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The role of networks in the international humanitarian system

Research report

Written by Sarah Collinson, Ben Ramalingam

Research report

Recent decades have seen a significant expansion in the international humanitarian sector which has led to a significant expansion in the number and complexity of inter-organizational networks associated with humanitarian policy and programming.

Networks are a crucial mechanism through which humanitarian actors’ policies and programmes are guided and coordinated at all levels across the system. Yet there has been very little focused research or strategic analysis of the role of networks across the sector (Ramalingam, forthcoming 2010). The limited research that has been carried out has focused on the effectiveness and functions of particular networks, rather than exploring the role of networks in the governance and functions of the humanitarian system as a whole.

This study recognises that assessing the importance of networks depends not only on exploring how well individual networks function, but on how networks interact to influence particular and global humanitarian actions and outcomes. It describes the most significant networks in the sector, and analyses how networks affect the governance of humanitarian policy and practice across the system as a whole. The study is based principally upon a wide-ranging desk-based literature review and semi-structured interviews with representatives and experts from a range of organisations, including country-level interviews conducted in Sri Lanka, Sudan and Uganda in early 2010.

Overall, the international humanitarian system is distinguished by the limited extent to which national governments of crisis-affected countries exert direct authority within it at the international level. These governments and their state structures have remained largely remote from the governance of international humanitarian assistance beyond their own borders, although some are engaged formally (and to a greater or lesser extent in practice) in the governance of the key UN agencies through the UN General Assembly, the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the specialised agencies’ own governance structures. Meanwhile, donor governments have not tried to develop an explicit regime of multilateral governance based on the kind of binding rules seen in many other areas of international cooperation. Thus, like the broader international development sector, the international humanitarian system is best seen as a partially self-regulating transnational community composed of various non-governmental, private and public governmental and intergovernmental actors.

Networks play a significant role in supporting, facilitating and structuring relationships and functions between the many diverse organisations within the system, resulting in complex, dispersed and often quite fluid patterns and dynamics of networks-based governance operating at different levels across the sector. What is not yet well understood, however, is precisely how networks really affect governance dynamics and core functions of humanitarian action.

In practice, many different entities are referred to as networks across the aid sector, including professional or technical networks, knowledge-sharing networks, campaign networks, fundraising networks and operational networks. Some are relatively formal, with central secretariats and substantial resources, while others are very informal and transient, sometimes based on friendship or shared experiences on particular projects and programmes at a certain point in time.

This report reviews some of the key networks or types of network that play an important role in eight broad governance functions:

  • Supporting policy-making and policy implementation

  • Supporting and facilitating policy verification and accountability

  • Enforcing binding rules

  • Linking and resolving different issue areas and policy agendas

  • Setting norms and standards

  • Mobilising resources

  • Direct support for humanitarian action and strategies on the ground

  • Developing usable knowledge and influencing policy and practice

Sarah Collinson