Issue 25 - Article 10

Humanitarian action: in need of a steer or an anchor?

February 2, 2004
Adele Harmer, Humanitarian Policy Group

One of the most difficult challenges facing the humanitarian community is maintaining the integrity of the traditional principles of humanitarian action in the face of the urgent and bitter struggles of the ‘war on terror’, specifically in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Another is keeping attention and corresponding resources focused on humanitarian concerns in other parts of the world.  While the ‘war on terror’ is absorbing a significant proportion of public funds, it arguably represents a small part of the world’s humanitarian problems. In terms of number of deaths, malaria, HIV/AIDS, poor nutrition and other preventable or treatable diseases, alongside direct casualties of conflict, constitute far more significant areas of concern.

In the light of these challenges, there have been calls for a ‘new humanitarian coalition’, bringing together state and non-state actors, including the UN and its agencies, the Red Cross and NGOs, to respond collectively to the challenges faced in these new theatres of war.  This article explores the findings and recommendations of recent studies which look at the potential for greater governance of the humanitarian sector.  Is a better institutional steer or a firmer anchor needed in these new and highly politicised waters?  What entities provide this function today?  Could proposed changes be effective, and if so for whom? What resistance would there be in this peculiarly unregulated sector of human endeavour?

Governing the humanitarian system

The recent popularity of the term ‘governance’ in the humanitarian sphere derives from an earlier body of literature and a policy narrative that emerged in the development community in the early 1990s.  Governance in the development context is primarily focused at the national level, and is concerned with the quality of institutional structures.  This is seen as key in determining a country’s ability to develop, economically and socially. Similar questions have been explored in the humanitarian sector, concerning governments’ capacity to prepare for, manage and mitigate disaster-related risks and vulnerabilities.

The broader question for humanitarians is how the international humanitarian system as a whole is governed.  This is less about reaffirming the well-rehearsed principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence, and more about how leadership and strategic direction is articulated for common humanitarian goals; how norms, rules and standards are established; how policies are developed, implemented and monitored; and how all these things reflect the wishes of state and non-state humanitarian actors, and actors in headquarters and the field.

There are myriad mechanisms to ‘govern’ the work of various parts of the system: UN humanitarian agencies have their own inter-governmental legislative bodies, like the Executive Committee of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); NGOs have governing councils, and there are umbrella consortia such as ICVA, Interaction and the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR).  Donor governments have parliaments and taxpayers, and all actors, in theory, have their beneficiaries. But it is not clear who is responsible for bringing all these individual entities and constituencies into a more coherent whole.

The UN is the closest we have. Bodies like the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) have a critical role to play.  However, the extent to which they provide leadership and establish rules and standards is worth examining. How well do these bodies hear the distant voices of humanitarian NGO practitioners in the field? How are the humanitarian concerns of member states of the G-77 captured outside of the General Assembly in New York?


The key player in all this is ECOSOC, the inter-governmental legislative body for all UN economic and social policy, including humanitarian policy.  ECOSOC coordinates the work of the UN’s specialised agencies and its functional and regional commissions, and issues policy recommendations to the UN system and to member states. ECOSOC is a ‘principal organ’ of the UN; it has the same official status as the General Assembly and the Security Council.  The General Assembly is generally regarded as the most important body as it approves all money spent under the UN’s regular budget; thus, while ECOSOC might endorse policy on a particular matter of humanitarian concern, the finances to support implementation need to be approved by the General Assembly’s Administrative and Budgetary Committee.  All UN humanitarian agencies, including the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), report to the General Assembly (on financial matters) and to ECOSOC (on policy and programmes).

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ECOSOC, while influential in setting themes, does not adequately reflect the interests of the broader humanitarian community.  While ECOSOC is mandated to consult widely with registered NGOs, as well as academics and the business sector, there is no official representation for non-state actors. ECOSOC’s humanitarian resolutions reflect its size and the diversity of member states.  While geographic diversity is a comparative strength, it also means that decisions can be vague and tend to reflect the lowest common denominator.  In terms of providing strategic direction and establishing rules, standards and policies to regulate the humanitarian realm, the infrequency of meetings, the weakness of language and the inability to effectively represent non-state actors all suggest that ECOSOC is not the governing body of choice.

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The IASC was established in June 1992 to strengthen the coordination of humanitarian assistance. According to a recent review, it is the most representative humanitarian forum yet established.  It has a system-wide reach, and is particularly notable for promoting an equal partnership between the UN and non-UN actors. Chaired by the Emergency Relief Coordinator (who is also the head of OCHA), it brings together a range of humanitarian actors, including UN operational agencies, the International organisation for Migration (IOM), consortia of major international NGOs (ICVA, Interaction and the SCHR), the Representative of the UN Secretary-General for the internally-displaced and the Red Cross movement (though the Red Cross maintains a distance from the policy statements issued by the IASC and its subsidiaries).

The IASC has six core objectives:

  • To allocate responsibilities among agencies in humanitarian programmes.
  • To identify gaps in mandates or lack of operational capacity.
  • To resolve disputes or disagreements about and between humanitarian agencies on system-wide humanitarian issues.
  • To advocate for common humanitarian principles to parties outside of the IASC.
  • To develop and agree system-wide humanitarian policies.
  • To develop and agree a common ethical framework for all humanitarian activities.

A recent review suggests that the IASC has periodically shown itself to be effective in the articulation and promotion of policy and guidelines relating to the activities of its members.  In the past decade, the committee has developed policy statements, guidelines and recommendations on a broad range of subjects, from staff security, field coordination and the use of military and civil-defence assets, to post-conflict transition, gender issues and sexual exploitation and abuse.

The extent to which these policies, guidelines and recommendations are adopted and implemented by the IASC’s membership depends in part on the IASC’s reach and the willingness of members to adhere to policy-setting beyond their individual mandates and profiles.  In particular, it has been noted that the IASC has not managed to interact with official donors as strategic actors, nor effectively to replicate its structures or spirit at field level. It has limited direct linkages with national NGOs, and operational actors within international NGOs, as distinct from consortia, are under-represented.  These weaknesses contribute to the IASC’s limited capacity to influence policy and issues of ethics and principle across the system.

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A new approach?

None of these key bodies – the ECOSOC Humanitarian Segment, the IASC or the myriad humanitarian contacts at field and headquarters levels – provides strategic direction and oversight for the entire system.  It has been argued that the links between the wider humanitarian community and the UN system are too diverse and disparate, and that a closer and more defined relationship is essential.

A proposal to establish a Humanitarian Governance Board, put forward by the team responsible for examining the impact of changes in financing on the UN humanitarian system (Dalton, 2003; see references and further reading below), is one attempt to narrow this gap. As proposed, the Board would be independent, with direct access to the UN Secretary-General, although it would not be a UN entity, and it would have a small secretariat.

The Humanitarian Governance Board would have two principal objectives:

  • To provide the humanitarian community with overarching strategic objectives. These would be agreed with the IASC, which in turn would have responsibility for implementing them (the IASC’s role would be enhanced by having field-based ‘country teams’). The strategic objectives would reflect issues and concerns introduced by ECOSOC’s Humanitarian Segment.
  • To promote and foster accountability practices. This would involve the UN system submitting its overall work to the scrutiny of the proposed Board, which would be mandated to comment on the system’s achievements and effectiveness.

As for its composition, there are three proposed alternatives:

  • a cross-section of major humanitarian actors, including representatives from disaster-prone countries, international NGOs and inter-governmental organisations and government donors;
  • a core group of ‘eminent persons’ – supported by a small, independent secretariat; or
  • an expanded ECOSOC Humanitarian Segment, involving a representative number of ECOSOC participants, with a secretariat that reflected the interests of the broader humanitarian community.

The success of a ‘Humanitarian Governance Board’, however designed, would depend upon those represented on the Board maintaining principled positions, and upon the willingness of state and non-state actors to sustain a commitment to agreed strategic objectives.  In the current climate, the latter seems ambitious.  Perhaps a more modest, albeit long overdue, aim would be to agree upon a common definition of the objectives and activities of humanitarian action – neither the UN nor the IASC has one. The main stumbling-block has been a definition that would not allow the flexibility that humanitarian assistance needs.  Yet without a consistent and shared definition of humanitarianism it is likely that humanitarians will find it increasingly difficult to distance themselves from the implications of political or military interventions, as in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Adopting the definition established at the Good Humanitarian Donorship meeting in June 2003, which focused on the core objectives of humanitarian action and was endorsed by the IASC, would be an important starting-point.


Adele Harmer is a Reasearch Fellow in HPG.

References and further reading

Economic and Social Council:

Inter Agency Standing Committee:

Mark Dalton, Karin von Hippel, Randolph Kent and Ralf Maurer, Changes in Humanitarian Financing: Implications for the United Nations, penultimate draft, July 2003.

Antonio Donini, ‘The Future of Humanitarian Action: Implications of Iraq and Other Recent Crises’, paper prepared for the Feinstein International Famine Center, Tufts University, 9 October 2003.

Bruce Jones and Abby Stoddard, External Review of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee: Summary of Key Findings and Recommendations (New York: Centre on International Cooperation, New York University, 6 October 2003).

Sue Lautze et al., National Institutional Capacities for Disaster Management: Exploring the Concept of ‘Humanitarian Governance’, Final Report (Princeton, NJ: Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs, Princeton University, January 2003).

Dennis McNamara, ‘Aid Business Cannot Go On As Usual’, speech to UNHCR’s pre-excom meeting, Geneva, October 2003.

Joanna Macrae and Adele Harmer (eds), The Global War on Terror and the Implications for Humanitarian Action: A Review of Trends and Issues, HPG Report 14 (London: ODI, 2003).

Joanna Macrae and Adele Harmer, ‘Good Humanitarian Donorship: A Mouse or a Lion?’, Humanitarian Exchange, no. 24, July 2003.


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