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What future role for local organizations? A reflection on the need for humanitarian capacity-building

  • François Audet

While treating the humanitarian organizations themselves as rational actors, this article considers the factors that influence the decisions and the current logic of Western humanitarian organizations in their dealings with local organizations. This reflection necessarily leads to a re-examination of the current structure of these organizations and to proposed scenarios to identify the best methods for the future, particularly in the relational framework between international organizations and their local partners. Ultimately, the humanitarian organization interventional model must be broadened, taking local humanitarian capacity-building into greater consideration.

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1 See, in particular, Slim, Hugo, ‘Relief agencies and moral standing in war: principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and solidarity’, in Development in Practice, Vol. 7, No. 4, 1997, pp. 342352; Schloms, Michael, ‘Le dilemme inévitable de l'action humanitaire’, in Cultures & Conflits, No. 60, 2005, pp. 85102; Vaux, Tony, ‘Humanitarian trends and dilemmas’, in Development in Practice, Vol. 16, No. 3, 2006, pp. 240254; Marie Pierre Allier, ‘Introduction’, in Claire Magone, Michaël Neuman, and Fabrice Weissman (eds), Agir à tout prix? Négociations humanitaires: l'expérience de Médecins sans frontières, Éditions La Découverte, Paris, 2011.

2 Micheletti, Pierre and Henrys, Daniel, ‘Le “modèle humanitaire dominant” est mis en question en Haïti’, in Le Monde, 12 January 2011, available online at: (last visited 27 January 2012).

3 Lauten, Brooke, ‘Time to reassess capacity-building partnerships’, in Forced Migration Review, Vol. 28, 2007, p. 4.

4 For the purposes of this analysis, I will use a typology that includes the great diversity of existing local organizations and institutions, even if this obscures the complex realities in each particular case. Therefore, unless otherwise noted, the concept of ‘local organizations’ is taken to refer to organizations having a local constituency and/or status, and having a minimal capacity to play a role in future catastrophes. This includes formal and informal local organizations (civil society or community groups), decentralized government institutions, municipalities, and even the state itself. In particular, it also includes the decentralized offices of humanitarian organizations in the South, often called ‘country offices’ or ‘missions’.

5 Organizations that were interviewed for this study are: Doctors without Borders, Doctors of the World, CARE, Save the Children, Oxfam, Caritas, the Canadian Red Cross, World Vision, and Handicap International. For confidentiality reasons, names and details of the interviews are not provided. The interviews were carried out between April and October 2011 as part of a study conducted by the Canadian Research Institute on Humanitarian Crisis and Aid (OCCAH) of the University of Montreal, Canada.

6 This study was particularly inspired by the postulates of rational choice theory in international relations described by Boudon, and by the interpretation of decision-making processes in organizations by Crozier and Freidberg. See Boudon, Raymond, ‘Théorie du choix rationnel ou individualisme méthodologique?’, in La Découverte/Revue du Mauss, Vol. 2, No. 24, 2004, pp. 281309; Crozier, Michel and Freidberg, Erhard, L'acteur et le système, Le Seuil, Paris, 1977.

7 See, for instance, Inter-Agency Standing Committee, Handbook for the Protection of Internally Displaced Persons, June 2010, which presents excellent examples of humanitarian capacity-building, available at: (last visited 9 January 2012).

8 A number of guides, standards, and practices detailing the issues and activities related to humanitarian capacity-building have developed in the wake of humanitarian reform. See, in particular, Global Humanitarian Response, ‘A brief overview of the humanitarian reforms’, 10 July 2006, available at: (last visited 18 June 2012).

9 See, for instance, Henk Tukker and Rob van Poelje, ‘Capacity development in humanitarian crises: practice and lessons learnt about strengthening civil society organisations’, in PSO Capacity Development, Praxis Note No. 54, INTRAC and PSO, June 2010, available online at: (last visited 27 January 2012).

10 See Smillie, Ian (ed.), Patronage or Partnership: Local Capacity Building in Humanitarian Crises, Kumarian Press/IDRC, Bloomfield, CT, 2001; Mirna Mutiara, Ian Smillie, Henk Tukker, and Rob van Poelje, Capacity Development in Humanitarian Crises, papers presented at the PSO Panel, the World Conference of Humanitarian Studies, February 2009, available online at: (last visited 17 January 2012).

11 This critique is sometimes referred to as post-colonialism by the realist current in international relations. See, especially, Duffield, Mark, Development, Security and Unending War: Governing the World of People, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2007.

12 This is particularly true of the European Union, which in 2008 established a specific funding programme to support humanitarian capacity-building. See ‘Strengthening humanitarian responses through global capacity building and grant facility: DG ECHO guidelines’, available at: (last visited 25 January 2012).

13 Anderson, Mary B. and Woodrow, Peter J., Rising from the Ashes: Development Strategies in Times of Disaster, Westview Press, Boulder, CO/UNESCO, Paris, 1989.

14 Kathina Juma, Monika and Suhrke, Astri (eds), Eroding Local Capacity: International Humanitarian Action in Africa, Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, Uppsala, 2002.

15 Ibid.; see in particular the concluding chapter, p. 164.

16 ‘The Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in Disaster Relief”, prepared jointly by the IFRC and the ICRC, available at: (last visited January 2012).

17 Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance (ALNAP), ALNAP Global Study: Participation of Disaster-affected Populations, Practitioner's Handbook (Draft), London, 2003, p. 11.

18 Grünewald, François, Bénéficiaires ou partenaires: quels rôles pour les populations dans l'action humanitaire?, Éditions Karthala, Paris, 2005. Spee Braun, Report on Emergency Capacity: Analysis for the Interagency Working Group (IWGEC) on Emergency Capacity, July 2004, available at: (last visited 15 January 2012). The constituent organizations of IWGEC are: CARE USA, Catholic Relief Services, International Rescue Committee, Mercy Corps, Oxfam GB, Save the Children-US, and World Vision International.

19 See S. Braun, above note 18, p. 29.

20 The ECB project aims to build staff capacity, to encourage risk reduction activities, to improve accountability, and to evaluate project impact. See details at: (last visited 15 January 2012).

21 With regard to rhetoric and official communications (annual reports, websites, etc.), all the humanitarian organizations interviewed presented local capacity-building as an important component of their action. This observation is also shared by other studies on local humanitarian capacity-building: see, in particular, Christoplos, Ian, ‘Institutional capacity building amid humanitarian action’, in ALNAP Review of Humanitarian Action in 2004: Capacity Building, Overseas Development Institute, London, 2005, pp. 2971, available at: (last visited 17 January 2012).

22 Couldrey, Marion and Morris, Tim, ‘Introduction’, in Forced Migration Review, Vol. 28, 2007, p. 2.

23 Fowler, Alain, Striking a Balance: A Guide to Enhancing the Effectiveness of Non-governmental Organizations in International Development, Earthscan, London, 1997.

24 Brown, David, ‘Bridging organizations and sustainable development’, in IDR Reports, Vol. 8, No. 4, 1991, available at: (last visited 12 June 2012).

25 See Postma, William, ‘NGO partnership and institutional development: making it real, making it intentional’, in Canadian Journal of African Studies, Vol. 28, No. 3, 1994, pp. 447471; Ubels, Jan, Acquaye-Baddoo, Naa-Aku, and Folwer, Alain, Capacity Development in Practice, Earthscan, London, 2010, available at: (last visited 22 January 2012); Eade, Debora, Capacity-Building: An Approach to People Centred Development, Oxford, Oxfam UK and Ireland, 1997; H. Tukker and R. van Poelje, above note 9.

26 For example, CARE has set up a pooled emergency response team called CARE International Emergency Response Team (CERT). For further information, see: (last visited 22 January 2012). Save the Children also has rapid deployment international emergency response teams, called Regional REDI teams: see Save the Children, ‘Emergency Capacity Building Project: “case study of good practice”’, available at: (last visited 22 January 2012).

27 Humanitarian organizations generally give out very few details as to their preferred management model and structure. The official institutional documents (websites, annual reports, institutional publications, etc.) reveal little information on this subject. The examples presented below are drawn from the personal experience of the author, as well as from information from interviews.

28 For a management science analysis of humanitarian organizations, see Quéinnec, Erwan, ‘The ambivalence of the inherent nature and purpose of humanitarian organisations: a research theme for the management sciences’, in International Social Science Journal, Vol. 55, No. 177, 2003, pp. 501523.

29 Some organizations also opt for such partnerships where funding is inadequate, and when crises do not generate enough interest for the deployment of expatriates or the establishment of a programme. The funds collected will then be channelled through a local organization in the framework of an implementing partnership.

30 The Strategic Plan of the Haitian Red Cross for 2010–2015 noted this institutional weakness prior to the earthquake, as well as the opportunity of looking at the resources channelled to Haiti in building their organizational capacity at all levels. See in particular p. 18 of the text, available at: (last visited 22 February 2012).

31 To learn more about the ongoing debates, see in particular Michael Edwards, David Hulme, and Tina Wallace, ‘NGOs in a global future: marrying local delivery to worldwide leverage’, background paper for the Third International NGO Conference, hosted by the University of Birmingham, 10–13 January 1999, available at: (last visited 13 January 2012).

32 Amhed Manzoor, ‘The future issues and challenges for humanitarian action and the role of Southern NGOs’, in Revue humanitaire: enjeux, pratiques, débats, 21 March 2011, available at: (last visited 13 January 2012).

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International Review of the Red Cross
  • ISSN: 1816-3831
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