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Humanitarian Aid on the move # 15, special issue: The Quality of Aid

Relations between national authorities and humanitarian organisations: an aspect of quality which is too often forgotten
Charles-Antoine Hofmann

Any reflection about the quality of humanitarian aid is likely to remain sterile if its scope is limited to humanitarian actors alone. It obviously needs to take into account beneficiary communities who are the most concerned by quality. It also has to consider the role of state bodies to the extent that they have responsibilities vis-à-vis the population. Though in recent years there has been progress in terms of quality, and particularly accountability to crisis-affected people, this article argues that there is still need for reflection about relations between humanitarian actors and states.

 The development of the role of state actors

In recent years, state bodies have increased their capacity to manage the response to disasters. Many countries have set up national disaster management agencies to respond to low to medium intensity situations and coordinate the response. Civil society organizations often play a crucial role in this. There is also frequently the desire on the part of the states to maintain their sovereign rights, and, consequently, to not appear totally dependent on international aid.

Legislative and institutional efforts to build national capacity, which are generally supported, if not initiated, by civil society organizations, with frequent technical or financial support from international organizations (Harkey, 2014), have led to positive results in terms of reducing the number of victims of natural disasters. For example, the mass evacuation as a preventive measure against cyclone Phailin, which hit the east coast of India in October 2013, helped to significantly reduce the number of victims (47 people) compared to cyclone Odisha, which was the same strength, and caused more than 9 000 deaths in 1999 (source: CRED EM-DAT). Similarly, progress has been made in Bangladesh thanks to the combined action of government bodies and civil society organizations, with technical and financial support from international agencies: mortality was divided by 100 between the cyclone in 1970 which caused more than 500 000 deaths and cyclone Sidr in 2007. Mozambique, which is subject to recurring flooding, has also put in place national mechanisms which have contributed significantly to reducing the human impact of these disasters. There are numerous other examples of the positive impact that can be achieved by reinforcing the role of states in the management of disasters which affect them.

The increasing capacity of state and civil society organizations in numerous contexts, particularly in middle income countries, has major implications for the role of international humanitarian organizations. In natural disaster situations these developments are like a form of nationalization, or even the establishment of state control over humanitarian action. But in conflict situations, where humanitarian actors continue to play a dominant role, they are of a completely different dimension. It is therefore important to look more closely at the relationship between states and humanitarian actors in different contexts.