Regional organisations and humanitarian action

Research reports and studies
November 2013
Regional organisations are frequently cited as key emerging actors in the humanitarian sphere. This paper examines the concepts and institutions underlying regional organisations before examining their contributions to three areas: the humanitarian response to refugee crises, conflict management and disaster risk reduction (DRR).

On this first topic, regional organisations have played a very limited role in responding to refugee needs despite the tendency for regional bodies to express concern over this trans-boundary issue. In relation to conflict management, including mediation efforts and protection-oriented peacekeeping, African regional organisations, particularly the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States, are among the very few regional institutions to have made a significant contribution. That said, nearly all regional organisations have responded to DRR given that such efforts are rooted in regional commitments and processes.

The variable involvement of regional organisations in humanitarian action appears to stem from a wide range of political and capacity issues, which this paper begins to explore. For instance, many are undermined by intra-regional tensions among countries, a trend which plays out particularly strongly in South Asia. Still others, including the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in East Africa and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), have a high degree of potential but lack the resources to more robustly fulfil their mandates.

However, many of the key questions regarding regional organisations – including basic information on their humanitarian activities – remain poorly understood. This paper thus points out gaps in existing knowledge which have yet to be filled and which will be addressed more fully in the course of the Humanitarian Policy Group's (HPG) project on 'Zones of Engagement: regional action and humanitarian response'.