Humanitarian Health Action

Proceedings from the WHO Conference on the Health Aspects of the Tsunami Disaster in Asia

Phuket, Thailand, 4-6 May 2005


The key role of voluntary bodies in preparedness and response

35. Voluntary bodies - including civil society organizations, the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, and nongovernmental organizations - make a major contribution to international and local humanitarian responses. They have been a driving force in defining both humanitarianism and the standards that govern its application. The major international and national voluntary agencies are professional, committed and well resourced, have extensive networks of partnerships and collaborations with civil society, and operate at the local level, often in remote areas, frequently working with groups that tend to be marginalized. Indigenous voluntary bodies also have cultural and social knowledge that is crucial in the planning and implementation of ethically sound humanitarian operations. Professionals from the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, as well as well-functioning NGOs, can make crucial contributions to preparedness and response efforts. Coordination among NGOs and other groups should be time-efficient and result in the needs-based deployment of available resources. WHO should work with NGOs to agree on more efficient and effective means for health coordination.

36. However, voluntary bodies are also relatively lightly regulated and many lack the essential expertise, and professional codes of conduct, that are essential to minimize the likelihood that their actions will be counterproductive. This lack of codes may be compounded by high staff turnover: in such circumstances, lessons may not be institutionalized.

37. The interface between the voluntary and government sectors is sometimes tense, with lack of clarity on mutual roles, obligations, and accountabilities. While much more can be done to strengthen the capacity of voluntary agencies and the standards to which they adhere, their autonomy also needs to be respected. At the same time, government capacity to monitor performance standards of NGO partners needs to be enhanced.

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