Humanitarian Coordination

A vital component of humanitarian action is the coordination among all actors involved in the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Coordination within this field allows for the most efficient, cost effective, and successful operations possible. Groups seeking access to beneficiary populations often share the same objectives in regards to addressing human need and allaying suffering, but wide variance in such principle elements as organizational structure, technical and/or geographic expertise, mission, mandate, and political interest may hinder or prevent natural coordination on the field. This brief focuses on the dynamics of humanitarian coordination in the context of humanitarian assistance, and the main elements of coordination in the field.


Abstract Continued

For the purposes of this paper, coordination is defined as a “systematic utilization of policy instruments to deliver humanitarian assistance in a cohesive and effective manner.” A leading scholar in the field identifies three basic types of coordination: coordination by command, coordination through consensus and coordination by default; and the distinction between the three is important in discerning both the benefits and challenges offered by different approaches to coordination. While United Nations agencies played a central role in the systemization and institutionalization of the idea of coordination, effective coordination requires multi-sectoral and multifaceted perspectives, as well as a dual approach in which the importance of both operational and strategic coordination are recognized.

The principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality are central to the provision of humanitarian assistance, and as such, warrant consideration in coordination strategies and policies. Other basic principles and elements of humanitarian coordination include strengthening the capacity of local actors, transparency and accountability, and mutual commitment and cooperation between the different actors. There are a variety of existing mechanisms designed to enhance and facilitate coordination between organizations providing assistance in a given context. These mechanisms range in function from enhancing coordination within and among groups to identifying gaps in responses as well as addressing important concerns relating to funding.

While there are many challenges to implementation of coordination strategies, as well as concerns regarding the potential for increased bureaucracy in an already complex system, the benefits to coordination can be tremendous. Not only are humanitarian operations improved through the development and implementation of coordination strategies and mechanisms, but, more critically, the beneficiary population also gains from better coordinated activities.


The utility and importance of coordination among international and local humanitarian actors enjoys nearly universal recognition in the field of humanitarian action. Though the shared objective of all operational stakeholders is to alleviate suffering and save lives, there are varying approaches among the main actors regarding humanitarian coordination as a means to enhance and improve this end. The different mandates, activities, objectives, policies, organizational structures and capacities of the humanitarian actors often result in disparate views as to what constitutes the most appropriate level, as well as nature, of coordination. Indeed, the term “coordination” itself may prompt debate, which is seen in the advocating by some actors for adoption of the alternative idiom of “operational cooperation”. Taken together, such elements may lead to varying degrees of frustration, ambiguity and confusion on the part of different humanitarian players when the issue of coordination is raised.

This brief aims to provide the reader with a basic overview of the salient elements of humanitarian coordination in the context of humanitarian assistance.1 While acknowledging the differences and complementarities of humanitarian assistance and development, this brief will focus on the dynamics of coordination in so far as the former is concerned. The definitions adopted in this brief for humanitarian assistance and development are those articulated by Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida): humanitarian assistance has as its twins goals - the saving of lives and relieving of suffering - while development assistance aims to provide partner countries with the “opportunity to effect long-range improvements to the living conditions” of their populace.2

It is worth noting that the legal basis for the following discussion on humanitarian assistance is that the responsibility to provide for the basic needs of a population lies first with that state;3 it is when the state is unwilling or unable to provide for such needs does the focus shift to the complementary or auxiliary role which can be adopted by humanitarian organizations. There is no legal framework specifically regulating or governing interactions between humanitarian organizations, though there are a number of related considerations such as the applicability of domestic laws of the country of operation, and consent of the host state, which should be acknowledged. Humanitarian principles and international law should underpin all aspects of humanitarian assistance, and thus by association, also discussions of coordination. Discussions in this brief regarding humanitarian assistance are based on the centrality of the principles of humanity, impartiality and neutrality in humanitarian action.

1There are three categories of assistance commonly identified: direct assistance, indirect assistance and infrastructure support – with decreasing level of contact with the actual affected population.
2Sida, “The Purpose of Swedish Support to Humanitarian Actions is to Save Lives.” The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Updated 20 July 2007.
3General Assembly Resoluion ‘Strengthening the Coordination of Humanitarian Emergency Assistance of the United Nations’ UN Doc A/RES/46/182, 78th plenary meeting, 19 December 1991.

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