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date: 30 September 2020

Summary and Keywords

International organizations (IOs) play an important role in addressing the plight of vulnerable groups (VGs), especially when states are either unwilling or unable to do so. Vulnerability as a concept thus provides a unique perspective for analyzing some of the strengths and shortcomings, as well as the challenges, of IOs. Vulnerability implies that the effects of disasters are determined not only by physical events but also by the institutional context. Some definitions of vulnerability suggest that it is a forward-looking concept indicating damage potential for people arising from hazards, which can be social and technological and not just natural. Three cases illustrate how specific forms of vulnerability are constituted, who are (considered to be) vulnerable, and who does what, when, and how to address vulnerability: Herbert Hoover’s Commission for Relief in Belgium during World War I, internally displaced people, and policy attempts by the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations to address different and growing forms of vulnerability. These cases contribute to a history of vulnerability as addressed by IOs, and highlight the incomplete nature of international action to address vulnerability as well as the difficulties faced by IOs in implementation, compliance, and concomitant institutionalization. Future research should devote more attention to issues such as the interaction of the politically powerful and vulnerable groups, the actual pathways that resistance to change or addressing vulnerability takes, and the processes by which vulnerability arises, and why and how it is being addressed—or not, states, IOs, and other actors.

Keywords: international organizations, vulnerable groups, vulnerability, hazards, Herbert Hoover, Commission for Relief in Belgium, internally displaced people, United Nations, nongovernmental organizations, disasters

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