RPN 19 published May 1995

4. The NGO Code of Conduct : NGO obligations towards governments by Jon Bennett

A common element in what has come to be known as `complex emergencies' is a severe and chronic breakdown in the effective functioning of, or legitimacy accorded to, a government. Such emergencies often herald a period of transition, perhaps a completely new government, or the international isolation of an existing regime. Whatever the case, there is always a heightened awareness of the relative roles of government and aid agencies. Often the agenda of each are not entirely compatible, the result being mutual suspicion and distrust. The extraordinary concessions required to facilitate the swift and effective delivery of relief assistance may not accord with political, military or economic priorities set by the incumbent government. Aid in most forms either legitimises or undermines governments and can become subject to abuse. It also establishes the forces of neutral intervention the aid agencies as frontline arbiters of scarce resources.

There is a pressing need for northern NGOs in particular to develop clear guidelines for their engagement with governments during relief operations. The weakness of local authority structures in the large scale relief operations in Rwanda, Afghanistan, Mozambique and Somalia, for instance, explains to a large extent the ad hoc nature of NGO-government relations. Moreover, the relative freedom enjoyed by NGOs engaging in cross-border activities in the 1980s has, in many cases, resulted in operational codes of practice that implicitly assume that a host government is an obstacle to, rather than partner in, the development process. NGO field directors are not always sufficiently briefed prior to negotiating access and operational principles with a host government; clearer policy directives from NGO headquarters will help to avoid a negative backlash from governments that is, unfortunately, becoming all too common. Recent NGO legislation introduced in Kenya, Sri Lanka and Rwanda to name but three of the most contentious in recent years suggests that NGO-government relations during and after an emergency phase require urgent attention.

In mid-1994, eight non-governmental humanitarian agencies (NGHA), including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), prepared and published a Code of Conduct for their work in disaster relief (reproduced below). Despite the fact that the ten codes and three annexes were not binding and no suggestions were made for monitoring and enforcing them, it was nevertheless a laudable attempt on the part of the major northern NGOs to summarise and reach consensus on a number of operational principles. It will probably be many years before a professional body for relief workers is established. The enforcement of codes of conduct cannot therefore entered into; voluntary adherence backed by public proclamation is the best one can hope for. Meanwhile, the Code of Conduct at least provides a standard against which the behaviour of the signatory agencies is measured. As well as the original eight agencies who developed the Code, a further 19 have registered support for it, though notably absent so far are other major NGOs such as CARE International, Médicins Sans Frontières and Médicins du Monde.

The Code recognises the role played by other principal `actors' in the relief system the governments of disaster affected countries, donor governments and intergovernmental organisations and provides indicative guidelines for each. The one-sided nature of these guidelines, however, raises substantial questions over the likelihood of these `actors' paying much attention to them until they are invited to participate in a more inclusive drafting of a future Code. Notably absent, for instance, is the recognition of obligations that NGOs/NGHAs have towards host governments.

In the Annex, five specific recommendations for the behaviour of host governments towards humanitarian agencies are listed but no reciprocal recommendations are mentioned for NGOs/NGHAs except for a general endeavour `to cooperate with local government structures where appropriate'. In fact, the text declares that: `we [shall] formulate our own policies and implementation strategies and do not seek to implement the policy of any government, except in so far as it coincides with our own independent policy [italics added]'.

This is insufficient but what alternatives are available to NGOs wishing to engage more fully with host governments? It is axiomatic that a thriving civil society provides an essential counterweight to state power, which is precisely why an increasing amount of attention is paid to supporting local institutions (not only NGOs). The strengthening of government systems, however, requires more than popular pressure from below. It often requires complex technical decisions, an `enabling' legal, institutional and financial framework as well as considerable material resources out of reach of many southern governments.

Although traditionally such support has come through bilateral or multilateral channels, there have also been some interesting innovations from northern NGOs. Save the Children Fund-UK (SCF-UK), for instance, worked with the Mozambique government from 1982 onwards, helping to develop information systems within the Ministry of Health that were of vital importance in determining the nutritional status of the population during the worst drought years of the late 1980s. Indeed, it has been argued that only when NGOs like Oxfam-UK and SCF-UK became involved in Mozambique was it possible for the government to set up workable mechanisms for relief distribution. In a more developmental context, SCF-UK also worked within the Ministry of Social Welfare in Uganda from 1987, helping to devise policy guidelines for Ugandan law related to the provision of assistance to children.

Such close cooperation is rare, not least because change within state bureaucracies is usually very slow and few NGOs have the experience to offer effective `process support' as opposed to material support. Paradoxically, a capacity building agenda may be at odds with a government's ultimate expectation of material assistance precisely one of the problems of SCF's work in Mozambique. It goes without saying that it is easier to work with governments committed to progressive reform, yet even here there can be pitfalls. The Ethiopian government, for instance, eager to deliver on promises made to a newly-enfranchised electorate, has perhaps moved too quickly with its policy of decentralisation without building up the necessary skills base at local level. In Ethiopia's case, there was also a huge deficit in funds available to support the government's reforms.

NGOs thus face a dilemma. The mandates and relatively meagre resources available to NGOs severely restrict the contribution they can make towards `good governance', yet it is only the long term reform of governments that will clear the way for a thriving third sector so important for the full realisation of democracy and human rights. The NGOs who drafted the Code of Conduct were wise to have restricted their guidelines to disaster relief; a code for sustainable development practice, taking into account resource limitations and the mandatory requirements of a non-governmental approach, might take a lot longer to develop.

Jon Bennett is a freelance consultant and Research Associate of the Refugee Studies Programme.


1. See articles in this RPN by Barbara Harrell-Bond/Eddie Adiin Yaansah and Koen Van Brabant.

2. ODI, Relief and Rehabilitation Network Paper 7, Overseas Development Institute, London, September 1994.

3. Bennett J Meeting Needs: NGO Coordination in Practice, Earthscan, London, 1995; Edwards M `International NGOs and Southern Governments in the `New World Order': Lessons of experience from the Programme Level' in Clayton A [ed] Governance, Democracy and Conditionality: What Role for NGOs?, INTRAC, Oxford, 1994.

4. Parry-Williams J `Scaling-Up via Legal Reform in Uganda' in Edwards M and Hulme D [eds] Making a Difference: NGOs and Development in a Changing World, Earthscan/SCF, London, 1992.

5. Thomas S `Sustainability in Relief and Development Work: Further Thoughts From Mozambique', Development in Practice, Vol 2(1), OXFAM, Oxford, 1992.

Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief

Purpose of the Code

This Code of Conduct seeks to guard our standards of behaviour. It is not about operational details, such as how one should calculate food rations or set up a refugee camp. Rather, it seeks to maintain the high standards of independence, effectiveness and impact to which disaster response NGOs and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement aspires. It is a voluntary code, enforced by the will of organisations accepting it to maintain the standards laid down in the Code.

In the event of armed conflict, the present Code of Conduct will be interpreted and applied in conformity with international humanitarian law.

The Code of Conduct is presented first. Attached to it are three annexes, describing the working environment that we would like to see created by Host Governments, Donor Governments and Intergovernmental Organisations in order to facilitate the effective delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Note: NGHA = Non-Governmental Humanitarian Agency

IGO = Inter-Governmental Organisation

The Code of Conduct

Principles of Conduct for The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Response Programmes

1. The humanitarian imperative comes first.

* The right to receive humanitarian assistance, and to offer it, is a fundamental humanitarian principle which should be enjoyed by all citizens of all countries. As members of the international community, we recognise our obligation to provide humanitarian assistance wherever it is needed. Hence the need for unimpeded access to affected populations is of fundamental importance in exercising that responsibility. * The prime motivation of our response to disaster is to alleviate human suffering amongst those least able to withstand the stress caused by disaster. * When we give humanitarian aid it is not a partisan or political act and should not be viewed as such.

2. Aid is given regardless of the race, creed or nationality of the recipients and without adverse distinction of any kind. Aid priorities are calculated on the basis of need alone.

* Wherever possible, we all base the provision of relief aid upon a thorough assessment of the needs of the disaster victims and the local capacities already in place to meet those needs. * Within the entirety of our programmes, we will reflect considerations of proportionality. Human suffering must be alleviated whenever it is found; life is as precious in one part of a country as another. Thus, our provision of aid will reflect the degree of suffering it seeks to alleviate. * In implementing this approach, we recognise the crucial role played by women in disaster prone communities and will ensure that this role is supported, not diminished, by our aid programmes. * The implementation of such a universal, impartial and independent policy can only be effective if we and our partners have access to the necessary resources to provide for such equitable relief, and have equal access to all disaster victims.

3. Aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint.

* Humanitarian aid will be given according to the need of individuals, families and communities. Not withstanding the right of NGHAs to espouse particular political or religious opinions, we affirm that assistance will not be dependent on the adherence of the recipients to those opinions. * We will not tie the promise, delivery or distribution of assistance to the embracing or acceptance of a particular political or religious creed.

4. We shall endeavour not to act as instruments of government foreign policy.

* NGHAs are agencies which act independently from governments. We therefore formulate our own policies and implementation strategies and do not seek to implement the policy of any government, except in so far as it coincides with our own independent policy. * We will never knowingly or through negligence allow ourselves, or our employees, to be used to gather information of a political, military or economically sensitive nature for governments or other bodies that may serve purposes other than those which are strictly humanitarian, nor will we act as instruments of foreign policy of donor governments. * We will use the assistance we receive to respond to needs and this assistance should not be driven by the need to dispose of donor commodity surpluses, nor by the political interest of any particular donor. * We value and promote the voluntary giving of labour and finances by concerned individuals to support our work and recognise the independence of action promoted by such voluntary motivation. In order to protect our independence we will seek to avoid dependence upon a single funding source.

5. We shall respect culture and custom.

* We will endeavour to respect the culture, structures and customs of the communities and countries we are working in.

6. We shall attempt to build disaster response on local capacities.

* All people and communities even in disaster possess capacities as well as vulnerabilities. Where possible, we will strengthen these capacities by employing local staff, purchasing local materials and trading with local companies. Where possible, we will work through local NGHAs as partners in planning and implementation, and cooperate with local government structures where appropriate. * We will place a high priority on the proper co ordination of our emergency responses. That is best done within the countries concerned by those most directly involved in the relief operations, and should include representatives of the relevant UN bodies.

7. Ways shall be found to involve programme beneficiaries in the management of relief aid.

* Disaster response assistance should never be imposed upon the beneficiaries. Effective relief and lasting rehabilitation can best be achieved where the intended beneficiaries are involved in the design, management and implementation of the assistance programme. We will strive to achieve full community participation in our relief and rehabilitation programmes.

8. Relief aid must strive to reduce future vulnerabilities to disaster as well as meeting basic needs.

* All relief actions affect the prospects for long term development, either in a positive or a negative fashion. Recognising this, we will strive to implement relief programmes which actively reduce the beneficiaries' vulnerability to future disasters and help create sustainable lifestyles. We will pay particular attention to environmental concerns in the design and management of relief programmes. We will also endeavour to minimise the negative impact of humanitarian assistance, seeking to avoid long term beneficiary dependence upon external aid.

9. We hold ourselves accountable to both those we seek to assist and those from whom we accept resources.

* We often act as an institutional link in the partnership between those who wish to assist and those who need assistance during disasters. We therefore hold ourselves accountable to both constituencies. * All our dealings with donors and beneficiaries shall reflect an attitude of openness and transparency. * We recognise the need to report on our activities, both from a financial perspective and the perspective of effectiveness. * We recognise the obligation to ensure appropriate monitoring of aid distributions and to carry out regular assessments of the impact of disaster assistance. * We will also seek to report, in an open fashion, upon the impact of our work, and the factors limiting or enhancing that impact. * Our programmes will be based upon high standards of professionalism and expertise in order to minimise the wasting of valuable resources.

10. In our information, publicity and advertising activities, we shall recognise disaster victims as dignified humans, not hopeless objects.

* Respect for the disaster victim as an equal partner in action should never be lost. In our public information we shall portray an objective image of the disaster situation where the capacities and aspirations of disaster victims are highlighted, and not just their vulnerabilities and fears. * While we will co operate with the media in order to enhance public response, we will not allow external or internal demands for publicity to take precedence over the principal of maximising overall relief assistance. * We will avoid competing with other disaster response agencies for media coverage in situations where such coverage may be to the detriment of the service provided to the beneficiaries of to the security of our staff or the beneficiaries.

The Working Environment

Having agreed unilaterally to strive to abide by the Code laid out above, we present below some indicative guidelines which describe the working environment we would like to see created by donor governments, host governments and their intergovernmental organisations principally the agencies of the United Nations in order to facilitate the effective participation of NGHAs in disaster response.

These guidelines are presented for guidance. They are not legally binding, nor do we expect governments and IGOs to indicate their acceptance of the guidelines through the signature of any document, although this may be a goal to work to in the future. They are presented in a spirit of openness and cooperation so that our partners will become aware of the ideal relationship we would seek with them.

[For reasons of space, the following annexes are presented in an edited version ie main points only.]

Annex I : Recommendations to the governments of disaster affected countries

1. Governments should recognise and respect the independent, humanitarian and impartial actions of NGHAs.

2. Host governments should facilitate rapid access to disaster victims for NGHAs.

3. Governments should facilitate the timely flow of relief goods and information during disasters.

4. Governments should seek to provide a coordinated disaster information and planning service.

5. Disaster relief in the event of armed conflict: in the event of armed conflict, relief actions are governed by the relevant provisions of international humanitarian law.

Annex II : Recommendations to donor governments

1. Donor governments should recognise and respect the independent, humanitarian and impartial actions of NGHAs.

2. Donor governments should provide funding with a guarantee of operational independence.

3. Donor governments should use their good offices to assist NGHAs in obtaining access to disaster victims.

Annex III : Recommendations to intergovernmental organisations

1. IGOs should recognise NGHAs, local and foreign, as valuable partners.

2. IGOs should assist host governments in providing an overall coordinating framework for international and local disaster relief.

3. IGOs should extend security protection provided for UN organisations, to NGHAs.

4. IGOs should provide NGHAs with the same access to relevant information as is granted to UN organisations.

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October 1996