The collective responsibility of humanitarians in complex crises

May 4, 2016
Katrien Coppens, Milou Gunnink-de Bruijne, Tilleke Kiewied and Inge Leuverink
MSF-Holland, Cordaid, Oxfam Novib, Oxfam
Dina in Bulengo IDP camp near Goma, North Kivu, DRC. She is from a village near Masisi.

In the run-up to the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in May, a considerable number of voices are advocating for the localisation of humanitarian aid and a more prominent role for ‘responders of first resort’ – affected communities, local and civil society organisations, (local) governments and private actors. The Charter4Change (, the initiative to launch a global network of Southern NGOs (SNGOs) ( as well as the global consultations held around the world to prepare for the summit, all call for localisation of aid. Yet, there are also calls for more independent, effective, less donor-driven international humanitarian capacity, able to rapidly address needs in complex and sudden emergencies. S. Healy and S. Tiller, ‘Where Is Everyone? Responding to Emergencies in the Most Difficult Places’, Médecins Sans Frontières, London, 2014.

Cordaid, Oxfam Novib and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Holland all have different schools of thought, starting points and approaches when it comes to providing humanitarian aid. Yet all three organisations are united in their plea to: have an open debate beyond the two positions, better utilise comparative advantages and maximize collective capacity to respond effectively to the growing needs of affected people. Presented with a large variety of crises, we need to look deeper into specific contexts in order to learn how the humanitarian response can better adapt to needs across different settings.

Guided by these priorities, in January 2016, we convened a context-specific expert meeting with a representatively varied mix of Congolese and international humanitarian workers. The meeting brought together a mix of humanitarian workers from Congolese organisations, single- and multi-mandate organisations, government officials and academics. It was informed by a preparation meeting run by Oxfam Novib DRC and Cordaid DRC with 15 partner organisations in DRC.  Here we endeavoured to explore where possible differences lie but more so whether local and international humanitarian capacities in eastern Congo (DRC, North and South Kivu) can be complementary and what their respective roles are when answering to the direct needs of internally displaced people (IDPs).

This article will provide an overview of the key findings of the discussion, starting with a short introduction to the humanitarian challenges in eastern DRC.

Setting the scene: humanitarian challenges in eastern DRC

Ongoing conflict helps explain why 1.6 million people OCHA. 2015. ‘Democratic Republic of Congo: Internally displaced persons and returnees (September 2015)’, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.  were displaced and why around 7 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance in the DRC in 2015. In 2016, they continue to suffer from violence, (preventable) diseases, hunger, psychosocial stress, lack of shelter or a combination of these. ECHO. 2015. ‘ECHO Factsheet – Democratic Republic of Congo’, European Community Humanitarian Aid Office.

Humanitarian organisations face difficulties in responding to the needs of IDPs in eastern DRC. Challenges include a lack of secure access to remote and insecure areas, logistical constraints and the chronic, complex nature of the conflict. Negotiating humanitarian access in a constantly changing and fragmented political arena – an estimated number of 70-100 armed groups in North and South Kivu increasingly negotiate and exchange power with local elites – makes humanitarian operations dangerous and time-consuming.

Additionally, local communities and actors (including armed groups) do not always see the difference between international NGOs (INGOs), UN agencies and MONUSCO (the UN stabilisation mission working in close cooperation with the Kinshasa administration), which challenges humanitarians in communicating neutrality and independence to local actors. Furthermore, international community funding is limited due to donor fatigue.

During the expert meeting, it became clear that the challenges posed to humanitarian assistance in eastern DRC affect all humanitarian organisations – local and international alike. Yet, the increasing complexity touches on deeper challenges within but also outside the humanitarian system. During the expert meeting, we identified five key areas that different humanitarian actors can collectively build on to pave a way forward.

1. Humanity, the binding factor

Guided by different backgrounds but united by their commitment to the humanitarian cause, experts at the meeting all shared a desire to help people in need, as rooted in the principle of humanity. It was recognised that this desire is not owned exclusively by either local or international actors, but that it is universal and visible in different local social norms around the world. Within Congolese society, solidarity and helping the most vulnerable are core values, which is clearly demonstrated by the fact that around 75% of IDPs in eastern DRC are hosted by family, friends, neighbours or sometimes complete strangers. These values inspire local and international organisations to act on the basis of humanity.

Humanity crosses borders, creating a network of global accountability and responsibility towards people in need. This shared sense of humanity should underpin how humanitarians work with one another. Therefore, there needs to be a shift from the current tendency for individual organisations and networks to provide aid with a basic level of coordination, towards treating collective responsibility and accountability to people in need as a starting point. This requires that humanitarian actors understand each other’s approaches and explore new and effective collaboration mechanisms to respond to the growing and changing needs of affected people.

2. Contextualising humanitarian principles and mandates

Participants agreed that despite the importance given to the principles by local and international actors alike, many local communities and armed actors may not perceive them as independent and neutral. The role of the UN as both a key donor, implementer as well as a key armed actor (MONUSCO in eastern DRC) has negatively contributed to this. There is also a lack of clarity regarding the ultimate objectives of organisations combining humanitarian and development aid versus those solely focused on humanitarian aid. This uncertainty, coupled with variations in interpretations of the principles, hampers the search for collective solutions to provide the most effective humanitarian aid in each particular context.

In addition, (sectoral) mandates of organisations are sometimes too strictly applied, without contextualising according to needs and opportunities, which may hinder humanitarian response. In one example, UNHCR initially prevented other organisations from providing shelter and non-food items (NFIs) to Burundian refugees in South Kivu since it was UNHCR’s mandate to do so. Some participants present at the expert meeting claimed that several (I)NGOs already had the resources needed available, while it took UNHCR several months to respond.

Recognising that all actors face challenges with respect to principles and mandates opens up possibilities for local and international humanitarian organisations to learn from each other and develop shared rules of engagement with respect to humanitarian action.  Dialogue should shift from the present “who is doing what where” (WWW) to “how do we respond, engage and find collective approaches that take advantage of our capacities and strengths”.

3. A more inclusive humanitarian system

The humanitarian system is top-down in nature, meaning the powerful determine responses, to the exclusion of less influential actors, often local ones. In eastern DRC, local NGOs (LNGOs) feel INGOs and UN agencies are favoured as LNGOs are not part of the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) and its meetings, where a common strategy for humanitarian response is defined. Furthermore, the first language of the cluster meetings used to be English, rather than French or another local language. Besides these top-down dynamics, LNGOs feel their work goes unrecognised as UN agencies and INGOs are not always transparent when subcontracting them and because they are excluded from accessing international funding.

Clearly, these are the attributes of a system that serves itself, rather than affected people. The system should be more adaptable and flexible, so as to better acknowledge and respond to the complexities of local needs, realities and capacities. First, this requires transparency about respective capacities and roles within and outside the system. Second, the strengths and weaknesses of different local and international humanitarian actors need to be recognised. Finally, inclusive cooperation mechanisms should be set up, which are not large drains on people’s time.

Donors can facilitate these changes. Their stringent administrative and accountability demands put pressure on organisations to show quick, measurable results. The complexity and duration of the situation in eastern DRC requires more flexibility, predictability with respect to funding and responsiveness to the situation on the ground. Donors could build in incentives to minimise the destructive competition over donor funds, by supporting collective responsibility and refining assessment of local capacities.

4. Adapt the humanitarian system by investing in joint reflection

The meeting demonstrated the importance of unpacking words and concepts used in the formal international humanitarian system, and the need to explain their application to the complex setting of eastern DRC. What does humanitarian assistance entail for different organisations (e.g. single- vs multi-mandate organisations) in the protracted IDP crisis in eastern DRC? Can different organisations acknowledge and recognise respective roles? Who is actually providing humanitarian assistance and therefore also part of the ‘humanitarian system’, besides established (international) actors participating in the HCT and cluster meetings?

Working through these questions demonstrated how a standardised application of the humanitarian system does not fit diverse contexts. For responses to be effective, humanitarians must work to reach a common understanding of the context and each other’s positions, and then discuss how to mould their operations and investments to fit the situation.

Convening a diverse group of DRC experts brought a variety of perspectives to the issues faced when trying to meet humanitarian needs. The application of the Chatham House Rule created an atmosphere of mutual trust and space to openly discuss key challenges, opportunities and comparative advantages. The exchanges went beyond organisational positions, interests and day-to-day operations. We encourage humanitarians worldwide to invest in joint reflection to address prejudices and the current lack of conceptual clarity. This will help to find joint solutions based on the added value of different actors, which will contribute to more effective humanitarian response.

5. Transforming accountability towards a collective humanitarian responsibility

In eastern DRC, the constantly changing nature of power politics in communities challenges NGOs – especially international ones – in maintaining an up-to-date understanding of local contexts. This in turn makes it difficult to operationalise neutrality and impartiality. By being present in one community, organisations may unintentionally benefit one group over the other. There is therefore a need to increase inclusiveness and recognition of local actors and to build on their context-specific knowledge. On the other hand, there is value in bringing in ‘outsiders’ that are more removed from local conflict dynamics. Clearly, both local and international capacities are needed to close gaps in the humanitarian response to internal displacement in eastern DRC.

This is not as easy as it sounds. The deeper challenges within the humanitarian system are further complicated by external issues such as: the absence of political solutions to chronic crises, financing gaps, security risks for aid workers, a lack of access to people in need and a seeming decline in respect for International Humanitarian Law. The UN Secretary General’s report on the WHS acknowledges these deeper challenges and calls for a global humanity, rather than either an international or local one. United Nations General Assembly. ‘One Humanity: Shared Responsibility. Report of the Secretary-General for the World Humanitarian Summit’, General Assembly A/70/709, 2016.


An important step forward is for there to be more open discussions between humanitarians in specific contexts. In these conversations, organisations should make clear and transparent choices based on their potential contribution to collective capacity to deliver timely scaled responses. Roles and resources should then be divided according to this capacity, not to enforce competition, but to enforce a collective sense of responsibility towards addressing humanitarian needs.

We encourage humanitarians in diverse contexts to take up this challenge, to reflect together on how to adapt the humanitarian system to their context and explore mechanisms for creating collective responsibility. This pragmatic approach could start to transform the humanitarian system to respond more effectively to the enormous challenges ahead.

Katrien Coppens is Delegate General Director at MSF-Holland; Milou Gunnink-de Bruijne is a Trainee at Cordaid, MSF-Holland, Oxfam Novib; Tilleke Kiewied is a Humanitarian Capacity Development Advisor at Oxfam and Inge Leuverink is a humanitarian aid expert at Cordaid.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent organisational views. They are a gathering of the views of humanitarian professionals as expressed during the expert meeting ‘local and international capacities in humanitarian aid in eastern DRC’. This meeting was held in The Hague the 21st of January 2016, in the aftermath of the Dutch Humanitarian Summit (DHS) and in preparation for the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS).


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