RPN 17 published August 1994


When a disaster strikes, aid organisations attempt to get delivery systems set up quickly on the ground to deal with the inevitable human tide of suffering that follows. Rarely is much immediate thought given to coordinating their actions with the multitude of other agencies doing similar work. Indeed, coordination can be a value-laden concept. For some it has overtones of `control' while others fear being swamped by interminable layers of bureaucracy. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in particular have traditionally resisted formal cooperation among each other, though this may be changing. The last decade has seen a discernible shift in favour of closer, more routine coordination among those who deal with the ever-increasing demands of humanitarian assistance.

This is, in part, a necessary response to the sheer scale of the operations underway. NGOs collectively spend an estimated US$9-10 billion annually, reaching some 250 million people living in absolute poverty. International governments increasingly channel resources, especially for emergencies, through their favoured NGOs rather than through allegedly less accountable governments of the South. In several emergencies of the late 1980s and early 1990s, short term money available to NGOs - albeit mostly to international NGOs - exceeded even that of the UN. NGOs are now the frontline forces of `neutral' intervention and are more closely linked to the UN, EC and donor governments than ever before. This could not have been foreseen in the days when NGOs simply filled the gaps at a grassroots level. As the number of crises demanding our attention increases, so too does the number of new NGOs willing to meet that demand. The international safety net of voluntary assistance has never been so buoyant.

However, the phenomenal increase in the number, size and financial status of NGOs in the 1980s and 1990s has to a large extent happened without close inspection of their actual performance. For all their laudable success, some NGOs have been guilty of poor practice, wastage and a lack of professionalism which to a large extent has gone unchecked. They tend to throw a veil of secrecy over actions that would not stand up to public scrutiny and rarely are NGO programmes evaluated independently. Critics of NGOs have pointed to lack of accountability, mutual competitiveness and poor coordination as perhaps the three most serious charges levelled at the so-called Third Sector. Alarm has also been expressed about the fact that some NGOs have crowded out governments by offering better resources and salaries and, in some cases, have made little secret of their wish to replace government structures. Another serious charge is that Northern NGOs have singularly failed to transfer skills to any significant degree to their Southern counterparts.

Some of these issues can be addressed by transferring decision-making to the field, to the recipients as well as to the givers of aid. Much has been said about involving refugees, for instance, in the decisions that affect their lives, yet very few lasting structures have been created to ensure that this is not simply rhetorical good sense. Field-based NGO coordination structures are potentially a way forward, for they can be `owned' not only by the multitude of small local NGOs rarely seen on our television screens but also, with careful nurturing, by at least some of the voiceless majority they serve. The level of genuine participation will depend on how such structures are set up and who controls them. There have been some encouraging examples in Central America and Africa, although local coordination bodies, like their national NGO membership, suffer from lack of resources and the sometimes overwhelming dominance of Northern NGOs.

NGOs in the South in particular are demanding that far more attention is paid to building local capacities, even during emergencies where the tendency has been to bypass developmental principles in favour of rapid responses dominated by Northern capital and Northern agencies. The so-called relief to development continuum is still only at the blueprint stage and, quite naturally, one suspects that this has more to do with the rhetorical requirements of competing UN agencies than a clear notion of how to build sustainable structures from short-term interventions. The signs are, however, that donors will be increasingly receptive to channelling money through Southern NGOs in the future as part of an attempt to bolster local institutions, the guardians of civil society.

As a contribution to this process, the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) has looked specifically at NGO coordination bodies and their role in promoting a more efficient `space' in which NGOs can collectively exert influence, especially during an emergency. Eight case studies were selected from across the world and comparisons made between each. Although the size and sophistication of NGO coordination bodies vary considerably, a number of common themes emerged. In Lebanon, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Mozambique, for instance, the NGO coordination bodies have been instrumental in bringing the NGO community into close dialogue with UN agencies. They have also developed local codes of conduct for NGOs, including very specific guidelines for health, agriculture and food delivery programmes. Most importantly, the coordination bodies have mapped out where and in what sectors the NGOs work, thus minimising the duplication of projects.

A coordination body is usually set up in the capital or regional centre of the country in question. Invariably, a `lead agency' takes the initiative to gather NGOs and discuss a common programme of action for a particular problem facing the country. The Committee for Coordination of Services to Displaced Persons in Thailand (CCSDPT), for example, was set up to deal with NGO inputs into Cambodian refugee settlements in Thailand, though later they also coordinated NGO responses to Burmese and Vietnamese refugees. A small secretariat is usually paid for by the members, with supplementary grants from bilateral government donors, independent foundations and the UN. A General Assembly of NGO members will often elect its own Executive Committee to oversee all aspects of the secretariat's work. In some cases, however, the coordination body is itself an NGO with its own field programmes. The danger that a membership agency might begin to compete with its members for funds was faced by the Christian Relief and Development Agency (CRDA) in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s and very soon the members closed CRDA's string of clinics, preferring it to be restricted to a purely consultative body. Interestingly, CRDA, now 25 years old, retained a level of `power' over its members by being the recipient and allocator of resources from donors.

Traditionally, however, an NGO coordination body is primarily the centre for information exchange and the first point of contact for NGOs arriving in a country. More proactive organisations will attempt to map out needs in a particular area, persuade NGOs usefully to assign themselves different tasks and oversee the whole picture of NGO intervention. As such, they have become increasingly important for the UN and others anxious not to have to deal individually with the multitude of NGOs, large and small, that arrive during a particular emergency. This intermediary role can be instrumental in ensuring that NGOs have a collective voice in formulating policies and priorities at a national level. For instance, the LINK NGO Forum in Mozambique now sits on the national Humanitarian Assistance Committee, one of the various structures set up to implement the peace process. LINK also assists the UN in its allocation of funds channelled through the Trust Fund for Humanitarian Assistance in Mozambique.

Sadly, indigenous NGO coordinating bodies have often been ignored by international NGOs anxious to set up an efficient structure during an emergency. There have been notable exceptions. In Lebanon, for instance, one of the most impressive coordination structures is the Lebanese NGO Forum (LNF), entirely managed by a consortium of 14 Lebanese NGO associations with a collective membership of hundreds of local community based organisations. Throughout the Lebanese war, this loose coalition provided a counterbalance to the notion that sectarian groups were fundamentally irreconcilable. The LNF comprises Catholic, Muslim, Druze and Orthodox groups with one common agenda: the provision of assistance to a population torn apart by war. The foundations for reconstructing civil society lie precisely in such coordinated initiatives.

In a parallel and perhaps even more politicised context, Latin American NGOs were assisted greatly by the International Conference on Refugees, Displaced and Repatriates of Central America (CIREFCA), a process that provided an international forum for analysing, discussing and looking for solutions to the problems of forced migration. Though not a coordination body itself, CIREFCA provided the impetus for the establishment of national NGO coordination structures (`Concertación' in El Salvador, for instance, and `Coordinación' in Guatemala). CIREFCA brought together UNHCR, governments, international donors and subsequently NGOs and organisations of the uprooted themselves. Principles and criteria for refugee returns in Central America were drafted and the changing circumstances of uprooted people were monitored. A political space was created for NGOs and refugees which helped them become organised independent actors able to negotiate with governments.

Governments vary in their attitudes towards NGOs and hence towards their umbrella bodies. In some countries there is vehement opposition to any form of collective NGO action, however innocent. This may be because of a real of perceived fear of civil unrest or opposition being orchestrated through civil institutions such as NGOs or it may simply be that the government feels that it alone has the mandate to coordinate NGO activity. By contrast, some governments have given their full support to the setting up of NGO coordination bodies. For instance, the Mauritius Council of Social Services (MACOSS) receives a grant from the Ministry of Social Security and National Solidarity and has a government official on its board. The key to a successful partnership is open dialogue wherein the coordination body provides a useful service and interface with the NGO community, rather than a threat to the authority of the state. A coordination body could offer its services to the government as a channel for communicating with the NGO community at large and should always ensure that copies of its publications, database, Statutes, etc, are given to the government and that the government is invited to comment on these and any other activities undertaken by the NGO community.

The thorny problem of NGO relations with national governments is well illustrated by what happened in Kenya in 1992. The Kenyan Government introduced the NGO Coordination Act which was to regulate and prioritise NGO inputs into the country at large in the wake of the Somali refugee crisis. At field level, UNHCR had already assigned NGO lead agencies as their contractual partners for assistance to refugees but the government was increasingly concerned about the autonomy enjoyed by an increasing number of national and international NGOs setting up offices in the country. The NGO response to the Act was, not surprisingly, one of alarm. Backed by a powerful coterie of government and multilateral donors, they managed to delay - and in some cases cancel - certain provisions of the Act. Where NGO coordination had previously been poor, suddenly NGOs under attack found very quickly a need for coordinated action. Interesting parallels can be drawn with security alerts in Afghanistan which elicited impressive levels of NGO cooperation through the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR) in the last few years. A general threat to NGOs is not a prerequisite for coordination but it certainly helps.

The mechanics of setting up an NGO coordination body and the comparative advantage such an organisation has as a democratic representative of collective NGO views is something that ICVA has been particularly interested in exploring. A Handbook on how to set up such bodies is now available [see Editor's note below] and training programmes will soon be underway. Behind these initiatives lies the belief that if NGOs as a community have something unique to offer, then a greater degree of NGO coordination at field level is crucial to realising that potential. The UN's own coordinating role in emergencies will be better served by having a representative NGO umbrella body to which it can relate. Coordination `owned' by NGOs is not a bureaucratic imposition designed to stifle the independence and imagination of individual NGOs; it is a tool for increasing the effectiveness of a collective endeavour. The challenge is to design a structure conducive to strengthening cooperation without limiting the freedom of any one participant.

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February 1997