The Coordination of Humanitarian Action: the case of Sri Lanka

by Koenraad Van BrabantDecember 1997

This case study concerns field coordination efforts during the Eelam War 3 in Sri Lanka between 1994 1996. In addition to some of the general obstacles to effective coordination, its specific interest lies in examining the difficulties of coordinating humanitarian effort within the context of a strong government at war. The war and coordination efforts continue.

The paper begins by considering what the term coordination means, and goes on to examine various NGO, UN and governmental experiences. Sri Lanka provides an example of a government that has asserted its sovereignty and simultaneously pursues political, military and humanitarian objectives. The government’s continued responsibility for the protection of and provision for its citizens is briefly examined in the light of its role in conflict.  An overview of the challenges for humanitarian action and capacity to respond leads to a discussion of the restriction of ‘humanitarian space’ by the army. Throughout the period in question, humanitarian agencies not only needed to coordinate for programme effectiveness, but also to advocate for humanitarian space and access.

Following a review of the coordination mechanisms in place at the outbreak of war, the different initiatives used to strengthen it during the war are examined. Special attention is paid to the review of the NGO Consortium on Relief and Rehabilitation and the Interagency Emergency Group. For organisational, but also for political reasons, both functioned simultaneously and in parallel.

The absence of professional knowledge regarding coordination, and the occasional shortage of technical and methodological expertise, added to the usual resistance to coordination, made it a difficult exercise.  Contextual constraints, such as the outbreak of the war coinciding with an effort to rethink coordination, and the complex and sensitive politics around humanitarian assistance also played their role. The most important obstacle to effective coordination remained however, the absence of an effective institutional link to coordinate the humanitarian efforts of the government and those of specialised agencies.