CIVICUS speaks with Jeremy Wellard, Regional Representative for Asia of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA). ICVA is a global civil society network that advocates for principled humanitarian action, enhanced recognition of the vital role of civil society by governments and international organisations, and high-quality partnerships among humanitarian stakeholders. Established in 1962 by a small coalition of civil society organisations (CSOs) focused on refugees and migration, ICVA has grown into a diverse network of CSOs operating at global, regional, national and local levels. It promotes a rights and needs-based approach and maintains its historical focus on forced displacement while also addressing other areas of concern related to crisis-affected populations.

  1. What are the immediate needs that civil society seeks to respond to in a humanitarian crisis?

Humanitarian response takes place in the aftermath of natural disasters, conflict or forced displacement of people and is focused on meeting key lifesaving needs, which may include protection, health, water and sanitation, shelter and food, communications, education and livelihoods services. Often imagined as a short-term response to crisis, in fact humanitarian action can continue in some protracted settings for decades. Recent examples from the Asia region include the Nepal earthquake of 2015, the Marawi conflict in the Philippines throughout 2017 and the most recent displacement of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh, beginning mid-2017. In Asia, humanitarian CSO actors are facing a particular set of challenges, particularly when working in countries where strong government leadership is present. In discussing these, it should be noted that perspectives may not always be applicable to humanitarian action in other contexts.

Humanitarian action by civil society generally takes two main forms. On one hand, there is the response by locally based individuals and actors, which are either part of the community, home-grown organisations or organisations already based in the country and delivering ongoing programmes. On the other hand, there is response by international actors seeking to meet needs that cannot be met by existing in-country structures. Because of their proximity to those affected by a crisis, locally based civil society organisations (CSOs) are often first to respond and have the best idea of the critical needs after an emergency. This gives them a unique advantage; however, this very closeness to those affected, and the fact that responding CSOs are often part of these communities themselves, also adds challenges regarding their ability to meet humanitarian needs. International CSOs play a complementary role, supporting and strengthening the work of local actors and, where necessary, delivering services or providing expertise at a scale beyond what most local actors can manage.

  1. How are challenges in humanitarian response exacerbated when there is contestation of and restrictions in the space for civil society?

Whilst acknowledging that there are many challenges that come with operating within an increasingly diverse humanitarian landscape, particularly due to the changing roles of United Nations (UN) agencies and other actors, it is governments, both as host and donor, who exercise the most influence in curtailing the space for CSOs to operate. For CSOs, these difficulties are often manifested through increasingly burdensome regulatory environments; reduced availability of donor funding; limitation on access to affected populations; provocation and stigmatisation in the media; and in the worst cases, intimidation, threats and attacks on humanitarian actors and infrastructure. In one recent example from Asia, a combination of these factors led to the near-complete shutdown of civil society action in affected areas. In cases where governments remain strong yet access to certain populations is denied due to deliberate government policies or military action, the very core tenets of humanitarian action are challenged by this inability to respond effectively.

The Asia region has recently experienced a growing number of crises where civil society actors have been denied access to a population in need. It is concerning to continue to hear of cases where CSO staff seeking to deliver humanitarian aid are themselves attacked and persecuted for these efforts, forcing CSOs to choose between the safety of their staff or meeting the needs of the communities they are trying to serve.

I would summarise the main challenges currently faced by humanitarian CSOs in three points: the erosion of humanitarian space, negative perceptions of CSO action and uncertain regulatory environments.

Traditionally, humanitarian space has been regarded as a unique space, with protections and advantages enshrined in the humanitarian principles of humanity, independence, neutrality and impartiality. These principles, anchored in international humanitarian law, are recognised by all UN member states, as they have ratified the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and include rules on the rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian aid and the freedom of movement of humanitarian personnel. Humanitarian CSOs work on the understanding that their adherence to humanitarian principles facilitates access and acceptance, allowing humanitarian workers to carry out their work in a protected space, separate from development, environmental, peace and other areas of work.

However, these days there are very few purely humanitarian CSOs. In Asia it is hard to find a CSO delivering humanitarian aid that is not also delivering programmes in areas such as development, rights or disaster risk reduction. A key challenge for these CSOs is having governments understand these dual roles. Adding to this, the complexity of the environment is increasing. For example, there is presently a concerted effort by the UN and World Bank to align humanitarian action more closely with development and peace action. However, this brings associated risks for this principled approach. Within a broadly shrinking space for civil society, we must remain aware that any blurring of the boundaries between humanitarian action and other fields may also threaten to weaken or remove such protections.

Second, a central argument for strengthening CSOs is that humanitarian action is more effective when the complementary capacities of a range of actors are brought to bear. Stronger government leadership does not necessarily translate into better services, particularly where government policies deliberately or otherwise make it difficult for governments themselves to deliver effectively to all people affected by a crisis. Civil society’s actions in a humanitarian space can fill the gaps where services break down or there is insufficient capacity within existing mechanisms. To help explain this to governments and other actors, ICVA promotes the use of the Principles of Partnership, which were developed in 2007 as a means to try and promote understanding of strong, complementary partnerships between all humanitarian actors.

Unfortunately, rather than being seen as a necessary complement to government action, the humanitarian work of CSOs is often seen as an interference or a front for the wide range of religious, political, social and rights agendas CSOs are rooted in. CSOs will argue that when delivering a humanitarian response, they put other considerations aside in order to negotiate access and ensure that services can be delivered. However, CSOs need to acknowledge that governments may not automatically understand or appreciate this critical distinction.

In some cases, the actions of CSOs have given reason for deepening mistrust of motives and in a number of countries the resulting vilification of high-profile CSOs in the media has added public support to government actions to curtail their humanitarian work. CSOs may be specifically targeted due to their closeness to certain populations, their willingness to negotiate access with non-state actors or their perceived alignment to the political or religious views of their donors. In a recent South Asian response, approval of access was initially granted to, and then quickly withdrawn from, a number of faith-based CSOs due to concerns voiced by parts of the government that these organisations had links to what they considered were dangerous or undesirable religious or political groups. In another example, anti-terrorism policies were used as a reason to place CSOs under surveillance, raid offices and intimidate staff. In some cases, governments have refused registrations, cancelled visas and work permits, or evicted organisations entirely.

Finally, it should be noted that a strong regulatory environment can either facilitate humanitarian action or introduce new challenges for CSOs. Often, as regulations are strengthened to limit CSO action in other areas, they also limit flexibility and responsiveness in humanitarian settings. This is particularly so because often government registration or approval processes do not tend to distinguish between different types of CSO action. From a humanitarian perspective, regulation is not necessarily a bad thing if it clarifies how to gain access, but it must be matched with reasonable and responsive triggers for flexibility and speed, and include overall clarity from governments regarding the provision of lifesaving aid. Currently in Asia, as governments develop disaster law frameworks, improve customs and border protections and strengthen visa processes, a wider set of possible restrictions can be brought to bear. Opaque laws, erratic application of new rules and lengthy, bureaucratic government processes, which are frustrating to CSOs at the best of times, cost lives and livelihoods during a humanitarian response. Some actors are working to promote open discussion between CSOs and governments around regulations that may impact on humanitarian action, so mutually agreed checks and balances can to be put into place.

One way in which CSOs in Asia are attempting to address this is by engaging more in disaster preparedness work, alongside government, UN, military and other actors. CSOs tend to have stronger links with governments at local levels, or at the level of national disaster management agencies, than at the political level, and therefore can engage on technical matters. There have been many positive examples in Asia. However, one challenge to engaging primarily at technical level is that a major crisis is always politically charged. Different government ministries will be engaged in these situations, with Ministries of State, Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs, Security and Disaster Management and the Prime Minister’s or President’s office all becoming involved in decision making regarding CSO action. In a recent refugee crisis, the need for CSO action was widely acknowledged, yet opaque and complex criteria for registration of new CSO projects and the involvement of an increasing number of government ministries delayed the delivery of aid significantly. Project approvals were valid for just a few months, processes changed on a daily basis and government directives on approved activities forced CSOs to operate outside their areas of expertise. The unintended result was that the small number of local organisations that had approvals to operate bore the responsibility for delivering more and more projects, with some reports of organisations scaling up over 10 to 50 times in budget and size within weeks. I recall that six weeks into the response, one small organisation that previously specialised in providing long-term psychosocial support to refugees was delivering over 10 different project streams ranging from water, sanitation and hygiene to education, but had received no new funds to perform its core functions.

  1. What challenges do civil society actors encounter in coordinating with other responders and with government agencies?

In practice, response to even major disasters or crises is now almost always led by national governments. Increasing government leadership in coordination of both national and international humanitarian response can be seen as a positive step, if states have capacity and comply with international law, but also can present new challenges to the independence of humanitarian CSOs. For example, in more extreme cases, some governments are pushing for complete control of disaster relief distribution, requiring increasing portions of financial and material aid to be channelled through their mechanisms and refusing access to CSOs that do not comply. Thankfully this is not yet the norm and, in most cases, governments will model the international system and form some equivalent of a humanitarian country team, disaster management team or similar, including representatives of UN, emergency services, military and other actors. Yet despite their impact and expertise, CSOs are not always seen by governments as necessary contributors and find their opportunities to engage directly with these decision-making forums restricted, particularly at the national level. CSO engagement therefore is relegated through intermediaries such as the UN. ICVA is currently working to promote awareness of the important role of CSO forums of collective representation in national-level coordination mechanisms and there have recently been positive trends of increased CSO representation in some countries, which now need to be modelled and shared as best practice.

  1. What support does civil society need in responding in such contexts?

There is need for increased dialogue with governments to show how principled humanitarian action in an independent and protected space can be complementary rather than confrontational. Governments by nature tend to represent some parts of the population more than others, and this is more the case when the government is more authoritarian or military-backed, as is often the case in Asia. Humanitarian CSOs, on the other hand, act to serve all parts of the population, particularly those who are excluded due to political, religious or cultural prejudices, intra-communal violence or otherwise.

Ideally humanitarian civil society could work with governments with the Humanitarian Principles and Principles of Partnership as a starting point. For this to happen, states intent on showing strength and reinforcing their sovereignty need to also remember their responsibility to protect all people, citizens or otherwise, in times of crisis. They should not be able to have their cake if they also intend to eat it.

As a network, we are grappling with these issues and would like to learn from CSOs in other sectors facing similar challenges. We are open to ideas, suggestions and collaboration to cope with trends that affect us all in a fast-changing and increasingly complex world.

  • Get in touch with ICVA through their website, or follow @ICVAnetwork on Twitter
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