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date: 30 June 2022

International Organization and Vulnerable Groupsfree

International Organization and Vulnerable Groupsfree

  • Dennis DijkzeulDennis DijkzeulInstitute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict, Ruhr University Bochum
  •  and Carolin FunkeCarolin FunkeInstitute for the Law of International Peace and Armed Conflict, Ruhr University Bochum


The manner in which international organizations (IOs) deal with vulnerable groups (VGs) has implications for the study of International Organization. Vulnerability provides an uncommon, but useful, vantage point from which to examine some of the strengths and shortcomings, as well as the relevance and challenges, of IOs. For IOs, the questions of “who is (considered to be) vulnerable” and “who does what, when, and how to address vulnerability?” need to be answered from both an empirical and a normative perspective. In this respect, it is important to highlight the different definitions, disciplinary perspectives, and evolving paradigms on vulnerability.

Addressing the plight of VGs, specific IOs help people at risk or in need, especially when states are either unwilling or unable to do so. Yet VGs have usually struggled to make their voices heard, while structural causes of vulnerability have been hard to address. When aid arrives, it often is late, inadequate, or has unexpected side effects. Implementation of IO policies to support VGs usually lags behind norm development. Still, IOs have carried out considerable work to support VGs.


  • Development
  • Human Rights
  • Organization
  • International Relations Theory
  • Security Studies

Updated in this version

Updated references; enhanced discussion of international relations and sustainable development goals


This article examines how international organizations deal with vulnerable groups (VGs) and what this implies for the study of the IR subfield of International Organization. Vulnerability provides an uncommon vantage point from which to examine some of the strengths and shortcomings, as well as the relevance and challenges, of international organizations (IOs).

Addressing the predicament of VGs, various IOs assist people at risk or in need, especially when states are either unwilling or incapable of doing so. Still, VGs frequently struggle to make their voices heard, while the structural causes of their vulnerability have been difficult to address. When aid arrives, it often is late, inadequate, or has unintended effects. Hence, for IOs the questions of “who is (considered to be) vulnerable” and “who does what, when, and how to address vulnerability?” need to be answered from both an empirical and a normative perspective.

Vulnerability as an Evolving Concept

There are broad and narrow definitions of vulnerability. The broader definitions relate vulnerability to the human condition, and in particular to human interdependency. In International Relations (IR), these broad interpretations mainly derive from moral philosophy, ethics, and feminist theory. The narrower definitions relate to the contexts of disasters and crisis. Although the broad and narrow interpretations partly overlap, they have generally developed in parallel. This article first discusses the broader interpretations and then moves on to the narrower ones.

The Broad Interpretations of Vulnerability

The theme of vulnerability has been much discussed in the fields of moral philosophy and ethics. Scholars in these areas have explored not only how vulnerability is a common part of human life—every body is vulnerable to some extent—but also how acts, omissions, or institutional structures make some people or groups more vulnerable than others. In other words, they investigate what creates and distributes vulnerability differentially. In addition, many scholars of moral philosophy and ethics pose the question of whether or why one should respond to those who are vulnerable. The rest of this section discusses the literature on how vulnerability is a basic aspect of human life and, therefore, also of IR.

Goodin, a moral philosopher, builds an argument around the concept of vulnerability that is also relevant to IR. He defines vulnerability as “being under threat of harm” (Goodin, 1985, p. 110). “Vulnerability implies that there is some agent (actual or metaphorical) capable of exercising some effective choice . . . over whether to cause or to avert the threatened harm” (p. 112). Goodin distinguishes two aspects of vulnerability. Some vulnerability is natural: for example, human beings are born helpless, get sick, need food, and become old or frail. But, importantly, much vulnerability is “created, shaped, or sustained by . . . social arrangements” (p. xi). He analyzes how “our” responsibilities to protect the vulnerable arise: “we bear special responsibilities for protecting those who are particularly vulnerable to us” (p. 109) because of a relationship of dependency, or better interdependency, between us (pp. 11, 34). “While we should always strive to protect the vulnerable, we should also strive to reduce the latter sort of vulnerabilities insofar as they render the vulnerable liable to exploitation” (p. xi). In other words, Goodwin is concerned with power relationships. In practice the vulnerable may only infrequently be protected by the powerful, but Goodin makes a strong moral case for why they should be. However, he pays less attention to the agency of vulnerable groups or the different local, national, or international organizations that could or should implement such protection. He does not seem to be concerned with the potential of protection to become paternalistic (compare Barnett, 2011, p. 219).

Feminist scholars—a heterogeneous group—warn against and deconstruct such paternalism and have discussed how vulnerability is produced and distributed at least since Enloe’s early works on femininity and masculinity and violence (Enloe, 1983, 1990; but see also Tickner & True, 2018). They clearly focus on power, patriarchy, and vulnerability (Cohn & Enloe, 2003, p. 1191; Gilson, 2016, 2018), but differ in their analysis of these phenomena. One common argument in their work is the acknowledgment of

the inevitability of . . . vulnerability. After all, vulnerability is a fact of human and political life. The attempt to deny its inevitability is what has led to the development of weapons of mass destruction, “as deterrents,” to massive investments in “national missile defence” and other baroque weapons technology, while we refuse to make serious investments in dealing with the worldwide HIV epidemic or starvation, or poverty.

(Cohn & Enloe, 2003, p. 1204)

Butler, Gambetti, and Sabsay (2016, p. 4) explain this as the denial or disavowal of vulnerability, which “requires one to forget one’s own vulnerability and project, displace and localize it elsewhere.” In fact, attempts to master or overcome vulnerability “can work to exacerbate vulnerability (as a way of achieving power) or to disavow it (also as a way to achieving power)” (Butler et al., 2016). For example, associating femininity with vulnerability can lead to a representation of, say, women or refugees as passive and lead to a subsequent disregard of their agency by paternalistic state institutions. And populists regularly employ the discourse of vulnerability of local people to stop refugees from entering their country. As a result, “the discourse on vulnerability can support any version of politics and has no special claim to supporting politics on the Left, or a politics for feminism” (Butler et al., 2016, p. 2). Although some feminists have proposed vulnerability as a foundational concept for IR (Robinson, 2011), it reeks of essentialism and foundationalism to others. In this respect, Butler et al. (2016) contends that,

There are those who worry that vulnerability, even if it becomes a theme or a problem for thinking, will be asserted as a primary existential condition, ontological and constitutive, and that this sort of foundationalism will founder on the same rocky shores as have others, such as the ethics of care and maternal thinking. (p. 22)

Another important contribution—and one of the few in IR from outside feminist theory—in thinking about vulnerability as both an expression of power relations and a deeply moral issue is Clark’s The Vulnerable in International Society (2013). Clark argues that it is not just natural risks that make people vulnerable, but also the workings of international society. In this respect he is close to the feminist approach, as well as to studies of natural disasters that use social vulnerability analysis to assess how people are differentially exposed by their social position. Clark examines four cases in detail: political violence, climate change, human movement, and global health. In each case, he shows how international regimes, conventions, and organizations construct vulnerability, and set up regimes of protection that prioritize some forms of vulnerable groups over others. In other words, international regimes, conventions, and organizations always have moral and practical consequences in the way they influence the relative distribution of harm and protection. Due to state and IO decision making, some vulnerable groups, wittingly or unwittingly, do not fall under the protection umbrella. Although Clark’s work is one of the most comprehensive treatments of vulnerability in IR, it has unfortunately not gained a large following.

Despite the great creativity of these scholars, the concept of vulnerability has not entered mainstream IR theory. All in all, feminist IR theory has most strongly developed vulnerability as a research theme. These works also display some common shortcomings, as they focus primarily on either the individual or the international policy level. Perhaps as a consequence of this, they remain rather abstract and only occasionally examine IOs in detail. Nevertheless, practice-oriented scholars have complemented their work by showing how the functioning of IOs and programs has led to the selection of specific vulnerable groups, and simultaneously the exclusion of other vulnerable groups in their policies and work on the ground (Autesserre, 2010, 2013; Krause, 2014).

The Narrow Interpretation of Vulnerability

In line with the broad interpretations of vulnerability, the narrow interpretations seek to capture the relationship between the broad environment and people at risk, but focus explicitly on natural disasters and other humanitarian crises. In other words, vulnerability as a narrow concept relates closely to disasters (Hilhorst & Bankoff, 2004, p. 1). It implies that physical events only partly determine the effects of disasters. These effects also depend on the institutional context. Various disciplines, including engineering, geography, medicine, public health, political ecology, development studies, and climate studies tend to highlight overlapping but different aspects of disaster vulnerability and employ different approaches to vulnerability. As a result, many definitions exist.

The International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction [UNDRR], 2004, p. 16), for example, defines vulnerability as “the conditions determined by physical, social economic and environmental factors or processes, which increase the susceptibility of a community to the impact of hazards.” A definition offered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2001) reflects its work: “the degree to which a system is susceptible to, or unable to cope with, adverse effects of climate change, including variability and extremes” (cf. Villagrán de León, 2006, p. 304). These definitions point out that vulnerability is a forward-looking concept that indicates damage potential for people, as well as the limits of their coping capacity. “Vulnerability is an intrinsic characteristic of a community that is always there even in quiescent times between events . . . it is a permanent and dynamic feature that is revealed during an event to an extent that depends on the magnitude of the harmful event” (Thywissen, 2006, p. 485).

As long as disasters were perceived as natural “acts of God” or as technical engineering problems, vulnerability as a concept was hardly relevant (Steckley & Doberstein, 2011). Starting with White’s (1945) work on flood control, the technical engineering approach gave way to a behavorialist paradigm that “dominated disaster studies during the 1950s” (Hilhorst, 2004, p. 52; cf. Mustafa, Ahmed, Saroch, & Bell, 2011, p. 64). It deviated in a small, but crucial aspect from the earlier engineering approach; that is, it

coupled a hazard-centered interest in the geophysical processes underlying disaster with the conviction that people had to be taught to anticipate it. It is a technocratic paradigm dominated by [natural scientists] who can monitor and predict hazards, while social scientists are brought in to explain people’s behaviour in response to risk and disaster and to develop early warning mechanisms and disaster preparedness schemes.

(Hilhorst, 2004, p. 52)

Both paradigms can still be represented rather simply by the pseudo-formula: Risk = Natural Hazard.

Table 1 summarizes hazards and disaster risks. Virtually all hazard examples also have a human-made component. Hence, most hazards also have social and technological and not just natural components. For example, a landslide is a geological phenomenon, but it can be caused by a combination of heavy rainfall (a meteorological hazard) and deforestation (a human-made cause).

Table 1. Classification of Hazards

Hazard Group

Hazard Type

Hazard Examples



Earthquake, volcanic eruption

Potentially socionatural






Landslide, subsidence

Cyclone, lightning and fire, drought, avalanche, hail storm, cold spell

Tsunami, sea storm

Flood, flashflood

Epidemic, crop blight, insect infestation



Release of toxic, nuclear materials

Severe contamination

Structural collapse

Transportation, construction, or manufacturing accident



Terrorist activity

Political conflict

Financial and/or economic crisis

Riot, crowd crush, stampede

Bombing, shooting, hijacking

Coup d’état, revolution, civil and international war

Financial losses and debts, unemployment

Source: Based on Schneiderbauer and Ehrlich (2006, p. 82).

Toward the end of the 1980s, in response to an expanding focus on the social and technological aspects of vulnerability,

anthropologists, sociologists and geographers increasingly began to challenge the technocratic, hazard-centred approach to disaster . . . Disasters were not primarily the outcome of geographical processes. Especially in developing countries, structural factors such as increasing poverty and related social processes accounted for people and societies’ vulnerability to disaster. The recognition of social vulnerability touched at the heart of understanding disaster.

(Hilhorst, 2004, pp. 52–53)

This was captured in the pseudo-formula: Risk = Hazard + Vulnerability.

As a result, the concept of vulnerability shifted from a behavorial to a structuralist paradigm. Vulnerability now was seen as either an internal risk factor—as the susceptibility of an element (person, community, building, etc.) to a hazard—or, in a more human-centered definition, as the likelihood of death, injury, and loss. The structuralist paradigm stresses practical and political obstacles, providing an agenda for radical change to minimize disaster risk and damage. In a similar vein, social science and economic studies began to treat vulnerability as a failure of entitlements (Adger, 2006; Sen, 1981, 1984). Much of this research examined vulnerability to famine. It “displaced prior notions that shortfalls in food production through drought, flood or pest, were the principal cause of famine. It focused instead on effective demand for food, and the social and economic means of obtaining it” (Adger, 2006, p. 270). As interpretations of security increasingly encompassed human security, broader interpretations of (social) vulnerability were also incorporated into military, peace, and security studies.

Hilhorst (2004, p. 53) argued that as attention to environmental processes—including human-induced climate change—increases, the “familiar distinction of paradigms is becoming outdated.” Instead she proposes “the mutuality of hazard and vulnerability to disaster due to complex interaction between nature and society . . . The mutuality . . . paradigm . . . looks at the mutual constitution of society and environment.” Vulnerability not only includes people’s susceptibility to hazards, but also the impact of human activity on the environment. This mutuality paradigm thus differs from the structuralist one, with a broader conceptualization of causal effects, social change, and possible responses to disaster vulnerability (Hilhorst, 2004). For example, it also emphasizes the capacity and resilience of people and the communities they live in, as well as vulnerability’s multidimensional aspects, such as its physical, social, economic, environmental, political, and institutional features. The paradigm is captured in such pseudo-formulas as: Riskah = f(Hazardah.Exposurea.Vulnerabilityah), where “subscript ‘h’ relates to the type of hazard (determined in its severity and its temporal extent) and subscript ‘a’ is the geographical region affected by the hazard. Exposure is, for example, the number of people located in area ‘a.’” Vulnerability is people’s multidimensional susceptibility to hazard, which includes their level [or lack] of capacity to cope (Schneiderbauer & Ehrlich, 2006, p. 81).

This paradigm may often not allow precise measurement, but only approximation of variables or the relationship among them. It highlights the complexity of interactions between society and nature as parts of social-ecological systems. In particular it stresses nonlinear causal chains, unpredictable social and environmental change, and unintended consequences. As a result, it may lack clarity about policies to overcome vulnerability and it stresses the importance of precaution (Adger, 2006, p. 276). Nonetheless, it has helped spawn international initiatives from the IPCC to UNDRR. Practically, it has promoted making sharper tools for detailed capacity and vulnerability analysis (Anderson, 1999; Anderson & Woodrow, 1998; Mustafa et al., 2011).

Vulnerability and the mutuality paradigm also arise in the work of scholars in the field of geology, who have raised the question of whether an Anthropocene period (= the recent age of man) is following on the Holocene: “Humans have changed the way the world works, now they have to change the way they think about it . . . and act accordingly” (“Anthropocene,” 2011, p. 11). In line with Beck (2008) and his concept of the risk society, these scholars state that vulnerability is human-made and bound to increase, because human influence on our planet and the systems that sustain human and other forms of life is greater, and more disruptive, than ever before.

The Opposite of Vulnerability?

In addition to changing definitions of and paradigms about vulnerability, there are specific aspects of vulnerability that IOs need to give attention to. First, we need to ask what forms of human agency are associated with vulnerability. In the literature, one can find capacity, human security, resilience, and resistance. Some see one or more of these concepts as opposites of vulnerability. But this raises criticism that they are simply using a binary opposition. Instead, it is more useful to see these concepts as complementary to or even part of vulnerability. In this way, vulnerability both necesitates and enables agency.

At the level of individuals, groups, or communities, capacity is often taken to be a component of vulnerability (or, more exactly, as its inverse image). At national and international levels, human security is often seen as its logical counterpoint (Bogardi & Brauch, 2005). In a state of complete human security, vulnerability would be absent. Yet, a focus on VGs as weak, needy, or at risk can lead to disregard of their capacities, agency, and perceptions (Dijkzeul & Wakenge, 2010).

The concept of resilience—popular with donor governments—is a double-edged sword. When people are not resilient enough, this may lead to greater efforts to build capacity and take the initiative to change society. However, as resilience puts the onus of action on vulnerable groups, it can lead to a disregard of the structural conditions that cause vulnerability, so that these groups can also be blamed for (still) not being resilient enough. In the latter way, resilience can become an anti-emancipatory concept that actually reduces solidarity with those at need or at risk (Addis & Dijkzeul, 2020). Butler et al. (2016) have therefore proposed resistance as an alternative to resilience. Nevertheless, none of these concepts has gained prevalence over the other three. Crucially, they all make clear that studying vulnerability also requires examining the agency of vulnerable groups and their members.

A second issue concerns how different crises and forms of vulnerability interact. The concepts of “sequential” (e.g., one crisis after the other) or “compounded” vulnerability (e.g., unresponsive governance + poverty + destruction of the environment + exogenous or endogenous shocks, such as natural or human-made disasters) have gained attention from both IOs and scholars. For example, in a study of future crisis drivers, Kent (2009) describe the Hindu-Kush-Himalaya (HKH) region as

probably the worlds’s greatest source of natural hazards, when the diversity, types and dimensions of such hazards . . . are . . . taken into account. These . . . range from earthquakes, floods, mass land movements, deltic flooding, natural contamination, fires and atmospheric brown clouds. When linked to human intervention and related impacts . . . the HKH region will see an estimated 500 million people directly affected by unprecedented food insecurity, new forms of disease, mass displacement, major habitat and infrastructure collapse, demise of livelihoods and intensification of conflict in two decades time.

(Kent, 2009, p. 9)

Such conflicts would not just engage failing states, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also the rising superpowers China and India, which have already come to blows in the Himalayas.

These links between compounded vulnerability and conflict, including armed conflict, bring the study of vulnerability into mainstream IR. Moreover, growing attention to vulnerability due to anthropogenic climate change, environmental decline, the growing number of natural disasters, epidemics, and terrorism, as well as failed states, has reinforced this trend. The challenge will now be to buttress this trend by treating vulnerability, particularly insofar as it reflects the mutuality of nature and societies, as integral to IO research and critiques of the international system. Addressing this challenge implies interdisciplinary research. The following summary case studies suggest how the elements for future research are foreshadowed by existing knowledge.

Selected Cases

This section presents three divergent cases that highlight how specific forms of vulnerability are constituted or left unnoticed; who is (considered to be) vulnerable and who does what when; and how to address vulnerability. In particular, how are decisions concerning vulnerable people being made, how are these decisions carried out organizationally, and which reactions do these responses elicit? The first case deals with Hoover’s Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) during the First World War, the second with internally displaced persons (IDPs), and the third with policy attempts on a broader scale to address different and growing forms of vulnerability on the part of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the UN.

These three cases were selected for two reasons. First, most literature on vulnerability focuses on natural disasters and insufficiently considers how IOs either contribute to or deal with vulnerability. We want simultaneously to build on and deviate from existing literature by focusing on (long-lasting) human-made disasters, as well as on policy analysis and implementation. These cases illustrate the shift in attention from the technical engineering and technocratic behavorialist paradigms to the highly political debates of the structuralist, and especially the mutuality, paradigms. Second, if parallels or similarities hold among cases so different in terms of time period and types of actors involved, they are likely to be of a more general nature for other IOs.

Case 1: The Commission for Relief in Belgium, 1914–1915

This case study covers the mounting of a large-scale relief effort to ensure food supplies to the people of Belgium after the invasion by the armed forces of Germany in August 1914. From the perspective of the early 21st century, this incident could be taken as relatively minor, compared to later international responses to, or prevention of, onslaughts on VGs. In its time it was described as unique and was thought to confront unprecedented issues (Hoover, 1952, p. 154; Whyte, 2017). This study concentrates on the emergence of or, alternatively, the lack of guiding concepts in organizing a pioneering enterprise. It questions whether this experience guided future treatment of VGs.


In 1914, Belgium had a generally prosperous population of some eight million people, the most densely settled in Europe. The majority worked in what was regarded as an advanced industrial economy. Belgian history has included frequent war and foreign occupation, which was partly the result of its strategic position on the shores of the North Sea and easy access through its hinterland. In 1914, however, its government and people expected security under a blanket of neutrality. Furthermore, the friendly government of France would come to its rescue in case of a threat to neutrality.

Consequently the Belgian kingdom, led by a popular monarch, made little, if any, preparation to protect its civilian population in case of war. It did develop a few military barriers, especially around Liege, Louvain, Brussels, and Antwerp. These, it was thought, would hold back invaders until allies could react. The obvious dangers of a European war in 1914 appear not to have alarmed the government enough to prepare for possible enemy occupation. With the assurances of the king and his government, the population felt safe (de Schaepdrijver, 1997, pp. 41–45).

A declaration of neutrality in time of war had a basis in customary international law, but in 1914 no standing international institution existed to oversee observance of rules, however vague or contested. Nor were there formal IOs charged with protecting the civilian population in case of occupation. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the leader after World War II in promoting such services, was concerned in 1914 with rudimentary protection of individuals, not VGs, or with civil obligations of occupying forces (Forsythe, 1977, p. 7; ICRC, 2005). Also, interstate institutions concerned with the protection and relief of refugees had not yet been established. In this respect, many of the causes and consequences of vulnerability were not on the radar screen of IOs at the time.

The German government violated Belgian neutrality to block French forces seeking a tactical advantage. Following prepared plans, the invading force quickly overcame the Belgian bastions and soon had the capital and then Antwerp in its hands. Under German assault, the bulk of French forces withdrew, leaving their enemy holding a sliver of northern France. What remained of the Belgian national government decamped in exile in Le Havre in France.

In the meantime, Great Britain deployed its superior naval forces to blockade the territory occupied by Germany. In addition, export of food from the United Kingdom was prohibited. Belgium was thus severed from its commercial routes. Imports of food and much else that was essential to normal life were blocked. Furthermore, the occupying German force began to requisition food for itself (Nash, 1988, p. 17).

Perception of Emergency

The swift German attack disrupted the central Belgian government, left municipalities to their own devices, and drained public morale. Almost overnight, food shortages were reported in several towns and soon from other districts. By September, an emergency affecting most of Belgium was clear. An estimated one million Belgians began to make their way over the border to the neutral Netherlands and others to exile in France and England (de Schaepdrijver, 1997, pp. 104–105). Others remained as what would later be described as IDPs. Foreigners, especially tourists, also fled.

Any assistance to the unexpected migrants had to be improvised. Those who helped the hundreds of American tourists who turned up in London showed leadership that shaped the later relief for Belgium. As many Americans who arrived in England came without cash and often with only the clothes on their backs, they turned to the United States embassy and consulates for help. Official facilities were quickly overwhelmed. Resident Americans, especially in London, reacted with voluntary help, including searches for transatlantic steamer passage, housing, clothing, and emergency loans. Among the leading volunteers was Herbert Hoover, then directing his global business interests from an office in London. Hoover, an energetic, wealthy mining engineer who had worked in many countries, had close connections with financial and some governmental circles (Nash, 1988, pp. 5–14).

Consulting closely with the U.S. ambassador and consolidating voluntary organizations of resident Americans, Hoover and his associates—many of them engineers as well—had, by September, quickly organized assistance to stranded travelers. Chaotic scenes around the embassy vanished and the stranded tourists got needed shelter, information, and financing (Hoover, 1952, pp. 143, 156).

These efforts brought Hoover, who was relatively unknown to the greater public, into local prominence as an accomplished mover and shaker. It increased his confidence in his own abilities as an organizer, political intermediary, and a manipulator of public opinion. All of this underlay his energetic response to what soon was described as a critical food emergency in Belgium (Nash, 1988, pp. 32–33).

Mounting Relief for Belgium

The narrative of relief for Belgians inevitably centers around Hoover. He seized a leadership role, insisting that he “would do the job but on condition that I was to have absolute command . . . and the full support and protection of the American Ambassador in London” (Hoover, 1952, p. 155). He designed the legally private Commission for Relief in Belgium. Moreover, he chose his collaborators, mainly engineers and businessmen he knew (Gelfand, 1979, pp. 9–10); relied on his personal credit for short-term financing; and assiduously entreated policy makers and diplomats of the United States and the United Kingdom. Coincidentally, Hoover enjoyed strong support from a Belgian banker who earlier was his competitor in mining in China. Emile Franqui, chairman of the hastily formed Comité Central de Secours et d’Alimentation, assembled convincing reports from Belgium and promoted awareness of impending disaster. Reports from American Ambassador Brand Whitlock confirmed Franqui’s information (Nash, 1988, pp. 26–27, 31).

These reports made clear the underlying situation in Belgium. The British blockade prevented the import of food, especially via the port of Antwerp. Neutral ships en route to Rotterdam in the neutral Netherlands also were affected. In particular, the stock of grain was declining rapidly. Another threat came from the occupying force. The German military command admitted that the food for Belgian civilians soon would reach dangerously low levels. At the same time, it declined any responsibility for feeding civilians, arguing that Germany only had food enough for its own population. Whatever the needs of Belgian civilians, the two belligerents seemed ready to cling to their policies.

Hoover found ready sympathy in the American embassies in Brussels and London and eventually in the Wilson government in Washington. The British government opposed allowing neutral ships to pass through the blockade. By mid-November, following interim concessions, food for Belgium began to arrive in Rotterdam. Finally, a dramatic confrontation in January 1915 between Hoover and Lloyd George, the British prime minister, secured not only lasting shipping regulation but also sought-after financing (Nash, 1988, pp. 84–85).

Setting a precedent for the future, American diplomatic channels served Hoover’s organization, even allowing food routed via Rotterdam to move as diplomatic cargo, free of duty and delays. Hoover personally negotiated not only with the British authorities but also with the German government in Berlin and its commanders in Belgium. Local counterparts to Franqui’s organization handled distribution of food. Only later were rules made for priority to civilians least able to provide for themselves. Over time, the CRB also began providing food aid in occupied northern France, where citizens faced the same problems as those in Belgium.

Hoover and his supporters encountered significant opposition. Opinions in Washington, London, Berlin, and even in the Brussels voluntary committee were divergent, presenting various visions for organization and methods. Moreover, suspicion of the motives underlying the CRB never entirely vanished. Other private organizations, including the Rockefeller Foundation at one stage, tried Hoover’s temper by attempting to deliver relief (Nash, 1988. p. 52). Nevertheless, the CRB offered the sole authorized channel during the period of sea warfare that culminated in 1917 with the United States’ entry into the war.

Following this, Hoover’s organization became official, taking charge of all relief in Belgium as the occupiers retreated. President Wilson also put Hoover in charge of programs in the United States to control the food supply. Still later, Hoover had a role in advising Wilson during the peace conference of Versailles in 1919 and strongly advocated for the foundation of the League of Nations.

Conceptual Heritage

The term “vulnerable group” had not yet appeared in 1914–1915. Nor did World War I begin with internationally defined obligations on belligerents to protect populations subject to occupation or refugees, let alone “displaced persons,” or what is now termed “collateral damage.” Yet definitional and operational concepts were implied in the creation and goals of the CRB. These were:

Vulnerable groups—By concentrating on immediate food relief and then supplying minimum food, the entire Belgian and northern French populations were implicitly defined as “vulnerable groups.”

Displaced persons and refugees—Hoover’s designs took no note of these groups. Internally displaced persons received relief via local governments and were thus implicitly defined by the CRB as beyond its mandate. Refugees were in other lands.

Organizational concepts—The model used by Hoover relied entirely on NGOs for decision making and overall direction of field operations. It was not intended to profit from its operations. The CRB was improvised in a setting where NGO operations hardly appeared and certainly never on such a scale. Yet neither the organization nor the operations of the CRB would have been possible without governmental decisions and cooperation.

Normative concepts—If the hurried formation of the CRB left little time for normative reflection, the widely accepted notion that human beings cannot be left to perish in time of danger may have seemed too obvious to pronounce. Hoover’s upbringing as a Quaker doubtless was relevant. As for organization, a founding priniciple of the CRB was that private action had advantages over official governmental activity.

The CRB organized the supply and shipping of food (and later other) supplies. It guaranteed that the shipments were consistent with the agreements made with the belligerents for passage through the blockade. Once in Belgium, the supplies passed out of its hands although it maintained an auditing and inspection function. It might seek diplomatic support for help with operational issues, such as questions about the nature of supplies or amounts of its purchases, but would make its own decisions regarding what was purchased. It made public reports on its operations.

A Legacy of Experience?

Little evidence can be found that the implicit conceptions of the CRB experience furnished dominant, or even minimal, guidance in later treatment of VGs. If CRB was large for its time, so was the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), planned during World War II and operating in a vast international field. It seems likely that the planners, mainly in Washington, were aware of the conceptual improvisations of the CRB, but if so, that was not evident during the founding conference. Hoover, who later deemed UNRRA a failure because it embodied “power politics,” was not systematically consulted (Talken, 1986, p. 165).1 UNRRA was strictly an organization of member states, not an NGO in any sense. Altogether smaller, NGOs were its collaborators, competitors, and sometimes antagonists.

Only after World War II could the ICRC successfully propose revising the Geneva Protocols to cover the obligations of an occupying military force. Accepted by almost all governments, the fourth Geneva Protocols oblige belligerents to protect the welfare of the people of occupied lands. In parallel to the ICRC, the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies systematically constructed mechanisms to coordinate the National Societies that help with the needs of vulnerable populations. Building on UNRRA experience, the UN system, moreover, developed standing IOs with relatively substantial resources to cope with the issues that faced the CRB. The role of NGOs broadened and deepened so that they became indispensable partners of the international agencies.

Even without clear evidence that the Belgian relief effort directly shaped future international concern with VGs, what was done in 1914, as warfare employed new tactics and technology, marked out some clear lines of action and underlying thought. These included definition of immediate cause of vulnerability, the penetration of supply barriers, soliciting formal governmental action and supplementing it with NGO activity, active public leadership, and respect for local authority. In this sense, the CRB fits in the paradoxical tradition established by Henri Dunant; although its actions implied frequent political contacts, it took care not to be politicized. By emphasizing the humanitarian necessities, the CRB could downplay its own political impact in a technocratic manner, similar to the engineering paradigm of vulnerability. This technocratic downplay of political impact, which facilitates gaining access to vulnerable groups, is still a form of politics that claims to be apolitical and that international humanitarian organizations play to this day.

Case 2: Internally Displaced People

As the first case indicates, displaced people face severe difficulties in surviving armed conflict. The same holds true for natural disasters. Soon after World War II, UNRRA was split up. Its successor agencies (international refugee organizations, UNICEF, UN High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR]) and a set of international conventions created an international regime to protect refugees. Displaced people trapped within the borders of their countries, however, did not receive such mandated protection. This case examines (a) how IDPs came to be seen as a political issue and (b) the extent to which their vulnerabily has been addressed.

The Issue Arises

In 1982, when IDPs were first counted, 1.2 million people had been forcibly uprooted in 11 countries (Cohen, 2004, p. 460). At the end of 2019, approximately 45.7 million people were displaced as a result of conflict and violence in 61 countries. Moreover, 5.1 million people were internally displaced due to natural disasters (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre [IDMC], 2020).

Physical displacement is prima facie evidence of vulnerability because people who are deprived of their homes, communities, and livelihoods are unable to resort to traditional coping capacities. When such people are forced migrants within their own countries, especially as a result of war, they are often even more vulnerable (Weiss & Korn, 2006, p. 1).

Frequently deprived of food, sanitation, shelter, and medicine, IDPs become easy targets of physical violence. National governments that ignore international obligations to prevent displacement and to protect and assist IDPs often oppress them or “deny that internal displacement occurs on their territory” (Koch, 2020, p. 7). Yet, no IO is by law responsible for them. Moreover, IOs that attempt to help need official permission to work in the country from the very authorities that may be responsible for the displacement (Cohen, 2006, p. 89).

Framing and Setting the Agenda

In the late 1980s, when the number of IDPs rose rapidly, attempts were made to address their plight. Activists at NGOs and think tanks, such as the U.S. Committee for Refugees and the Refugee Policy Group, sought to put the issue on the UN agenda. They held that internal displacement, usually seen as a humanitarian issue, also posed a human rights issue. Supported by the World Council of Churches and the Quaker UN Office in Geneva, they intensively lobbied the UN Commission on Human Rights. They “requested the secretary-general to produce a report on internal displacement and then in 1992, to appoint a special representative on IDPs” (Cohen, 2006, p. 88).

Secretary-General Boutros Ghali appointed Francis M. Deng, a former diplomat from Sudan, who was working at the Brookings Institution in Washington, as his unpaid Representative of the Secretary-General (RSG) on internal displacement. Several employees at Brookings, in particular Roberta Cohen, were already working on internal displacement and human rights and would play a crucial role in research and advocacy. As a consequence, Brookings became the home institution for Deng and his staff: they had one foot in the intergovernmental UN and another in the nongovernmental camp.

Creating a Knowledge Base

Generally, it was clear that the swelling number and miserable conditions of IDPs could disrupt societies and even pose threats to international peace. Although the end of the Cold War made their plight more visible and international action more practical, rich states increasingly curbed refugee flows and asylum opportunities. While this reduced the number of refugees, it raised the total of IDPs. At the same time, rebuilding war-torn societies required the reintegration of displaced people and the protection of their human rights. In sum, IDP needs and the length of displacement were growing, while understanding and concern did not keep pace. To fulfill his tasks, the RSG had to create a better understanding of the worldwide magnitude of the IDP issue and the daily problems and violations IDPs face.

Deng (1993) and his team published the first far-reaching study of the problems faced by IDPs, Protecting the Dispossessed. This was followed five years later by a two-volume work, Masses in Flight: The Global Crisis of Internal Displacement (1998) and Forsaken People: Studies of the Internally Displaced (1998). They simultaneously “embarked on a series of lectures, statements and articles to disseminate the findings . . . and develop a global strategy for dealing with the crisis” (Cohen, 2006, p. 88). They encountered double strategic challenges: first, the promotion of a normative and legal framework for addressing internal displacement; and second, creating an institutional system to execute and further develop it. Deng and his team left an indispensable paper trail through country missions, reports to the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Committee, scholarship, and advocacy work.

Creating a Normative, Legal Framework

“Addressing the problem of internal displacement required modification of the traditional concept of sovereignty as excluding outside intervention” (Cohen, 2006, p. 90). Thus RSG and his staff challenged basic concepts of international law and relations. Based on earlier work by Deng, Zartman, and other scholars on conflict resolution and governance in Africa, Deng’s team applied the concept of “sovereignty as responsibility” (Weiss & Korn, 2006, p. 24). This idea has two essential parts. Governments are responsible for the human rights of their citizens as part of the essence of statehood; when they are unwilling or unable to provide for the security and well-being of their citizens, an international responsibility arises to protect vulnerable individuals (Weiss & Korn, 2006, p. 3).

However, relief organizations that attempted to help IDPs still “found they had no clear rules for doing so. . . . Deng sought as his first assignment from the Commission on Human Rights to examine the extent to which international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law applied to the protection of IDPs” (Cohen, 2006, p. 92). He and his team assembled a group of international legal experts and research institutions. In 1995 they asserted in a report to the commission that “IDPs receive a good deal of coverage under existing international law” but there are areas of insufficient protection, owing to inexplicit articulation of the law as well as clear gaps in the law (Cohen, 2006, p. 92).

Deng and his team decided to develop guidelines to ensure protection, fill the gaps, and restate law to respond to the specific needs of IDPs. They assumed that no agreement on an internationally binding treaty would be forthcoming soon. While immediate action was needed, they feared that the treaty drafting process would take decades and even reopen debates that could weaken existing international law.

Once again, they started a broad-based process with scholars, NGOs, UN organizations, and governmental representatives to both draw and gain support for the guidelines. The foundation underlying the principles was sovereignty as responsibility. In 1998, the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement were presented to the Commission on Human Rights. Thirty principles set out the “specific rights of IDPs and the obligations of government, insurgent groups and all other actors toward these populations” (Cohen, 2006, p. 88).

Translated into 54 languages, these principles have been widely adopted as a benchmark (Cohen, 2006, p. 93; Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights [OHCHR], 2020). Simultaneously, the concept of sovereignty as responsibility was taken up by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. It provided the intellectual basis for “the responsibility to protect (R2P),” which constitutes the main reformulation of the relationship between sovereignty and intervention since the end of the Cold War (see Weiss & Korn, 2006). Nevertheless, developing norms and even having laws on the books does not imply that states or other agencies will respect them. In fact, many national instruments on internal displacement either do not define IDPs or introduce geographic or temporal limitations (Orchard, 2020, p. 2).

Debate therefore continued on how to further promote the Guiding Principles. In 2005, Secretary-General Annan called upon states to accept them as a basic international norm for protection and to adopt them through national legislation (Cohen, 2006, p. 94). “Between 1993 and 2017, forty States passed laws and policies directly related to internal displacement, the significant majority since the guiding principles have been adopted” (Orchard, 2020, p. 1). However, many national laws and policies “have a tendency to prioritize return over other forms of solutions” and government bureaucracies that are by law assigned to take a lead role in assisting and protecting IDPs “are frequently underfunded, under-resourced and lack clear lines of authority within government” (Orchard, 2020, pp. 2–3).

Most experts hold that the most promising approach to support IDPs is international expansion and sustained use of the guiding principles (Cohen, 2006, p. 94). In October 2009., however, another option materialized at a Special Summit of Heads of State and Governments on refugees, returnees, and internally displaced persons in Africa, organized by the African Union (AU). It adopted the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (the Kampala Convention). The Kampala Convention was the first to cover an entire continent (Kälin, 2009) and came into force in December 2012. However, implementation has been rather slow. Of 55 AU member states, 40 have signed the Convention, but only 31 of them have ratified it, and four others “have publicly expressed their willingness to accede or ratify the Convention” (ICRC, 2019, p. 18). To speed up the implementation, the AU held its first ministerial convention on the Kampala Convention in Harare, Zimbabwe, in April 2017, where an Action Plan was developed (AU, 2017). Indeed, the need to act is urgent; Sub-Saharan Africa hosts approximately 19.2 million conflict-induced IDPs, which is the highest figure in the world and the highest recorded for the region (IDMC, 2020, p. 15). Nevertheless, despite slow implementation of the Convention, this hardening of soft law has evolved in a strikingly short period as a tool for complementing international humanitarian law.

Building on the broad framework established by Deng, his successors, Walter Kälin (2004–2010), Chaloka Beyani (2010–2016), and Cecilia Jimenez-Damary (2016–present) have continued the advocacy, political, institutional, and scholarly work to improve the situation of IDPs. Their main aim remains promoting and refining the normative framework for dealing with IDPs, while increasingly focusing on specific needs. For example, recommendations, guidelines, and studies have been published on dealing with IDPs from natural disasters (e.g., climate change displacement is often internal; Kälin, 2010), IDPs outside camps, for example in urban settings, and on IDP participation in elections. Particularly, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s Framework on Durable Solutions has provided eight benchmarks to determine to what extent a solution for international displacement has been achieved. In addition, the UN’s 2015 Sustainable Development Goals recognize IDPs as a vulnerable group (Zeender, 2018, p. 25; UN, 2015b); the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (UN, 2015a) gives recommendations on how to prevent or manage disaster-induced displacement; the New Urban Agenda of 2017 recognizes the particular challenges faced by IDPs in urban areas; and the Core Commitments of the High Level Leaders’ Roundtable of the World Humanitarian Summit (2016) contain the ambitious goal of reducing internal displacement by 50% by 2030 (Koch, 2020, p. 25). However, achieving full protection of the human rights of IDPs is often a long-term process and the implementation of these tools lags behind.

Moreover, and ominously, the enduring refugee crises at Europe’s borders, the pronounced nationalist agenda of the Trump administration, and Australia’s strict asylum policy have directed global attention to other forms of forced migration, especially to persons who seek protection and assistance outside their home countries. The 2018 Global Compact on Refugees and the 2018 Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration barely address internal displacement (see UN, 2018a, 2018b). The latter does not mention IDPs at all while the Global Compact on Refugees only makes vague reference to IDPs in the sections that deal with aspects of contingency planning and voluntary repatriation. This narrow perspective on forced migration in the West, however, neglects the root causes of displacement and also disregards that “today’s IDP can be tomorrow’s refugee” (Funke & Dijkzeul, 2017, p. 100).

Organizations and Action

In addition to the diminishing attention being given to IDPs by governments, UN agencies, NGOs, and academic scholarship, two shortcomings can be identified. First, no operational agency exists with specific overall responsibility for assisting and protecting IDPs when their government fails to do so (Weiss & Korn, 2006, p. 75). Second, no serious attempts have been made to centralize the UN system’s response to IDPs.

Aware that they could not force concerned agencies to action, RSGs focused on what they called a collaborative approach, which sought improved operational coordination. This, however, left no clear locus of responsibility for IDPs. The 2005 UN reforms initiated the cluster approach, which brings the different IOs together for each sector (= cluster) in which they are active (e.g., logistics, health, and emergency shelter). Specific responsibilities are assigned to cluster leaders, and these leader organizations function as “providers of the last resort.” Other organizations with an interest in the cluster then join in. UNHCR has become the cluster leader for camp coordination and management for conflict-generated IDPs (with the International Organization for Migration [IOM] taking the lead for natural-disaster IDPs), as well as the leader for protection of conflict-generated IDPs (with OHCHR responsible for natural disaster–generated IDPs). By taking a more central role in addressing conflict IDPs, UNHCR can find alternative areas of action while the number of refugees declines. Nevertheless, with the number of IDPs still rising, international institutional development lags far behind norm development.

In fact, organizational commitment to protect and assist IDPs has been weakened. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) significantly reduced the number of dedicated staff dealing with IDP issues, while UNHCR and ICRC closed down their IDP unit or focal point entirely, emphasizing that IDP issues had become generally mainstreamed (Ferris, 2014, p. 40). Simultaneously, the UN Special Representative for the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons was downgraded to that of a Special Rapporteur. The incumbent no longer reports directly to the UN Secretary-General and only has limited travel funds to assess the situation of IDPs in various countries (Koch, 2020, p. 26).

Consequently, the vulnerable situation of IDPs remains a huge challenge that is being insufficiently addressed at the international level.

Interestingly, however, there has been a discursive change over the last few decades that underscores a shift in the perception of internal displacement from a mere humanitarian issue to a serious development concern (Funke, 2020; Koch, 2020, p. 28). This shift is also reflected in organizational policies and strategy papers. In its 2017 operational review, UNHCR reevaluated its role on internal displacement and committed to strengthening its approach with regard to preparedness and early engagement; identifying and enhancing the capacity of national actors to prevent, respond to, and resolve internal displacement; enhanced information management to create a solid evidence base on protection risks and needs of IDPs; simplification and streamlining of internal procedures; and development of effective internal monitoring mechanisms (UNHCR, 2017). In the same year, IOM published a Framework for Addressing Internal Displacement to support operational effectiveness in the identification and implementation of responses to internal displacement. The framework recognizes the importance of addressing root causes, providing timely and effective humanitarian responses, and supporting sustainable recovery (IOM, 2017).

In addition to these internal policy revisions by individual organizations, OCHA, UNHCR, and the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons launched a three-year multi-stakeholder plan of action (GP20) in April 2018. The GP20 has the aim “to reinvogarate efforts to prevent, respond to and resolve situations of internal displacement” (EC/70/SC/CRP/11, para. 2).2 Moreover, in 2020, UN Secretary-General António Guterres established the High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement for one year to develop concrete recommendations for Member States, stakeholders, and the UN to respond to internal displacement and increase global attention to the issue (UN, 2020). While these are positive developments, they are only temporary initiatives that may not lead to long-term changes.

Conceptual Heritage

The IDP issue became prominent when the vulnerability discourse was already well-developed. However, the normative and institutional aspects of addressing the suffering of IDPs were initially woefully underdeveloped. This was followed by progress in some areas, and then a subsequent regression. The GP20 Plan of Action and the High Level Panel on Internal Displacement may now give a much-needed impetus to address the vulnerabilities of IDPs. Important definitional and operational concepts include:

Vulnerable groups—By their nature IDPs belonged to the most vulnerable groups in the world. Putting them on the international political agenda, a necessary but insufficient condition for supporting IDPs, required considerable lobbying and advocacy work. Nevertheless, it remains extremely difficult to address their plight.

Displaced persons and migration—The cluster approach employs somewhat different setups for conflict-generated and natural disaster–generated IDPs. Worryingly, IDPs and refugees are still conceptualized separately from broader forms of human migration (Gordenker, 1987), although economic refugees and people migrating from chronic crises or due to climate change will generally be difficult to distinguish from IDPs and refugees. IOs have played a central role in defining such concepts as refugee and IDP. As a corrolary, they have both wittingly and unwittingly played a role in neglecting, and thereby contributing to, the vulnerability of other groups of migrants.

Normative concepts—Much work has been carried out on “sovereignty as responsibility” and on building a normative framework with principles and guidelines. Although formulating international norms is a difficult process, it is far easier than ensuring norm compliance.

Organizational concepts—RSGs and Special Rapporteurs suggest but do not command or receive much funding. Especially since the degradation of the Special Representative to Special Rapporteur, the incumbent is no longer part of the UN system and has even fewer resources and dedicated staff at her disposal. Organizationally and financially, RSGs and Special Rapporteurs have to bridge the UN-NGO divide. Deng and his team did so very succesfully, yet neither Deng nor his successors were able to lay the institutional foundations for one IO that would be responsible for all IDPs. Coordination, since 2005 through the cluster approach, is the maximum that can be achieved, although internal displacement is often a long-term issue and product of fundamental political failures and deficiencies (Koch, 2020, p. 15). In this way, this case shows the limits of international rational-legal bureaucracy for IDPs (Barnett & Finnemore, 2004). In the final analysis, the role of IOs in protecting IDPs will remain limited as there are no easy solutions to rebuilding failing states that harm parts of their own population or lack the capacity to protect IDPs. IDPs reflect the deeper problem of ill-functioning or oppressive states.

A Legacy of Experience?

The organizational model of the Representative/Special Rapporteur as a bridge between the UN and the NGO worlds implicitly suggests a model for addressing other humanitarian issues, and in particular for international norm setting. In other ways, the model fits in with the same lines of action and underlying thought as mentioned in the Belgian case.

In sum, as long as the vulnerability of IDPs, who are frequently ill-treated by their governments, was overlooked by IOs, responses were unpredictable locally and internationally. After some initial improvisation, intensive lobbying, and research, this changed rapidly with regard to the identification of IDPs, advocacy, and new international standards. Nonetheless, insufficient implementation due to incomplete institutionalization persists (Funke, 2020; Weiss & Korn, 2006). In this respect, the political strategy of addressing IDPs’ vulnerability by diplomatically using “sovereignty as responsibility” has reached its limits.

Case 3: International Policy Initiatives: Sustainable Human Development, MDGs, and SDGs

Contrasting with the first two cases, the third considers global UN initiatives that incidentally or implicitly concern vulnerability. The League of Nations, early UN policy initiatives, and some other international agencies, rarely explicitly acknowledged vulnerability but nevertheless proposed help for VGs. Subsequent policies and actions increasingly implied or defined vulnerability as a crucial factor in International Organization and IR.

The Issue Arises

In contrast to security and development issues, vulnerability and environmental concerns were not explicitly addressed in the UN Charter of 1945 (Bogardi & Brauch, 2005, p. 85). The then-novel emphasis on development in the charter invited the creation of development programs that soon had strong support from the growing ranks of new members from the Global South (then designated as Third World).

Framing and Setting the Agenda

From these programs, initially framed in the series of three Development Decades, concepts that touched on and defined VGs steadily emerged. However bland the diplomatic language of such programs had to be in order to get support from both the South—which preferred to work through the UN General Assembly, where it holds the majority—and the developed countries—which preferred the Bretton Woods institutions, where they hold more voting rights—the pace of progress was unsteady and controversial. This lack of cooperation threw the North-South divide into sharp relief, particularly the way in which rich Northern countries pursued their economic interests—policies which, over time, became the main structural, and therefore political, impediment to addressing worldwide poverty and vulnerablility.

During the following decades, the attention on VGs diversified, but vulnerability remained an implicit theme as new types of activities, such as peacekeeping or civilian humanitarian interventions, or new actors, such as UNIFEM (now part of UN WOMEN on women’s and gender issues) and the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) became institutionalized. As a general trend, more IOs, including more NGOs, became operational at the “field level.”

In the 1980s, the inherently different approaches to development had satisfied few governments, either in the developed world or the South. The international institutions mirrored the divisions by framing alternative approaches. The Bretton Woods Institutions pursued a neoliberal agenda—the Washington Consensus—with their structural adjustment programs. In response, UNICEF sought “Structural Adjustment with a Human Face.” The Brundtland commission in 1987 offered the persuasive concept of “sustainable development” (UN, 1987). Many economists, who found echoes in IO secretariats, questioned the exclusive pursuit of economic growth and favored such aims as broader employment, meeting basic needs, and expanding people’s capabilities to lead satisfying lives (Sen, 1999).

In an able synthesis and adaptation of deepening economic thought, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in 1990 launched the annual Human Development Report (HDR), which offered relevant and more precise tracking of progress “according to measures of human well-being rather than economic growth” (Fukuda-Parr, 2004, p. 396). The report replaced Gross National Product with a Human Development Index to measure three critical areas: health, education, and income. The 1994 HDR broadened the conceptual framework with “sustainable human development” that included attention to environmental threats and “human security” in order to integrate political factors, such as human rights and democratic principles, into environmental, food, health, and economic security. This broadening coincided with the growing presence of nonstate actors in IO and a growing number of international interventions. This growth in numbers and diversity also caused a greater need for coordination. For example, the Department of Humanitarian Affairs and its successor, OCHA, were allocated responsibility for the coordination of civilian humanitarian interventions.

A series of international conferences in the 1990s that included highly visible NGO participation complemented the conceptual refining and diversification in IO. These included the World Summit for Children (1990), the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro (1992), the International Conference on Population and Development (1994), and the World Social Summit (1995), as well as other less inclusive and more specialized gatherings. Over the past two decades, the main large conferences have focused on climate change.

Further synthesis and expansion of global concepts for reducing poverty and promoting equality were highlighted in the UN Millennium Declaration of 2000 and, with further precision, a year later in the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These reflected the growth of a consensus on how to understand international cooperation on development and, for the first time, generally accepted quantitative standards for measuring progress in development (Fukuda-Parr & Hulme, 2011, p. 19). The use of targets for most MDGs harked back to the Development Decades. In the language of UN advocacy, the MDGs constituted a promise to “the world’s most vulnerable people” (our italics, UN, 2010).

However, it soon became obvious that not all the MDGs would be fully achieved everywhere, and that some would be only distantly approached in much of the world. Moreover, the UN Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction warned “that growing exposure to risk is outstripping current abilities to reduce vulnerability. There is an urgent need to invest more in systematic implementation and to address the driving factors: rural poverty and vulnerability, unplanned urban growth and declining ecosytems” (UN, 2009, p. 1). The 2011 HDR presented similar conclusions. Although the MDGs were not uniformly achieved, they were useful in focusing public and government attention and as measuring rods. In 2015, they were superseded by the even broader Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of Agenda 2030, which also pay attention to the issue of reducing conflict as one of the root causes of poverty and vulnerability. In sum, international policy increasingly acknowledges vulnerability as an issue, if not a global threat, that cuts across security, environment, and development.

Creating a Knowledge Base

The themes and concepts developed by IOs and associated NGOs connect with a broad range of practices and reports relevant to VGs. Operating IO programs, such as the protection of refugees by the UNHCR or the promotion by the World Health Organization of maternal and child health, result in statistical outputs and specific reports. Similar reports emanate from some NGOs. These represent contributions to knowledge about VGs and their situation. In considering the international handling of VGs, the conceptual sophistication surrounding the topic of what is—and would be—required to ameliorate the threats to VGs has decidedly improved.

This knowledge base critically contributes to IO in three ways. First, it shows that the types of vulnerability and the problems of VGs are clearly increasing. Environmental degradation (in particular climate change) does not respect borders and causes slow-onset disasters, which nevertheless still mainly affect VGs far away in developing coutries. IOs time and again indicate that the poor will disproportionately bear the brunt of such degradation. Neither VGs, their states, nor IOs possess the capacities to fully deal with such vulnerability. Nor is the state-based international system geared toward dealing with such cross-border vulnerability, which would require a “green” economic system and a political system that puts vulnerability center stage and reconceptualizes national interest and power accordingly, as well as propping up or intervening in weak or failed states. IOs can highlight these issues but cannot address them alone.

Second, the techniques of goal setting, targeting, benchmarking, and monitoring have developed useful statistical and qualitative evidence, which fosters a system of accountability and follow-up. Yet this system is incomplete. For example, it was not surprising that the eighth MDG goal on global partnership between the North and South fell short of the original Millenium Declaration expectations. It was the only MDG without a quantitative target and thus lacked accountability. Rich member states were not prepared to make firm financial commitments. Nor did they make progress on the Doha trade round. Similar problems continue to hamper the implementation of Agenda 2030 and the SDGs.

Third, the combination of research outputs, international conferences, and follow-up events are important contributions to international and national policy debates. For example, the publication of almost 800 national, subnational, and regional HDRs (UNDP, 2016, p. 26) has opened space for discussion and analysis that would otherwise not have been permitted by repressive regimes in some regions.

Creating a Normative Framework

As noted by Formerand (in press), undoubtedly, the production of “information and evidence that can break down barriers of disbelief and mobilize change in policy and behavior” (UNDP, 2000, p. 10) will remain the hallmark of the UN’s normative work. Nevertheless, just as in the IDP case, it is easier to publish research, set norms, and develop policies than it is to implement them succesfully and ensure compliance by other actors, be they states, other IOs, or transnational actors. In other words, incomplete institutionalization of these norms persists, while the number of vulnerable groups continues to increase.

Organizations and Action

As previously noted, IOs play an important role in intellectual conceptualization and policy making in the areas of development, security, and the environment, in which the Bretton Woods Institutions’ policy recommendations frequently differ from those of the other UN organizations. The low degree of institutionalization leaves IOs incapable of adequately addressing the structural factors that cause vulnerability. After all, there is no real political partnership between the Global North and South working to resolve their structural divide.

Conceptual Heritage

Through its research and policies on issues such as poverty, equity, environmental decline, and insecurity, the UN’s relentless reaffirmation of the legitimacy of the notion of “equality of opportunity” for the weak throughout its empirical and normative work has had a noticable impact on the understanding of the internal and external parameters of development. It is increasingly acknowledged that social protection and the reduction of vulnerability are legitimate development goals. Operational and definitional concepts developed by the UN include:

Vulnerable groups—Many IOs’ activities deal with different aspects or forms of vulnerability. As the number of VGs, varying from the inhabitants of small island states to IDPs, grows, vulnerability as a cross-border, cross-cutting theme links different areas of activity of IOs.

Areas of activity—Implicitly, vulnerability links the issues of security and development in the UN Charter with each other and with the environment. The interaction among these areas emanates from the mutual constitution of society and the environment, which still is not sufficiently understood. IOs play a growing role in developing this mutuality paradigm.

Normative concepts—With the SDGs, the current supernorm is the reduction of poverty. Underlying this norm are the concepts of civil and social rights and related concepts such as equity and sustainability. Vulnerability is a more analytical concept, which can help link these normative concepts with their actual impact on people on the ground.

Organizational concepts—UN organizations are not the only actors addressing vulnerability and do not command states or NGOs. The main organizational trends involved are more formalized relationships with nonstate actors and, to some extent, bridging the NGO-UN divide. States, however, still fulfill central roles in the three main areas of activities: security, development and the environment.

A Legacy of Experience

IOs have worked hard to change international behavior. There is a growing convergence of views that poor nations have done more than their fair share to free up trade and mobilize their internal resources. The pressure is now decidedly on the wealthy countries (Fomerand, in press). The relative successes that IOs have helped to achieve in human development and with the SDGs, however, are now being put at risk due to increasing vulnerability worldwide.

Similar to the former two cases, the IOs discussed in this case have identified VGs and causes of their vulnerability, solicited formal governmental action, supplemented it with NGO activity, and showed active public leadership and (officially) respect for local authority. Whereas the IOs in the former two cases increasingly succeeded in the penetration of barriers to supply humanitarian aid to Belgians and IDPs respectively, the IOs in this case deal with even more daunting structural challenges to the state-based system in the areas of security, economy, and the environment. In line with the mutuality paradigm, the political issues associated with vulnerability have become so pervasive as the number of vulnerable people continues to rise that the technnocratic strategy “not to politicize” will no longer suffice. IOs are, once again, better in norm development and policy formulation than in implementation and fostering compliance. It is an open question whether the international system, including the IOs, will be able to address the stuctural factors that cause increasing vulnerability.


The three cases contribute to a history of vulnerability as addresssed by IOs and show the shortfalls of moral persuasion and related normative concepts, such as human development and sustainability, that stress common humanity and help legitimize IOs.

The state, the main organizational form in IR, has helped to both address and complicate the issue of vulnerability. Persons and groups recognized by the state have rights, entitlements, and representative institutions. However, those who do not fit in, such as ethnic minorities, IDPs, or economic migrants, or those people who hail from weak states, have difficulty making their voices heard and establishing the legitimacy of their claims. Simultaneously, the three cases have made clear that many factors contributing to vulnerability surpass the capacity of the states. This has fed the continuing debate about sovereignty and the responsibility of states and IOs. Meanwhile, that discussion has encouraged increasingly sophisticated efforts to collect data and develop organizations and organizational responses in the direction of increasing the rational-legal authority of both IOs and international policy.

Finally, these cases show the incomplete nature of international action to address vulnerability and the difficulties IOs face in implementation, compliance, and concomitant institutionalization.

Critical Consideration of Elements that Remain Unconsidered, and Why They Remain Unconsidered

Although IOs’ responses to vulnerability may be inchoate and incomplete, they are not chaotic. In terms of research, an underlying structure can often be studied empirically. However, IR scholars often reflect the limitations of IOs by dealing with issues of vulnerability either in a general policy and norm-setting way or in a narrow programmatic way. As a result, they fail to make clear both the effects of vulnerability on individuals and the possibility that vulnerabilities interfere with the realization of the broader aims of development and maintenance of peace. Individual IOs generally work in a single issue area or in a limited set of issue areas. It is very difficult to obtain an overview of the interaction among these issue areas in reaching the broader aims, and most IOs are not mandated to go beyond their issue area.

Currently, the four paradigms of vulnerability—technical engineering, behavioralist, structuralist, and mutualist—coexist. In particular the “technocratic” literature reflects the increasingly sophisticated methodologies that IOs use to measure, prevent, and respond to the needs of VGs. Great strides have indeed been made in the areas of engineering, health, and rapid response capacities (de Waal, 2010), as well as norm and policy development. However, international political and media attention to the structural determinants of everyday and future vulnerability has not developed in equal measure. As a result, the technocratic focus on disasters lingers and often understates the deeply political issue of the mutuality of nature and society. This disaster coloration reinforces the following points:


An emphasis on organizations that deal with VGs, for example humanitarian organizations that provide succor to people who have already suffered from a disaster, such as refugees and IDPs.


A common disregard of the complicated political aspects of vulnerability that vary from local political participation to structural North-South factors. IO scholars will quickly notice that vulnerability, for example in the definitions of the UNDRR and the IPCC, is implicitly presented as a technocractic issue, and that its political aspects are under-conceptualized (see also the rather apolitical discussion of measuring vulnerability by Birkmann, 2006, and the contrasting views by Bankoff, Frerks, & Hilhorst, 2004; Hilhorst & de Man, 2008).


An emphasis on vulnerability as a concept that explains exceptional events (often disasters causing severe human suffering). This tends to neglect vulnerability as a normal state of affairs in a world that needs human development and SDGs. Although human suffering may follow sudden shocks, vulnerability has long historical roots in exclusion, marginalization, patterns of violence, and deliberate social engineering (e.g., forced collectivization or rapid industrialization projects, such as large hydroelectric dams). The concept of vulnerability can help translate the abstractions of global policies and programs into human life and remedies for suffering. Vulnerability as a normal state of affairs also fosters critical attention on issues such as

broader migration patterns and issues than just refugees and IDPs (UNDP, 2007);

“negative” development (e.g., social engineering or inadvertent environmental degradation);

narrow interpretations of security and power as merely the imposition of force;

examining both dependence and agency of VGs, which is needed for understanding how people deal with their own or other people’s vulnerability “on the ground.” For example, local forms of solidarity and support have always played a sizable role that has not always been sufficiently noted in the state-based IR research.

In sum, the conceptualization of vulnerability constituted an advancement over the technical engineering and the more technocratic, behavorial paradigms that focused mainly on natural hazards without addressing the broader social, political, and economic factors that codetermine whether a group is at risk. Although the pervasive impact of human activity on nature is receiving increasing attention, the tendency to focus on vulnerability as related to disasters alone still contributes to a neglect of the broader economic and political structural factors and to a disregard of vulnerability as part of normality. This can also lead to neglect of underlying patterns of power and vulnerability, as well as neglect of the origins of international organizations and of vulnerable people’s opinions and capacity to act. As a result, critical scholars (Harrell-Bond, 1986; Verdirame & Harrell-Bond, 2005) have asked whether and to what extent IOs serve the VGs or the interests of powerful states and other actors that want to benefit from the current international order. Whereas most literature on IOs focuses more on what they are doing for VGs, most moral philosophical and ethical literature centers more on how the policy choices of IOs to address some VGs leave out other VGs.

Assessment of Future Directions in Research, Theory, and Methodology

Following the mutuality paradigm, vulnerability should be a central concept in IO and IR (just like power, interest, state, international, and transnational), despite its usual exclusion from the standard fare of IR education and research. Why is this exclusion the case? On the one hand, except for feminist theory, vulnerability is still a relatively new or uncommon research topic in IR. In this sense, feminist theory should be mainstreamed more. On the other hand, implementation, compliance, and the resulting degree of institutionalization are hard to study. It seems that it is easier for scholars to theorize about broad trends, policies, and norms than to describe and analyze ground-level social and political phenomena that are the targets of specific norms and policies.

Nevertheless, remarkable innovations occur in IOs whenever our “common” humanity experiences something horrific (e.g., both world wars and the concomitant international institutional innovation and humanitarian operations; Dijkzeul & Herman, 2010). In other words, common humanity is most strongly expressed as shared vulnerability. For example, elites may most strongly experience their own vulnerability under exceptional circumstances, such as widespread war. Ostensibly, this enables a higher degree of alignment of the various interests of elites and other groups, including VGs, in the international and national policy arenas. In this sense, it could be studied whether perceived or experienced vulnerability leads to more creative (political) action at various levels of the international system. Does the perceived asymmetry of interests between the elite and VGs under conditions of normality hamper or even prevent such innovation as long as the elite does not feel its own vulnerability strongly enough? In this respect, IO scholars could study leaders who have experienced war and other disasters and how their perception of vulnerability facilitated specific institutional and policy innovations (e.g., Theodore Roosevelt).

Traditionally, IO and IR have preoccupied themselves with power—state-based political and economic elites, people in power, and powerful states—and has rarely focused on those on the receiving end of international policy. Moreover, it is often unclear how exactly power and vulnerability interact. More study of the interaction between the politically powerful and vulnerable groups is necessary in IR. Such studies will often show that the structural aspects are difficult to change, but more needs to be known about the actual pathways that resistance to change or addressing vulnerability take. Hence, IR also needs to understand the processes by which vulnerability arises, as well as why and how it is being addressed—or not—in more detail. As the cases in this article show, this can happen at various societal levels at which IOs play important but intrinsically limited roles. IO and IR scholars should pay more attention to micro-studies of local vulnerability produced by comparative political scholars and (cultural) anthropologists, as well as to sociological and organizational studies of political elites and their perceptions of vulnerability of themselves and others. In addition, a more complete history of vulnerability is needed. Such research will show that the distinction between the domestic and international is increasingly losing its relevance.

These future research themes highlight the importance of doing good empirical research in the field or within IOs, in particular to study processes of decision making, implementation, compliance, and the resulting degree of institutionalization, as well as dealing with either neglect or manipulation and instrumentalization of VGs by elites, states, IOs, and other actors. As a result, scholars will likely amend or move away from narrow rationalist theories of national interest and power and focus more on growing cross-border vulnerability. International Organization and by extension IR need a broad conceptualization of vulnerability as one of their central topics of study.


The authors would like to thank Leon Gordenker for his contribution to earlier drafts of this article.


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  • 1. Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not like each other and never cooperated on policy.

  • 2. GP20 refers to the 20th anniversary of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.