten-fold.

Lessons from Bosnia-Herzegovina

The BiH experience has shown that coordination is more likely to be effective if it involves heads of agencies – that is, people with the power to make decisions and carry things through – who share their strategies. The short term approach of many in BiH where donors and agencies alike went off and ‘did their own thing’ should not be repeated in Kosovo. This led to a waste of money and opportunity. It also led to a constant shifting in donor emphasis that the NGO community had to mirror in order to retain funding. This distorted the work of many NGOs and led to huge gaps in provision. In addition, agencies in Kosovo should be mindful of not draining staff from the local sector through relatively high wages.

Role of the military and bilateralism

Another coordination dilemma is posed by both the role of the military as well as government bilateralism. In addition to impacting on coordination, these two problematics highlight the difficulty faced by INGOs in their approach to the increasing politicisation of aid (see previous article: ‘Kosovo – drawing lessons from a Disaster’).

Many NATO countries used their considerable military resources to provide humanitarian aid in Kosovo, building refugee camps for example. This was at the time when UNHCR was criticised for not being sufficiently prepared for the crisis (as highlighted in the first article, this criticism is cynical as UNHCR‘s capacity to respond is dependent on the extent of donor government support). While many in the NGO community have acknowledged the vital logistical role played by the various militaries, there are some who feel it is not appropriate for humanitarian aid to be delivered by soldiers – especially those whose countries are party to the conflict.

Equally, bilateralism has posed challenges. This mitigates against common standards on levels of provision, which leads to inequality in terms of treatment of the very people agencies are there to help. It also opens up the possibility of manipulation by beneficiaries as they jockey to get the ‘best package’. Conversely, beneficiaries feel anger as they see those with similar needs getting a better deal.

It should be remembered that there are common standards to which agencies and governments have signed up, such as the Sphere Standards (see RRN Newsletters 9 and 10). However, there is no point in having these standards if they are ignored when the time comes to apply them.

Once again, INGOs must have their own house in order if they are to challenge such action; they will not be in a strong position to criticise donor governments for uncoordinated, bilateral approaches if they themselves do not work in tandem with a common voice.

Integrity, or ‘Just say no’

The biggest challenge to INGO integrity is their ability to say ‘no’ to a donor, government or head office. The pressure on agencies to establish a presence is not in itself justification for being there. Such justification must come from a need and an ability to meet that need effectively. To assess this there must be a sharing of information and assessment reports as a means of effective coordination. In this regard, some of the principles of ‘Do no Harm’ come to mind, and agencies should question whether their presence could actually have a detrimental effect. For example, are duplicated overhead and headquarters costs really the best use of funding? In addtion, the large number of agencies present hampers the chances of coordination.

The presence of a large number of international organisations can also have a distorting effect on the local economy and development of civil society. As agencies compete to have the best staff local salaries become distorted which leads to scenarios where, for example, a skilled local worker can earn more as a translator than in his/her original job as a doctor. In this context it becomes easy for INGOs to push aside local NGOs, ignoring the fragile development of local civil society and thereby damaging it. This was seen in Albania. Equally, it can be argued that donor priorities (and hence INGO priorities) distorted the growth of the local NGO sector in BiH where many local NGOs had to frequently change their focus in order to obtain the necessary funding to survive.


Many of those who work in the INGO community are anxious about the situation in Kosovo. They are uncomfortable about NATO action and the subsequent development of the province, and they feel frustrated about the seeming ignorance of lessons learnt in Bosnia.

Most of those involved recognise the need for the international community to develop a regional approach to south eastern Europe, seeing that instability in one part affects the whole. Many INGOs have built up huge experience throughout the region. They have a good track record and will be working in the region long after the bulk of the international community has left. In this sense they are in an excellent position to apply lessons learnt. However, they cannot do this in isolation. They should be encouraged and supported to organise forums in which to share experience and information, learn from each other and advocate on common issues.

If we cannot get it right in Kosovo, with the considerable financial and political investment, then we will not be forgiven – not just by our donors and members, but by the very communities we seek to help.

ICVA has been working with the NGO Council in Pristina to support the Council’s work. ICVA can be contacted in Bosnia on: Tel: (387) 71 210 201; Fax: (387) 71 668 297; Email:; in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia on Tel: (381) 11 621 545; Fax: (381) 11 185 569; Email: icva-bgd@eunet.yu; and in Switzerland (HQ) on Tel: (41) 22 950 9600; Fax: (41) 22 950 9609; Email: Website:


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