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Why the humanitarian community needs to take regional organisations seriously

Written by Steven A Zyck, Lilianne Fan

​From the deepening crisis in Syria to the spread of Ebola in West Africa and dozens of lesser-known emergencies, it’s clear that humanitarian response benefits greatly when those who have been hit by crises and those are responding to crises are closer culturally and geographically.

That’s one of several reasons why regional organisations are often well poised to respond to crises, with an inherent knowledge of local cultures, languages, politics and histories.  They’re less likely to hold aid coordination meetings in a language alien to the affected people or sideline the effective governments in places like Indonesia or the Philippines in the aftermath of disasters.

Regional organisations are also present in the region for the long-haul, which means they have the potential to deal with the ever-present problem of the gap between emergency relief and long-term development. It also means that they often have greater diplomatic pull, and be better able to influence difficult issues like humanitarian access.

#RegionalOrgs have unique diplomatic role. Can be strength (@ASEAN & Cyclone Nargis) or disadvantage - @LilianneFan pic.twitter.com/6ut4QvVyFZ — HPG (@hpg_odi) February 24, 2015

But while the international community has voiced support for greater regional leadership in humanitarian action, in practice, many have struggled with figuring out how to incorporate regional organisations into a humanitarian landscape that is already grappling with a growing array of local, national and international organisations.

This uncertainty has led to several problems. Regional organisations are often given the work that everyone deems important but which have not been on the top of the international community’s agenda. This ranges from capacity building for local humanitarian officials to disaster preparedness and risk reduction. They have also led on coordinating assistance in volatile and insecure conflict zones like Somalia, supporting peace talks and ceasefire negotiations with armed groups in places like South Sudan and Mindanao, and dealing with refugee crises and human trafficking.

"We are not clients, we are partners!" - @nuurist @igadsecretariat on relationships between UN/NGOs and #RegionalOrgs pic.twitter.com/PHSlt8u98I — HPG (@hpg_odi) February 24, 2015

But, should regional humanitarian bodies like the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)’s Islamic Cooperation Humanitarian Affairs Department (ICHAD) or the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) continue to be relegated to a gap-filling role in areas where the rest of the international community doesn’t want to get involved to the extent needed? Or should they be the first responders to crises, taking the lead unless a particular disaster or conflict exceeds their capacity? In the run up to the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul next year, this is what all those involved in humanitarian response need to have a frank discussion about – on the reality of where the international community as a whole is failing, and who is best placed to do what, when and where.

That said, we must also acknowledge the basic fact that many regional organisations and their member countries aren’t yet pulling their weight and that critical humanitarian gaps remain in every region of the world. Many regional organisations, while growing stronger, have very modest capacities and slim budgets – equivalent to a medium-sized international NGO. Regional humanitarian departments are often funded by governments from outside of their regions, like France, Japan and the European Union, rather than by their own member states. This could lead to regional organisations just becoming subcontractors for Western donors, instead of forging a distinctive, innovative and more effective approach to humanitarian aid – far from ideal for all those involved.

In order to tackle these challenges, we’ve held a landmark conference this week – the first to bring together major inter-governmental organisations, like the African Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Organisation of American States and the OIC to discuss how they can complement and – in certain instances – take the place of the Western-led international aid establishment. Such a discussion is long overdue.

With increasing number of cross-border crises requiring regional solutions, outdated aid relationships must change.  Regional humanitarian bodies should be recognised and given the resources, mandates and profiles they deserve and require to be truly effective in responding to very real humanitarian needs, and the international community must support these regional initiatives without stifling their innovative, locally-grown potential.

Ultimately, the international community must realise that strengthening regional humanitarian capacity is not simply a matter of choice but a humanitarian imperative. If we really hope to meet the needs of people in need in every region of the world, then there needs to be a collective commitment to support the emergence of a truly global humanitarian system. The role of regional organisations in such a global system will be critical – and potentially for millions around the world, life-saving.


Steven A. Zyck and Lilianne Fan are Research Fellows with the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute. The piece draws in part on discussions that took place at the ‘Regional humanitarianism in action’ conference.