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date: 24 March 2019

Transboundary Disasters and Nongovernmental Organizations

Summary and Keywords

In an increasingly interconnected world, the impacts of disasters and subsequent disaster relief and response operations are often no longer confined to directly affected communities, regions, or countries. Traditional geographical, sectoral, and policy-related boundaries are progressively becoming more blurred, and increasingly, there are more transboundary disasters—disasters that cross geographical, political, and functional boundaries and that affect multiple policy domains. Examples of transboundary disasters include the 2004 and 2011 tsunamis, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and the Ebola outbreak. Responses to transboundary disasters typically require the concerted efforts of various governments, intergovernmental organizations, private entities, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working together. Although NGOs have been key responders, not enough attention has been paid to their role amid the constellation of various actors responding to transboundary disasters. There are many different types of NGOs, including those that have been less visible, such as diaspora NGOs, that aid in transboundary disasters. NGO assistance in transboundary disasters assumes various forms, ranging from disaster relief in the form of medical assistance, food, water, and supplies to aid affected populations for rebuilding and reconstruction in disaster-affected areas. NGOs also play a critical role in responding to transboundary disasters by aiding displaced populations in host communities and providing an array of services—from helping find accommodations and schools to providing social support and case management services. While NGOs can be effective and trustworthy transnational players in transboundary disasters, effectively bringing in resources, their participation also has its challenges and limitations. To counter these challenges, transboundary management coordination needs to be increased, along with building capacities of transnational and local civil society organizations. The power of diaspora NGOs can also be harnessed more effectively in disaster response and recovery.

Keywords: transboundary disasters, nongovernmental organizations, transnationality, diaspora nongovernmental organizations, host communities, local civil society organizations, globalization

Transboundary Disasters

While the responses to most disasters may begin at the local level, crises or disasters often have impacts and repercussions beyond regional or state boundaries. For instance, physical disruptions to supply chains around the world ensued following the 2011 Tohuku earthquake in Japan; psycho-social ramifications included fears of the spread of nuclear radiation within Japan and in neighboring Asian countries, as well as in states along the Pacific coast in the United States. The 2010 Haiti earthquake and the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico led to the displacement of large numbers of people to Florida and to other states in the United States. Scholarly research on transboundary crises and disasters has grown over the years (Ansell, Boin, & Keller, 2010; Boin, 2009; Boin & Rhinard, 2008; Quarantelli, Boin, & Lagadec, 2018). However, there is a need for better understandings of the linkages between disasters and their transnational and transboundary effects, including the involvement of transnational actors such as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)1 in disaster response and recovery Despite the importance of the “third” sector,2 the roles of nongovernmental organizations in disaster mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery are not well documented or understood (Robinson & Murphy, 2013), particularly with respect to transboundary disasters.

To take a step towards addressing these gaps, the analysis of these issues is presented in three parts. The first part presents several theoretical constructs and definitions. The second part discusses the various types of NGOs that play a role in transboundary disasters and the key ways in which they respond to and assist in these events. The third part of the discussion focuses on the advantages that NGOs have as transnational actors as well as some of the challenges they face to evaluate their impacts on transboundary disasters. The article ends with concluding comments and a set of recommendations to improve the management of NGOs in transboundary disasters.

Theoretical Constructs and Definitions

While the terms transboundary crisis and transboundary disaster have been used interchangeably at times (Boin & Rhinard, 2008), there are distinctions that have been drawn by several scholars between a crisis and a disaster (Birkland, 2006; Bissell, 2013; Boin & Rhinard, 2008; Perry & Quarantelli, 2005; Quarantelli, 2006). Boin and Rhinard (2008) defined a crisis as “a threat to core values or life-sustaining systems, which requires an urgent response under conditions of deep uncertainty,” while they define a disaster as a “crisis with a bad ending” (p. 3). Others distinguish crisis and disasters by their cause. Using distinctions made by Faulkner (2001), Birkland (2006) posits that a disaster is a result of “induced natural phenomena or external human action,” while a crisis is “induced by the actions or inactions of an organization” (pp. 2–3). Since the discussion that follows will include the transboundary ramifications of induced natural phenomena and external human action, it will revolve primarily around disasters (rather than crises) with transboundary risks and impacts. For that purpose, the term transboundary disaster will be employed in this article.

The term transboundary disasters as utilized in this discussion relies on the definitions and understandings of trans-system social ruptures (TSSRs) (Quarantelli, Lagadec, & Boin, 2007; Quarantelli, Boin, & Lagadec, 2018; Wachtendorf, 2000, 2004) and transboundary crises (Ansell et al., 2010; Boin, 2009; Boin & Rhinard, 2008). TSSRs have been defined as events that go beyond societal boundaries and disrupt multiple social systems. They are seen as spreading quickly, having no initial clear point of origin, as not lending themselves to any local-level solutions as they impact a large number of people, and having impacts that extend across national political boundaries (Quarantelli et al., 2007, pp. 25–27). Transboundary crises have been defined as crises that cross functional, geographical, political, and other boundaries (Ansell et al., 2010; Boin, 2009; Boin & Rhinard, 2008; Quarantelli et al., 2018) and the same definition is used here for transboundary disasters (see Table 1). Examples of transboundary disasters that cross functional boundaries are those that cross systems that are interdependent critical infrastructures such as power, transportation, and water. For instance, power outages during Hurricane Irma, in September 2017, led to fuel shortages and affected those who were evacuating. Power outages also disrupted water supplies as water pumps could not function without power. Geographical and political boundaries are also affected by transboundary disasters. Examples of these are the volcanic ash clouds in Europe that originated from a volcano in Iceland but affected the airspace of numerous European countries, including Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Scotland, and northern England. Other examples are disasters that have led to population displacement and migration, such as after Hurricane Katrina when large numbers of evacuees dispersed to various locations in the United States. As noted in the section “Transboundary disasters,” devastation caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in the Caribbean and Puerto Rico led to large numbers of displaced evacuees who came to Florida and other states. Given the movement of people across borders, transnationalism and translocality are relevant to the discussion and are defined along with transboundary disasters and trans-system ruptures in Box 1.

As many scholars have successfully argued (Goldin & Mariathasan, 2014; Lagadec, 2009), increasing interconnectivity and globalization have meant that governments cannot isolate themselves from the systemic risks or threats that result from transboundary disasters. Many states, particularly those with fragile governance systems, are unable to cope with disasters on their own. Given their complexity, transboundary disasters often require a concerted response by a multitude of actors at local, national, and international levels (Boin, Rhinard, & Ekengren, 2014; Boin, Busuioc, & Groenleer, 2014). It also requires that the various organizations at these levels work across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. While intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) (Guadagno & Quesada, 2013) play pivotal roles in responding to transboundary disasters, the role of NGOs in disaster response has also continued to grow.

Table 1. Definitions

Trans-System Ruptures (TSSRs)

TSSRs are events that go beyond societal boundaries and disrupt multiple social systems. They spread quickly, having no initial clear point of origin; they do not lend themselves to any local-level solution, as they impact a large number of people; and they have impacts that extend across national political boundaries (Quarantelli, 2006, pp. 25–27).

Transboundary Crises/Disasters

Transboundary crises have been defined as crises that cross functional, geographical, political, and other boundaries (Ansell, Boin, & Keller, 2010; Boin, 2009; Boin & Ekengren, 2009; Boin & Rhinard, 2008; Quarantelli, Boin, & Lagadec, 2018)


Transnationalism, as defined by Vertovec (1999) refers to the “multiple ties and interactions linking people or institutions across the borders of nation-states” (p. 447), and serves as an umbrella concept for globally transformative processes.


Describes forms of local-local connections and relations and is also described as grounded or rooted transnationalism (Brickell & Datta, 2012).

Nongovernmental Organizations in Transboundary Disasters

A fair amount of scholarly attention has been devoted to the response and management of transboundary crises by nation-states and intergovernmental organizations such as the European Union (Boin & Ekengren, 2009; Boin & Rhinard 2008; Boin, Rhinard, & Ekengren, 2014). Within the literature on transboundary crises, however, less attention has been focused on the role of NGOs, particularly TNGOs and their networks; yet these organizations are often uniquely positioned to deal with transboundary crises and disasters, and their activities in these disasters have been growing.

One major reason underlying the increasing participation of NGOs in transboundary disasters has been the remarkable growth overall, in the number of NGOs, particularly international NGOs (INGOs) (Salamon, 1994; Weiss, Seyle, & Coolidge, 2013). While they are engaged in myriad activities, NGOs have historically always played an important role in disaster response and recovery (Eikenberry, Arroyave, & Cooper, 2007; Flatt & Stys, 2013; Jenkins, Lambeth, Mosby, & Van Brown, 2015; Simo & Bies, 2007; Stys, 2011). They have mobilized to take care of the needs of affected populations well before the adoption of disaster-management legislation and prior to the creation of government units to implement disaster response activities. Currently there are NGOs of numerous sizes and with different missions that play roles in transboundary disasters.

Transnational NGOs (TNGOs)

The most prominent NGOs that respond to transboundary disasters are the large and well-established transnational NGOs, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Rescue Committee (IRC), CARE International, Oxfam, Save the Children, Action Aid, Habitat for Humanity, and numerous others. While a number of TNGOs have their headquarters in the United States or Europe, they have extensive transnational networks and branches in numerous countries. They also often have partner organizations that are registered as local NGOs in other countries. TNGOs typically have extensive connections with international institutions, including the United Nations and its various agencies, and with intergovernmental organizations such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM). A large percentage of TNGOs are based in the northern hemisphere and are more well-endowed with resources, while there are a greater percentage of smaller, indigenous NGOs and TNGOs in the South that have historically depended on northern faith-based and other NGOs for support. The dependence of southern TNGOs on their northern counterparts has led to negative perceptions of northern TNGOs and has been a significant issue in humanitarian assistance, leading to tensions in relations between northern and southern TNGOs (Ferris, 2005); these tensions have also played out in transboundary disasters.

Digitally Enabled TNGOs

While most TNGOs are brick and mortar institutions, in the last 5 to 10 years, a number of digitally enabled TNGOs have been founded, such as Ushahidi and Avaaz, that utilize digital platforms to assist in disasters in different countries. For instance, Ushahidi assists in crisis response by deploying crisis mapping and crowd sourcing software that enables the collection of information reports from victims and first-responders via SMS (short message service, or text), email, web app, and Twitter. Ushahidi helps develop reports, organize rapid response, and document ongoing changes in the field with real-time mapping and visualization tools. These tools were used for real-time crisis mapping to assist first responders following the 2010 Haiti earthquake (Morrow, Mock, Papendieck, & Kocmich, 2011). The Ushahidi platform was also deployed after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal to use crisis mapping to match the needs of earthquake survivors with ongoing relief efforts being conducted by government groups and NGOs. By using reports collected by various groups providing aid via the Ushahidi platform, organizations could see what was happening on the ground as it was unfolding and could map what kind of relief was being provided at different times and where it was provided (Sinha, 2015).

Faith-Based NGOs

While there is no formal definition, faith-based organizations (FBOs) “are characterized by having one or more of the following: affiliation with a religious body; a mission statement with explicit reference to religious values; financial support from religious sources; and/or a governance structure where selection of board members or staff is based on religious beliefs or affiliation and/or decision-making processes based on religious values” (Ferris, 2005 p. 312).

There are a number of faith-based NGOs that aid in disasters: large transnational faith-based NGOs such as Catholic Charities, American Jewish World Services, the Salvation Army, and Mercy Corps, plus transnational confederations of NGOs such as Caritas Internationalis. As Ferris noted, faith-based organizations have different motivations from secular humanitarian organizations. On the global stage, faith-based TNGOs play a unique role in international humanitarian assistance because, while they are rooted in local communities, even in the most remote parts of every country, they have a global reach (Ferris, 2005, p. 325).

Diaspora-Led NGOs

While they are often overlooked, there are smaller NGOs such as diaspora-led organizations that can play a critical role in aiding in transboundary disasters (Esnard & Sapat, 2011; Sapat & Esnard, 2012). Diasporas, by definition, are “individuals and members or networks, associations and communities, who have left their country of origin, but maintain links with their homelands” (Perruchoud & Redpath, 2011, p. 28). They are quintessentially viewed as transmigrants, with multiple and constant interconnections across international borders (Schiller, Basch, & Blanc-Szanton, 1995, p. 48). Diasporas are also defined by deep connections to their homeland rather than by their status or the length of time their members have spent in a host country (Fagen et al., 2009). Given the commitment of diasporas to their home and host countries, diaspora NGOs have members who “establish trans-state networks that reflect complex relationships among the diasporas, their host countries, their homelands, and international actors” (Sheffer, 2003, pp. 9–10). These networks enable diaspora NGOs to be active across the boundaries of different policy systems and policy regimes (Sapat & Esnard, 2016), and to function as transnational actors with formal and informal networks crossing geographical and political boundaries. While diaspora NGOs engage in numerous transboundary activities in their home countries, they mobilize even more actively during disasters. They provide humanitarian, financial, and social support to affected communities and are often among the first responders in natural or man-made disasters as well as helping with systemic development challenges (UNICEF USA, 2017) that help reduce vulnerability to disasters. Box 1 presents a short synopsis of the role played by Haitian diaspora NGOs after the 2010 earthquake, which illustrates the ways in which diaspora NGOs participate in transboundary disasters.

Coordinating/Umbrella NGOs

Among the constellation of different types of NGOs, coordinating or umbrella organizations can be particularly important in aiding in transboundary disasters. Umbrella NGOs have been defined as “a coalition of NGOs operating in different fields, in a more formal, structured arrangement than a network” (Willetts, 2002). They can encompass a wide variety of NGOs in terms of size and sometimes, in scope. Examples of such organizations include the International Council for Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), InterAction, and the World Conservation Union. There are also a number of religious umbrella organizations such as the Universal Peace Foundation and the Consultative Council of Jewish NGOs. Umbrella organizations facilitate better coordination among NGOs from different countries (ICVA, 2017) and often use their global connections and influence with international and intergovernmental institutions to leverage change in nation-states (Mundy & Murphy, 2001, p. 85).

NGO Activities in Transboundary Disasters

NGOs help in myriad ways following transboundary disasters; they help distribute food and clothing, provide medical care and counseling to affected communities, and help with emergency and temporary shelter needs, as well as in the reconstruction of permanent housing (Sapat, 2017). As key civil society organizations, NGOs have always been in the forefront of disaster response and recovery, more so in some countries than others, assisting in key disasters both formally and informally. To formally acknowledge their role, they have been recognized as official actors in emergency response and management, both nationally and internationally. The American Red Cross, for instance, has been accorded a federally designated support role in the United States. At the international level, the role of NGOs is recognized officially within the UN Charter, in Article 71 (Weiss et al., 2013, p. 13). Approximately 4,500 NGOs, including numerous umbrella organizations, have been accorded consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations. Consultative status allows NGOs access not only to the ECOSOC, but also to its many subsidiary bodies, various human rights mechanisms, and special events organized by the President of the General Assembly. NGOs are also linked to the United Nations via the NGO Relations Section of the UN Department of Public Information. Approximately 1,400 NGOs are associated with the UN through this NGO Relations Section, supporting the UN’s efforts on myriad social and development initiatives, some of which help mitigate the impact of disasters, via measures such as poverty reduction and female empowerment (United Nations, 2018).

With respect to transboundary disasters, while participation can take many forms, there are two key ways in which NGOs assist in transboundary disasters. They work across borders directly as first responders in disaster-affected communities, and they assist evacuees and displaced populations in host communities.

Working Across Geographical Borders

NGOs work as transnational actors by providing international humanitarian assistance in areas hit by disasters. While the direct impacts of the hazard event that led to the disaster may be local, there can be broader impacts and the extent of the impact and devastation can spur and mobilize humanitarian organizations in other countries to provide assistance. For instance, INGOs, such as Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) or the Red Cross, who specialize in medical humanitarian assistance, are among the first transnational actors who arrive and aid in disasters. As Waugh (2017, p. 178) pointed out, “the international community generally responds to catastrophic disasters anywhere in the world, particularly when they occur in nations that lack the economic and administrative capacities to respond effectively and recover quickly without aid.” Numerous INGOs ranging from well-established organizations such as the International Rescue Committee and the Red Cross to large faith-based organizations such as Catholic Charities and Church World Services already have vibrant and well-functioning transnational networks operating in several countries, which enables them to engage in mitigation and preparedness activities, along with aiding in disaster relief and response. For instance, Habitat for Humanity International incorporates a number of initiatives to reduce disaster risks and vulnerabilities in disaster-prone regions. Habitat undertakes various activities such as disseminating disaster preparedness materials; helping community groups identify hazards, vulnerabilities, assets, and capacities in their communities; helping devise risk management plans that include early warning systems and evacuation plans; and helping to build organizational capacity to undertake initiatives that contribute to disaster mitigation and risk reduction (Habit for Humanity, 2018). In Nepal, the British Red Cross has been working on a disaster preparedness program that identifies local hazards, provides disaster education, complements the training of emergency responders, and broadcasts disaster warnings since 2012 (Flores, 2015).

Aiding Displaced Survivors in Host Communities

Apart from working as transnational first responders, NGOs play a critical role when the transboundary impacts of disasters lead to evacuation or displacement. The need for NGO help has increased with the growing frequency and scale of disasters. Displacement by disasters has been on the rise. Reports on displacement in 2015 found that an average of 26.4 million people per year are displaced due to disasters (IDMC, 2015, p. 8). Between July and September 2017, more than 8 million people were displaced by disasters (IDMC, 2017, p. 6). There were a total of 18.8 million new displacements associated with disasters in 2018 (IDMC, 2018, p. v). Displacement leads to several challenges ranging from those whose lives and livelihoods have been disrupted to the housing, employment, and other concerns in host communities to which populations evacuate or migrate. Temporary evacuation may turn into more prolonged and protracted displacement, given the uncertainties that arise following disaster and problems with temporary and permanent shelter and housing (Esnard & Sapat, 2014; Sapat & Esnard, 2016). NGOs assist evacuees and those displaced and provide a gamut of services ranging from search and rescue to helping survivors evacuate safely to other locales. NGOs in host communities often help resettle those who are in need of help in finding temporary shelter and housing. They assist in numerous other ways such as providing school supplies to children, assisting in distributing clothing, medical supplies, and essential items, helping government agencies place orphaned children in foster homes, and meeting numerous other unmet needs. NGOs also help repair damaged houses, rebuild homes, help displaced survivors fill out applications for assistance, provide medical and legal help, support education needs, and advocate for policy changes for survivors and displaced populations (Esnard & Sapat, 2014).

NGO Advantages in Transboundary Disasters

NGOs, particularly TNGOs, have several advantages in addressing transboundary disasters, due to their effectiveness and efficiency, their trustworthiness and legitimacy, and their resources and ability to raise funds.

Efficiency and Flexibility

As noted by Ansell et al. (2010), to respond to transboundary disasters, actors and their networks must “operate robustly across boundaries and at different scales, . . . place a premium on the nimbleness and adaptiveness of institutions, . . . [and] be capable of rapid customization of their activity”; and “transboundary crises demand response organizations that can be robust and flexible (p. 204).” While they are not governments, there are a number of TNGOs that have well-established transnational networks in place and operate at different levels of government and across boundaries. Moreover, as nonstate actors, they have greater flexibility in responding to these disasters as their organizations tend to be more decentralized (Coppola, 2011; Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2014). They are often more nimble and able to take more efficient courses of action than bureaucracies of states can attain (Weiss et al., 2013, p. 5).

Because of their nonprofit orientation, NGOs are also seen as being more mission-driven and as being philosophically different from the public and private sectors (Hopkins, 2011). They are also viewed as being closer to the people (Clark, 1991; Paul & Israel, 1991) and rooted in ideas shaped by public service, charity, philanthropy, and volunteerism (Ott, 2001). As noted earlier, a number of NGOs have already established an international presence and have developed strong local institutional partnerships and a capacity to provide immediate and highly effective disaster response services (Haddow et al., 2014).

Due to their distinct status, TNGOs are often the go-to institutions and partners for international and other organizations in the international humanitarian assistance community, who value them for their abilities to address needs with a diverse range of skills and supplies (Haddow et al., 2014). TNGOs often fill critical response gaps left by traditional and domestic emergency management organizations that are overwhelmed by a disaster, leading to the need for transboundary actors to play a role in relief and response.

Trustworthiness and Legitimacy

To the extent that they are viewed as nonpolitical and neutral third-party providers, NGOs are viewed more favorably by donors, intergovernmental organizations, and even by governments as partners in administering and disbursing disaster aid money. They are often seen are being more credible, trustworthy, and honest than for-profit firms (Dolšak, Parr, & Prakash, 2018) or even domestic government agencies, particularly in countries where corruption is widely prevalent or in states marred by conflict or weak governance. They tend to be valued as virtuous and principled actors, often using their transnational networks to advocate for the policies that benefit people directly (Keck & Sikkink, 1998). Most NGOs, and particularly large transnational NGOs, are valued for distributing aid in response to humanitarian needs during disasters and are seen as being less susceptible to political imperatives (Büthe, Major, & Souza, 2012) as they are not subject to the same political pressures and electoral incentives that affect governments in disaster-affected regions.

A number of NGOs have also built their reputations as trustworthy transboundary partners in disasters because of their willingness to work across sectoral, political, and policy boundaries to serve communities affected by disasters. Those that maintain long-term commitments and unwavering dedication to communities they serve, tend to be supported with even greater levels of trust. For instance, the Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), an FBO that has responded to disasters in different areas of the United States and Canada, is viewed as a trusted and credible organization that works to meet unmet needs of communities and by maintaining downward accountability to those they serve (see Box 2).


Given the status of NGOs as neutral third-parties and due to their philanthropic work, their legitimacy and credibility to donors as authentic humanitarian assistance providers is increased. Since they are viewed favorably by donors, they have higher fund-raising capacities and can bring in the resources to address the needs of victims (Haddow et al., 2014, p. 283) and survivors of transboundary disasters. Numerous transnational NGOs such as the Save the Children, the Red Cross societies, Mercy Corps, Americares, World Vision, and others demonstrate robust fund-raising capabilities. Once they gain funding and serve as key players in transboundary disasters, their legitimacy as reliable and credible partners in aid delivery grows, and they continue to raise more funding due to their status and image as nonpolitical philanthropic actors, and due to their capacity to deliver. Hence, major international organizations, major corporations, and even individual donors often prefer providing financial support to NGOs rather than to other actors such as local and national governments. Governments also prefer providing aid for transboundary disasters to NGOs for delivery of goods and services rather than doing the same work using their own staff and resources. Resource infusions by donor nonprofit foundations have also grown, playing a larger role at times than that of international intergovernmental organizations. For instance, resources for public health coming from the Gates Foundation have become more significant than those from the World Health Organization (Weiss et al., 2013, p. 12). While a large portion of funding received by NGOs is targeted toward economic development rather than disaster response, the impacts of funding for economic development also aids in disaster risk reduction and the mitigation of transboundary disasters by decreasing vulnerabilities and improving overall health and quality of life.

Challenges of NGO Involvement in Transboundary Disasters

While TNGOs and other NGOs can be critically important players in providing humanitarian assistance and resources during transboundary disasters, they may, unintentionally or intentionally, negatively impact mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery activities.

Temporal Dimensions of NGO Involvement

While the ability of NGOs, particularly some TNGOs, to respond to transnational disasters swiftly and in a timely manner is a plus, NGOs are often subject to time pressures that are not necessarily in sync with recipient needs. For instance, time pressures by donors to implement projects over a finite period of time can lead to the marginalization of local needs and preferences. When NGO funding dries up or when another disaster beckons, NGOs may move on, leaving projects that are sometimes unfinished or that cannot be managed properly by recipients or by local NGOs who may lack the requisite capacity or resources. For instance, after the earthquake in Haiti, international NGOs began reaching the end of their budgets when promised pledged amounts by donor countries did not materialize (Beaubien, 2013). As a result, some TNGOs began abruptly ending their projects, even abandoning full latrines in tent camps amidst the cholera epidemic (Arroyo, 2014, p. 112; Patinet, 2011).

Time pressures can also result in the marginalization of local participation and preferences. For example, Pyles (2011) noted that during an external NGO’s involvement in a community rebuilding and participatory engagement initiative after Katrina, the need for quick action prevented deeper, sustainable, and meaningful engagement with the community; she also pointed out, that these time pressures are indicative of the “larger value system of neoliberalism that constantly strives to expand into new markets and to do its work with results-driven efficiency” (p.176). The lack of time can be a key challenge in coordinating community-based activities (Hayles, 2010) and can attenuate long-term goals of reducing disaster risk and achieving sustainable outcomes. The transitional roles of TNGOs after a disaster and their dependency on short-term aid surges can limit sustainable aid solutions and their abilities to engage or utilize local community resources and expertise (Sapat, Esnard, & Kolpakov, 2017).

Lack of Oversight and Coordination

A key challenge in transboundary disasters is organizing responses that include coordinating large numbers of actors and inter-sectoral coordination between government and the private and nonprofit sectors. Delimiting transboundary disasters is difficult, as is coordinating large and growing numbers of actors (Ansell et al., 2010). The problem may be compounded because NGOs as nonstate actors, are not subject to the same forms of accountability as are government institutions and agencies. The lack of oversight of NGO involvement in transboundary disasters, particularly in countries where fragile governance systems prevail, can lead to problems ranging from ineffective coordination to unsuccessful outcomes for response and recovery. The sheer number of TNGOs in some cases can overwhelm weakened domestic governance systems that were already fragile and overwhelmed in disaster-affected locales. The lack of systematic accountability mechanisms in these countries may further attenuate effective coordination and oversight of both domestic and transnational NGOs.

For example, after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, there were numerous TNGOs of various sizes, budgets, ambitions, and commitment; local governments in countries such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India, who were affected by the tsunami found it difficult to monitor and coordinate their actions (Boano, 2009; Harris, 2006). Similarly, after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, there were a vast number of NGOs who were already in the country; numerous NGOs also came in to provide aid, leading some to dub the country as the “NGO Republic” (Klarreich & Polman, 2012). However, when NGOs provided services, such as healthcare, for which the government is responsible, government officials had no way to monitor or coordinate the NGOs’ work (Farmer, 2011). Most of the NGOs in Haiti were also unregistered, making it even more difficult for any form of government regulation or coordination (Farmer, 2011).

Apart from problems with coordination, lack of oversight can lead to egregious violations of humanitarian principles. Case in point is the Oxfam scandal that surfaced in February 2018, in Haiti. Oxfam officials in Haiti have been accused of sexually abusing teenage volunteers, employing aid workers who hired prostitutes, and trading humanitarian aid for sex (Dolšak et al., 2018). This followed allegations of violations by other TNGOs, such as the Red Cross, linked to the misuse of funds after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Despite receiving millions of dollars in funding after the earthquake and claiming to have provided homes to over 130,000 people, media investigations revealed that the Red Cross built only a handful of homes (Elliot, ProPublica, & Sullivan, 2015).

Effectiveness and Sustainability of Outcomes

Transboundary disasters are particularly difficult to navigate as they require numerous actors working together in networks to be able to cross boundaries between units, organizations, sectors, professions, and political jurisdictions, and also coordinate with each other (Boin et al., 2014). NGOs, particularly TNGOs, are uniquely suited to cross various boundaries and work across different sectors and jurisdiction. It maybe difficult, however, for them to implement programs in a sustainable and effective manner. Some point out that their strength and capacity as global players may, in fact, detract from their ability to be effective local players. In a study of TNGOs, Balboa suggested that TNGOs suffer from a “paradox of global capacity” that leads them to fail at the local level, where they “set themselves up for failure by prioritizing certain global capacities that paradoxically grant them access to work at the local level while impeding their efforts to create lasting change there (Balboa, 2014, p. 274).” Balboa (2014) argued that TNGO prioritization of their global capacities diminishes their focus from local and bridging capacities necessary to create context-specific interventions or maneuver at the national and local policy levels. Similarly, Easterly (2002) noted that NGOs are often too busy competing for aid dollars from donors and lack the time and resources to learn about the social, cultural, and economic facets of the communities that they operate in.

Issues related to capacity and other problems have also been noted with respect to TNGO involvement in transboundary disasters (Schuller, 2012; Wroe, 2012). Some of these problems are related to the disbursement of aid to disaster-affected populations and the impact on local civil society organizations and governments. There is concern that TNGOs may serve as intermediaries and tools of neo-liberalist regimes and may encourage donor dependency. Post-disaster aid and resources dispensed via NGOs is seen as strengthening the interests and resources of donor nations instead of building local capacities (Hilhorst, 2003; Kamat, 2002, 2003; Schuller, 2012). For instance, in tracking initial aid money (approximately $2.4 billion) distributed after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, it was estimated that most of the money supported donor states and INGOs: “34% went to civil and military organizations of donor states, 30% to UN agencies and international NGOs, 29% to other NGOs and private contractors, 6% to unspecified recipients and 1% to the Haitian government” (Farmer, 2011, unpaginated).

In addition to the manner in which disaster aid money is disbursed, others have contended that the activities of many TNGOs have, in many cases, exacerbated the very crises they have been seeking to end and have weakened local political institutions and indigenous solutions (de Waal, 1997). In many settings and countries, the legitimacy of authorities is also seen as lacking, making humanitarian actors reluctant to engage with government agencies (IDMC, 2017). However, as Zanotti (2010) pointed out, the effects of international NGOs who avoid working with local governments (due to concerns about corruption and weak political institutions) are to further reduce governance capacities and responsive state institutions that could manage a national emergency. The lack of coordination with national and local government institutions and with local NGOs also has long-term implications for sustainability, as most TNGOs withdraw at some point (see section “Temporal Dimensions of NGO Involvement”), either due to a lack of funding or to move on to the next disaster; local and national governments, however, continue to deal with longer-term recovery issues. Since most local NGOs and even national governments often lack the visibility, image, and credibility of global TNGOs, they cannot effectively compete for resources and donor funding at the global scale, which further increases their dependence on TNGOs. This aid dependency tends to further attenuate local civil society and governance capacities. Lack of capacity then threatens to lead to a vicious cycle of dependency, with each successive disaster further reducing the ability of national governments to cope and further increasing the involvement of transboundary actors like TNGOs and other international institutions. Cases in point are the numerous disasters in countries like Haiti and Bangladesh, where there is continued reliance on assistance from TNGOs and intergovernmental organizations. Since donors and governments find the emergency relief phase more attractive and visible, the bulk of NGO assistance is also typically directed towards post-disaster emergency and disaster relief rather than pre-disaster mitigation or risk reduction (Shaw, 2016). For example, Klarreich and Polman (2012, unpaginated) pointed out that, after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, “Léogâne was flattened by the quake—tens of thousands of its residents died—and it quickly became a hub of NGO activity.” They also note that, even though Léogâne is located at the intersection of three rivers, none of the NGOs were willing to work on sustainable infrastructure measures such as creating a sustainable drainage system or shoring up the river bank.The outcome, as noted then, is that the numerous “projects that the NGOs did put money into will get washed away in the floods that will come” (Klarreich & Polman, 2012, unpaginated).

Culture and Customs

The impact of TNGO assistance in transboundary disasters may not lead to intended outcomes when, despite the best intentions, the TNGOs involved either do not understand or ignore local cultures, customs, and needs. For instance, in rebuilding housing, NGOs (along with other transboundary actors) often overlook or ignore community and individual preferences. While one-size-fits-all approaches toward designing housing units may be expedient and provide economies of scale, they may not provide sustainable housing solutions and may result in housing that is not functionally or culturally appropriate, is exclusionary, and often does not even get used by the beneficiaries for whom it is intended (Sapat, 2017, p. 267). Following the 2001 Gujarat earthquake and the 2004 Indian ocean tsunami, recipient satisfaction levels were higher when community participation was increased in the design, planning, siting, and rebuilding processes with NGOs, while satisfaction levels were lower with donor or contractor-driven construction in which disaster survivors (often resettled) were provided with fully constructed houses (Andrew, Arlikatti, Long, & Kendra, 2013; Barenstein, 2006; Barenstein & Iyengar, 2010; Lyons, 2009; Sapat, 2017).

NGO interventions in transboundary disasters can also affect local cultures via hiring practices and policies. For example, TNGOs may inadvertently promote an ideologically supportive transnational capitalist middle class. They tend to hire from elite cadres within affected communities, who gain from NGO jobs and resources, entrenching their own class interests and presenting barriers to local participation, thus ensuring more top-down approaches to decisions (Hearn, 2007; Schuller, 2009, p. 97). A large portion of those hired may join NGOs primarily to get higher paid jobs and benefits or increased status, and they may not be truly vested in the missions of the NGOs they work for (Hefferan, 2007; Hilhorst, 2003). Hence, it is important for external NGOs to know and work with communities over time to understand local customs and cultures, as discussed with respect to the MDS (in Box 2).

Improving NGO participation in Transboundary Disasters

To improve NGO participation and outcomes in transboundary disasters and recovery, the following set of recommendations are advanced.

Improving Transboundary Management and Coordination

The complexity and scale of transboundary disasters that involve numerous entities working with each other present daunting challenges in management and coordination. As discussed in the section “Lack of Oversight and Coordination”, the lack of coordination among NGOs can have negative outcomes for disaster response and recovery. In recognition of this problem, there has been an array of institutional mechanisms that have been developed at the international level to improve coordination among various aid organizations. These efforts include various humanitarian coordination mechanisms, guidelines, and strategies promulgated and implemented by the UN and its various agencies and initiatives, such as the UN Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA), the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

The Humanitarian Reform Agenda (HRA) that began in 2005, led to the adoption of the cluster system to improve humanitarian response and the delivery of goods and services by NGOs, the UN, the Red Cross and other intergovernmental organizations (Atlay & Labonte, 2011). The cluster approach also aimed to reduce duplication, improve organization of response systems by dividing roles and responsibilities, and increase accountability in partnerships with affected people, host governments, local authorities, local civil society, and resourcing partners. The idea behind the cluster approach is the notion that humanitarian aid is primarily provided in sectors or clusters, through a combination of different organizations including the UN and non-UN organizations such as other international aid agencies, TNGOs, local NGOs, host governments, and the private sector. There are 11 clusters designated by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), and these include water, sanitation, hygiene (WASH), logistics, nutrition, emergency shelter, camp management and coordination, health, protection, food security, emergency telecommunication, early recovery, and education (Humanitarian Response, n.d.)

Other mechanisms to improve accountability by NGOs have evolved, such as the Sphere Project, which developed the Sphere standards to provide advice on the minimum requirements for affected populations during post-disaster recovery, and the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) Alliance developed by the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) and another organization, People in Aid. The Sphere Standards were developed from the Sphere Project, which was started in 1997 and is governed by a board of NGOs and donors. The Sphere Standards are an internationally recognized set of common principles, widely accepted by the humanitarian sector for the delivery of humanitarian response, that provide global standards about the minimum requirements in post-disaster recovery on issues like water, sanitation, and shelter (Sanderson, 2017). In 2014, the CHS Alliance also developed standards by setting out nine commitments to improve humanitarian response, called the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability. The commitments include issues such as appropriateness and relevance, timeliness, strengthening local capacity, improving participation, welcoming complaints, coordination, improving and learning, treating everyone fairly, and managing resources responsibly (CHS Alliance, 2014).

Evaluations of these measures and mechanisms, particularly of the cluster approach, indicate that they have helped to improve coordination problems within clusters of NGOs and other organizations responding to some disasters. For instance, moderate success of the cluster approach was reported for the response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, and in response to the Nepal earthquake (ALNAP, 2015; Sanderson, 2017; Sanderson, Rodericks, Shrestha, & Ramaligam, 2015). However, the cluster approach was not so successful following the Haiti earthquake (Kirsch, Sauer, & Guha-Sapir, 2012; Klarreich & Polman, 2012); at a broader level, it suffers from a number of problems, including lack of coordination among different cluster sectors (Balcik, Beamon, Krejci, Muramatsu, & Ramirez, 2010; Sanderson, 2017). Improvements are needed to build more coordination among clusters and to integrate local civil society organizations into the cluster process, particularly in countries with fragile governance systems (Sapat, 2017).

Building NGO Capacity

While a number of NGOs participate in response and recovery activities, many of them still find it difficult to respond effectively to transboundary disasters. Kirsch et al. (2012) pointed out that, due to a lack of funding, NGOs find it difficult to maintain a cadre of experts; they also noted that, due to popular perceptions that all funds donated for disasters should go directly to victims, little to no money is provided to NGOs for overhead costs, particularly to maintain larger staffs for surge capacity.

To improve NGO capacities, greater attention needs to be paid by donors to the development of NGO surge capacities for transboundary disasters. Donors also need to recognize that long-term recovery can take years and, in some cases, can span more than a decade. Aid mechanisms that are short term and ad hoc create volatility that attenuates sustainable recovery processes (Sapat, 2017). For their part, NGOs need to develop their own continuity of operations plans and increase transparency and ethical standards within their organizations, particularly when they work in countries that lack sufficient regulatory oversight of NGOs. NGOs also need to build their own capacities to develop more effective partnerships with other responders. This entails being able to work both with local responders in the communities they work in and with intergovernmental organizations and governments. The latter typically have more hierarchical and centralized processes than those of NGOs (Stys, 2011), and the differences in organizational styles need to be reconciled between NGOs and other entities to engender better collaboration and disaster recovery outcomes. Participation in disaster planning processes and joint training exercises for transboundary disasters by NGOs may help address some of these issues.

Harnessing the Power of Diaspora NGOs

Capacities to manage transboundary disasters can be enhanced by leveraging the participation and power of diaspora NGOs (Sapat & Esnard, 2016). Intergovernmental, national, and local institutions could do this by adopting these practices:

  • Harness the human and financial capital of diaspora NGOs in transboundary disasters;

  • Incorporate diaspora knowledge, social capital, and transnational networks to target aid more effectively to local areas;

  • Work with diaspora NGOs and local grassroots organizations to incorporate their perspectives within decision-making processes to develop more culturally appropriate responses in disaster response and recovery policies (Sapat & Esnard, 2016);

  • Facilitate the transfer of financial and social remittances to affected communities; and,

  • Build diaspora NGO capacity to more effectively respond to large disasters and catastrophes.

Due to tightly connected linkages between societies and systems and the rise in the number and frequency of hazardous events, transboundary disasters are likely to increase and grow in prominence. While NGOs are important actors and are increasingly being called upon to do more to respond to these disasters, it is important to acknowledge that transnational NGO activities should support but not supplant the role of the state and local civil society organizations. Effective disaster response capacities should be built in a bottom-up fashion (Boin et al., 2014). State and local civil society organizations have better knowledge of the situation on the ground, and their inclusion into recovery processes is critical for sustainable disaster recovery. Greater integration with local goals and needs can help target aid more usefully and effectively. Future research and study can focus on how to improve NGO service delivery and performance in aiding state, local governments, and civil society organizations in transboundary disasters. Improving NGO capacities (for transnational, diaspora, and local NGOs) and coordination between actors is crucial in responding to transboundary disasters, which are likely to grow in number with the increasing frequencies of disasters and a more interconnected world.

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(1.) The term nongovernmental organization (NGO) was first coined by the newly formed United Nations in 1945 in Article 71 of its Charter to acknowledge the consultative status of these organizations; in the international context, the term NGO became popular to denote voluntary organizations that are legally not part of government (Martens, 2002). Within the United States, the term nonprofit organizations (NPO) is mostly used, since they are provided special 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status to organizations under the US tax code that do not distribute profits to shareholders or offer dividends. For the purposes of this article and to match commonly used terminology, the term nonprofit organization (NPO) will be used primarily in the context of the United States, while NGO will be used in international contexts.

(2.) The general terms third sector, civil society, and voluntary sector organizations will be used to refer to all organizations (NPO and NGO included) that are not statutory or profit maximizing.

(3.) As noted in Sapat and Esnard (2016), remittances are defined as the transfer of money or goods, sent by migrants and received by individuals who, generally, are family members of these migrants. The senders are motivated by objectives, beginning with the wish to meet basic family needs including health and education, and hopes that the funds can be invested productively to generate continuing income (Fagen et al., 2009, p. 7); social remittances are the norms, practices, identities, and social capital that flow from receiving-country to sending-country communities (Levitt, 1998). Social remittances can change ideas, beliefs, and practices about gender, politics, and religion; and they can be transferred in different ways with differential impacts (Jiménez, 2009; Levitt, 1998, 2001).