This paper will examine how the proliferation of new Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) intensifies the need for professional standards in the humanitarian field. Some estimates put the number of international NGOs at 25,000 – up from less than 400 a century ago. [i] Because of the recent emphasis on capacity building and local partnerships, many of these freshly-minted organizations are locally-run NGOs that have been created in post-disaster situations. A case study from Eastern Democratic of the Congo (DRC) will be used to illustrate how strengthening professional standards will ensure that new NGOs uphold the principles of humanitarianism and strengthen public perception of NGO effectiveness.

Efforts have been made in the past 10 years to professionalize the field of humanitarian engagement;[ii] [iii] [iv] [v] an undertaking driven by the desire to limit adverse impacts of aid while increasing the positive impacts through creating a baseline set of principles that all organizations can adhere to. The need for better practices is becoming ever more pressing; not only has the number of NGOs increased exponentially in the past 60 years, but the number of disasters (both natural and man-made) is rising. [vi] The amount of funding available for humanitarian response has also skyrocketed, ensuring that the number of new NGOs will continue to rise in the future.

Sexual Violence and the Conflict in Eastern Congo

In 1993, militias involved in the Rwandan genocide began flooding into Eastern Congo. Destabilized by an influx of refugees and combatants from the regional conflict, DRC joined in the fighting with the Congolese national army and local militia groups. Violence, largely directed against civilians, afflicted the region for the next 20 years. One of the most widespread and disturbing products of this violence was systematic and brutal sexual violence against women in this region. In 2007, John Holmes, the UN Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs said, “The sexual violence in Congo is the worst in the world. The sheer numbers, the wholesale brutality, the culture of impunity — it’s appalling.”[vii]

In response to the increasingly high profile of sexual violence in the Congo, more and more funding is being allocated to international NGOs (INGOs) in the region to respond this crisis. Tied to much of that funding is the requirement that INGOs form local partnerships and work with local NGOs or community-based organizations (CBOs) to address the region’s problems. As might be expected, however, there were few functioning local NGOs in Eastern DRC during the conflict, and none that had experience working with survivors of sexual violence in rural areas, where these services are most needed.

Case study: Good Intentions Aren’t Enough

A well-established INGO, partly in response to donor pressure and partly out of an internal desire to collaborate better with the community, sought out local partners to run sexual violence services during its response in Eastern Congo in 2006. Without exception, the local NGOs were run by men who had little or no medical or public health training. These local NGOs were not pre-existing institutions but had formed in response to a call for grant applications by the INGO.

After roughly a year of partnership with these new local organizations, the country director of the INGO had the sense that some directors of the local institutions were genuinely dedicated to the treatment of sexual violence while others were very much “in it for the money.” Focus groups conducted by the INGO in the summer of 2007 revealed that many women who had sought services at local organizations were extremely frustrated with the fact that men were running sexual violence interventions. In worst-case scenarios, some women had actually been harassed and humiliated by local staff while seeking services. Many of the promised programs, such as income-generation training, had not yet gotten underway due to a poor understanding of the community needs and capabilities. For instance, sewing machines intended to be used to train women as seamstresses lay covered in dust at a local NGO’s office due to lack of coordination and support from the INGO.

Sexual violence survivors were growing increasingly mistrustful of all NGOs and were angry at not receiving any of the programs or support from local organizations that they had been promised. The directors at the INGO were upset because the local partners did not uphold the international standards it took for granted, while the local NGOs felt the international organization had not fulfilled its promises for training and funding.

Cultivating Professionalism within Partnerships

While this is just one example of many, it illustrates a valid point. In post-disaster settings, NGOs often beget NGOs. But this proliferation can be extremely haphazard, to the point of being detrimental to the local community. In these cases, the headlong rush to create community capacity must be tempered with good sense, and harmony must be created between local context and international expectations. Taking time to undergo mutual training for partner organizations will prevent huge wastes of money, time and community trust in the long term.

A basic set of guidelines could be created that would be applicable across multiple organizations, and could be informative even outside of the post-disaster arena. These guidelines should be created in a way such that both the funder and fundee can understand the citeria for partnership. The creation of such standards would entail the same challenges faced by all attempts at pan-organizational principles, such as the Sphere Standards[viii] and the Principles of Conduct in Disaster Response Programs published by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement[ix], namely contending with the fierce independence of many NGOs and generalizing enough to apply across different sectors and diverse political, social and geographic environments.

Such guidelines could, however, give NGOs justification for stepping back from creating hasty partnerships under funding pressure. Having to go through a brief but substantive review would give the funding NGO time to consider before rushing into a joint venture that might ultimately be unproductive, and it should give the recipient NGO time to make its expectations of the funder explicit.

Embedded into the criterion of who to build partnerships with is a question of how to define professionalism (i.e. what defines a “good” NGO). Humanitarian principles are “devised to guide the work of relief agencies in conflict”[x] and have long provided the minimum criteria for effective relief work. The foundational principles of humanitarianism are those laid out by the International Committee of the Red Cross at its inception: Humanity, Neutrality and Impartiality.[xi] These all have clear relevance to work in post-conflict situations, and all new partnerships should be examined to ensure they do not impede the practice of these values. Briefly, the way each principle relates to work in conflict situations is outlined below:

Humanity: Does the NGO respect the imperative of humanity: Are they “in it for the money” or do they have a true desire to help the community? Quantifying this is almost impossible. But a history of professional training in the field of question, personal experience in this field, or a history of having worked for a cause in the past are useful indicators.

Impartiality: Will the NGO provide services based on who is most in need without discrimination? Here, the composition of an NGO can sometimes provide insight. Are founding partners or staff extremely homogeneous or do they represent some of the diversity within the community?

Neutrality: In highly fractious environments, such as war or post-war settings, it is important to consider whether the grant recipient can carry out work in a way that separates the humanitarian organization from the political discourse. Who an INGO decides to fund will be taken as a reflection of the INGOs philosophy. Maintaining neutrality allows INGOs to operate in polarized environments and facilitates access to vulnerable populations.

Beyond dedication to the humanitarian ideals, NGOs need to possess the skills and capacity to implement their programs. In his article, By What Authority? The Legitimacy and Accountability of Non-governmental Organisations, Hugo Slim notes that NGO credibility comes from three main areas: having skills, having the ability to fit these skills to the current context, and proving you are good at achieving your stated goal. Briefly these can be described as competence, context and veracity.[xii]

Slim also addresses the question of how NGOs achieve legitimacy. One type of legitimacy comes from the “voice” or platform from which an organization speaks. As Slim notes, if NGOs are community-based organizations composed of the same types of people as those they serve, they speak “as” the people. If an NGO is working very closely with its recipient demographic, it speaks “with” the people. If, as many NGOs claim, people are so oppressed that they are unable to speak, then NGOs may speak “for” them. As Slim notes, this last option must be viewed with extreme caution, carrying as it does shades of paternalism or of advancing the interests of the NGO rather than its recipients.

One way for INGOs to increase their legitimacy is through creating partnerships with local groups. This helps an INGO to claim it is speaking “with” rather than “for” the people. In return for collaboration with these organizations, INGOs bring local NGOs more funding and the opportunity for greater visibility. However, if the administrators of a local NGO do not include anyone from the recipient demographic, this legitimacy is compromised (as in the case of all-male administrators of an NGO providing sexual violence services to women). Table 1. outlines questions that funders and recipients should review together before entering into collaboration. The relevant professional principles are outlined on the right.

Table 1 (Kelly)

Table 1. is only an example of how guidelines could be created, founded on central tenets of humanitarianism and professionalism, to ensure both funders and fundees are able to give appropriate services in post-conflict situations. Were a list like this to be created, it should be the product of collaboration between smaller local NGOs and large international organizations. The very process of going through these questions should serve the function of making expectations explicit and of emphasizing the gravity of the responsibility to serve beneficiaries.

This is not to imply that all NGOs who apply for funding will be expected to perfectly meet these criteria. Instead, this process will help both local and international institutions to identify their weaknesses and to improve before programs begin. Partner organizations should use this process as an opportunity to train each other. The funder and fundee can walk through these issues, discussing hypothetical situations or simple case studies to identify pitfalls or ethical dilemmas which may arise in practice.

Asking straightforward questions about standards and expectations would have helped prevent the lack of competence that occurred on the part of the both the funder and fundee in the DRC case study. Considering the issues outlined above ahead of time will increase the sustainability of partnerships, strengthen the competence and accountability of partner organizations to each other, and prevent the community’s loss of trust in NGOs.

Accountability within Partnerships

An important element of maintaining trust and competence within partnerships is building accountability between partnering NGOs. Many publications and reports are published by civil society organizations or working groups created specifically to address the question of accountability in the humanitarian field, such as the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP) and the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) and AccountAbility. Much of this work, however, looks at improving accountability between NGOs and their beneficiaries or funders, not their implementing partners. Nonetheless, there are still some valuable concepts that can inform the current discussion.

In their article, “Accountability in Development Aid: Meeting Responsibilities, Measuring Performance”[xiii], Cronin and O’Regan note that there are four main stages of accountability, the first of which is agreement on clear roles and responsibilities of the organization with the compliance to agreed standards. The recommendations outlined in this paper serve to facilitate this step in the accountability process by purposefully outlining expectations between partnering organizations. The steps for vocalizing responsibilities are also outlined and serve as an important basis for the first step in determining accountability.

In its report “Reinventing accountability for the 21st century” REF, the NGO AccountAbility notes that non-profits, unlike governments, lack a clearly defined basis to which they can be held accountable. They state that NGOs are, however, held to the “perform or perish” principle: if they do not deliver the promised services, they will loose their financial support base as well as prestige in their networked relationships and public profiles. The Keystone Method is an initiative based at AccountAbility that seeks to develop more effective approaches to civil society accountability by requiring civil society organizations to include the opinions of service recipients in their public reports.

This approach helps beneficiaries to critique programs by collecting their feedback once services are rendered. However, since it is a retroactive critique, the feedback does not help to change the way programs and partnerships are first setup. The guidelines given here can provide a more stable and productive platform for service provision by ensuring programmatic partners understand their respective roles and capabilities.

The ALNAP report titled “Mapping Accountability in Humanitarian Assistance” REF notes that accountability is driven by three sources: external pressure, internal strategy and adherence to core organizational values. Internal strategy is of most relevance to this discussion and refers to improving accountability in order to improve organizational effectiveness. For instance, accountability can be seen as a strategic management tool to improve performance and cost effectiveness. Certainly, this paper supports this finding. Improving accountability between partners and following the criterion for partnership outlined here is aimed at improving performance through defining the roles and responsibilities each organization will be held to.

Much of the literature around accountability in the humanitarian field focuses around non-profits’ ability to account for their performance to beneficiaries and funders. However, some of the concepts from the literature can still be valuable in this discussion of accountability between implementing partners. The guidelines outlined in this paper serve as a way to improve organizational effectiveness by clearly defining responsibilities, roles and expectations between partners.


There are a number of valid arguments to be made against such a project, even apart from those voiced above in the discussion of standardization of humanitarianism. Going through this process could be called inefficient, bureaucratic, and even paternalistic since a power differential could easily exist between international and local players. However, if done correctly, the evaluation could and should avoid these pitfalls. The criterion could be checked off relatively quickly (e.g. in a series of meeting of during a site visit) and the time spent considering the questions should be looked at as a time for discussion and mutual training.

The ways partnerships are established between international and local NGOs needs to change, and more thought needs to go into the way local partnerships are created, maintained and monitored. Is this merely codifying common sense? The answer is probably “yes,” as is the case with many good guidelines. However, in the clouded theater of crisis, it is valuable to have a clear thought process already articulated and ready for local adaptation.

The chaos during disaster and pressure from donors that many humanitarian organizations feel during a response cannot be overemphasized. Standards that might seem obvious in times of calm may fall by the wayside during an enthusiastic attempt to get programs underway. It is for this reason that guidelines and standards must be established in times of calm, when consensus and considered decisions can be reached by experienced professionals.

The author gratefully acknowledges the valuable comments of Dr. Jennifer Leaning in preparing this manuscript.

[i] Paul, J A. (2000) “NGOs and Global Policy-making,” Global Policy Forum. (accessed on 22 April 2009).

[ii] Overseas Development Institute, “Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief,” Relief and Rehabilitation Network (RRN), Network Paper 7.

[iii] Levine, I. (1997) “Promoting Human Rights Principles: The Case of Southern Sudan,” RRN, Network Paper 21.

[iv] Slim, H. (2003) “A call to Alms: Humanitarian Action and the Art of War,” Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.

[v] Callamard, A. (2003) “The HAP and Humanitarian Accountability,” Humanitarian Exchange Magazine, 23.

[vi] Lindenberg, M., Bryant C. (2001) Going Global: Transforming Relief and Development NGOs. Bloomfield: Kumarian Press, 65-99.

[vii] Gettleman, J. (2007) “Rape Epidemic Raises Trauma of Congo War,” New York Times.

[viii] The Sphere Project (2004) “Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response,” (accessed on 21 April 2009).

[ix] International Committee of the Red Cross, “Code of Conduct. Principles of Conduct for The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Response Programs,” (accessed on 21 April 2009).

[x] Macrae, J. (2002) “The new humanitarianisms: A review of trends in global humanitarian action,” HPG report 11, London: Overseas Development Institute.

[xi] Pictet, J. (1979) “Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross,” (accessed on 6 January 2008).

[xii]Slim, H. (2002) “By What Authority? The Legitimacy and Accountability of Non-governmental Organizations,” Oxford Brookes University, (accessed on 21 April 2009).

[xiii] Cronin, D., O’Regan, J. (2002) “Accountability in Development Aid: Meeting Responsibilities, Measuring Performance: A Research Report for Comhlamh,” Comhlamh Aid Issues Group, Dublin. (accessed on 21 April 2009).

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