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date: 15 November 2019

Global Overview of the Role of NGOs in Natural Hazard Governance

Summary and Keywords

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) play important roles in that they: strengthen natural hazard governance through service delivery and humanitarian response; mobilize local actors and work for advocacy, knowledge access, and integration; promote disaster risk reduction (DRR), development, and climate change adaptation (CCA) perspectives; and facilitate calls for transformative approaches. Some roles are best undertaken by large international and national NGOs (INGOs and NNGOs) and some are the province of smaller local NGOs (LNGOs). The sector as a whole plays a vital role by both challenging actors and bridge-building among them, as well as by modeling innovative practice, highlighting changing risk drivers, and engaging in policy advocacy. However, the growth of the sector has brought about challenges. The potential of NGOs is reduced by the constraints attached to much institutional funding, pressure for upward rather than downward accountability, and limited engagement by large INGOs and NNGOs with LNGOs and local people. Initiatives such as the Grand Bargain, emerging from the World Humanitarian Summit, seek to refashion and rebalance the sector. If NGOs, particularly the larger and more established organizations, prove able to address such challenges then the ability of the whole sector to support transformative change will be strengthened.

Keywords: NGO, civil society, local knowledge, learning, bridge-building, advocacy, networking, accountability


Non-governmental organizations (NGOs)—diverse in scale and purpose—have become significant actors in natural hazard governance. Many of their routine actions in support of sustainable livelihoods, service delivery, and adult literacy and community mobilization contribute indirectly to local capacity to cope with and recover from natural hazards. They are also active directly in humanitarian response and disaster recovery, and they sometimes play a role as advisors or advocates on government policy affecting prevention, preparedness, and recovery. This article situates these worldwide activities in the context of the rapid growth of NGOs and the political and economic changes that led to their growth. The article will then turn to NGOs’ great diversity in size and type of activity, and examine their specific roles in natural hazard governance and what constraints they face. Finally, the article will discuss NGO funding, upward and downward accountability, and explore NGOs’ relations with national governments.

NGOs working directly or indirectly in the area of natural hazards and the institutions that structure and govern disaster risk management, are a smaller subset of a huge number of these organizations worldwide. The number of NGOs registered with the UN has grown from 40 in 1948 to 3,382 in 2010; however, this is a tiny fraction of the total number, given that registration with ECOSOC is a lengthy and complex process, which is favorable to larger NGOs (Statista, 2018). There is no comprehensive register of all NGOs, but one estimate puts the total number worldwide at over 10 million (Techreport, 2018). Many have relationships with local and national governments. Larger NGOs have relations with international agencies and influence frameworks of action for disaster risk reduction, and the generation of other global targets, such as the Sustainable Development Goals. Many smaller NGOs are able to participate in policy formation at the international scale through coalitions and networks, and during campaigns (Izumi & Shaw, 2014). For example, while many of the member organizations of the Global Network for Disaster Reduction (GNDR) are small, locally situated NGOs operating in single localities, they have been able to participate in the global “Views from the Frontline” campaign and have exerted influence on global agencies such as the UN Office for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) and the Global Fund for Disaster Risk Reduction (GFDRR) (GNDR, 2018).

For NGOs engaged in the system of governance of natural hazards, at whatever scale they operate, the starting point is affected populations: people who are exposed to hazards and who have knowledge and capacity for self-protection as well as opinions about government policy. The structures of hazard governance are intended to protect these populations and to empower them to utilize their capacities, express their opinions and make demands. NGOs at all scales have become significant contributors to natural hazards governance.

Origins and Rise of NGOs

While non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have only been known as such since the UN established the term, organizations of their type have been active over a much longer period. Defined them as not-for-profit organizations situated within civil society, as distinct from government and private enterprise (Davies, 2014), their antecedents include religious orders and organizations, gradually supplanted by secular charitable bodies. Such groups have often taken up positions based on their values. For example, some were central in the antislavery movement (Lewis, 2010). Others have insisted on their neutrality. Soon after the establishment of the Red Cross, its founder, Henri Dunant, debated the matter of neutrality in humanitarian action with Florence Nightingale. Nightingale disagreed strongly with this principle, believing that interventions were inevitably political and also supplanted national responsibilities (Polman, 2011). In the 21st century, such debates continue.

While often referred to as civil society organizations (CSOs), NGOs should not be regarded as the sole representatives of civil society (Lewis, 2010). Indeed, a disillusioned East European dissident wrote: “We dreamed of civil society and what we got were NGOs” (Misslevitz, quoted in Einhorn, 2005, p. 12). Faith communities and many forms of secular networking are also the source of considerable social capital that may help sustain populations during and after a crisis, and give ordinary people a voice that planners, policymakers and administrators may (or may not) hear.

NGOs experience growth and sometimes decay, as do all organizations. Three waves of development and expansion of what were then known as private international organizations (PIOs) appeared to have peaked before the First World War, before the Second World War, and at the turn of the millennium (Davies, 2014). For example, PIOs had a strong presence and claimed substantial influence at the Hague peace conferences of 1899 and 1907. They were influential within the League of Nations after the First World War, for example, campaigning on labor rights. The petition for world disarmament linked to the World Disarmament Conference of 1932–1934 attracted greater participation than did the Jubilee 2000 petition to reduce the burden of debt on the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPCs) (Davies, 2014). As the League of Nations became less active in the late 1930s, PIO participation in international affairs began to fade (Charnovitz, 1997).

While there are a number of catalysts for expansion and decline, a common theme is the development of hubris within organizations and coalitions that leads them to overextend themselves, resulting in a loss of public trust and a lack of sufficient resources to match their ambitions (Duffield, 2007; Lewis, 2010).

Although nonstate action has a long pedigree, geopolitical and economic changes since the Second World War have stimulated great expansion both of scale and of types of involvement of NGOs, as they were christened by the newly founded United Nations in 1947 (Davies, 2014). This expansion has seen NGOs become significant actors in the governance of natural hazards, broadly defined as the creation, monitoring, and maintenance of institutions and policies at various scales that combine to reduce the impact of potentially harmful natural events and processes. Postwar reconstruction presented opportunities at a local, national, and international scale, and existing NGOs such as Oxfam and Save the Children experienced waves of expansion. Decolonization and the later neoliberal policy of reducing the size of the public sector shifted much service delivery to NGOs. Global awareness and action on climate change has spurred yet another major expansion of NGO activity.

Duffield (2007) charts Oxfam public appeals in the period from the end of World War II to 1980, which include appeals associated with: the Palestinian refugee crisis (1949); the Korean War (1950); famine in Bihar (1951); the Ionian island earthquake (1953); the Hungarian Revolution (1956); the Algerian War of Independence (1957); World Refugee Year (1959); civil war in the Congo (1960); the Biafran War (1967); an earthquake in Peru and a cyclone in East Pakistan (1970); the independence struggle in Bangladesh (1971); an earthquake in Guatemala (1976); a cyclone in India (1977); and the devastation of Cambodia (1979). Such events also stimulated the establishment of new organizations such as War on Want, Médecins sans Frontières, Action Contre le Faim, ActionAid, and GOAL.1

As these agencies grew in size and resources there was parallel growth in development programs, which was also, in many cases, driven by the development wings of organizations such as those just mentioned (Gibson, 2017). Duffield (2007) argues that decolonization opened up a vast new space for such work. This led to a frequent emphasis on the importance of community development (Banks & Hulme, 2012). For example, the Intermediate Technology Design Group, later renamed Practical Action, was born directly out of the ideas of Schumacher as framed in his book Small is Beautiful (1973), with its emphasis on knowledge transfer and the self-reliance of communities. The mushrooming development and humanitarian-response industry was interpreted by some as a welcome means of compensating for the shrinking of the state and of its responsibilities. Such views reflected the dominant neoliberal agenda of the 1980s and 1990s (Fowler, 2011). However shrunken the state may have become, development and humanitarian efforts by NGOs have continued to work, as ever, in parallel—if not entangled—with those of various UN specialized agencies and bilateral donors, many of which were former colonial powers.

Alongside large international NGOs (INGOs) another growing layer of civil society consists of smaller national NGOs (NNGOs) and local NGOs, (LNGOs), often enlisted as partners by the larger organizations to deliver their programs at local level. Distinct from these, a further layer consists of grassroots community-based organizations (CBOs). These emphasize local legitimacy and involvement and often resist becoming delivery agents for the larger NNGOs and INGOs (Edwards, 2011), instead maintaining action agendas that are defined and agreed locally.

NGOs may be primarily concerned with either advocacy—facilitating expression of social demands and attempting to exercise political influence—or with service delivery. In many cases advocacy and service delivery go together. NGO activities and advocacy concerns can be found in areas encompassing communications, development, education, environment, health, human rights, disaster management, humanitarianism, labor, law, peace, professions, recreation, service, sport, standardization, women, and youth (Charnovitz, 1997; Davies, 2014; Lewis, 2010;).

The growth and visibility of INGOs have been boosted by a number of campaigns. Examples include the anti-apartheid campaign that used boycotts to pressure South Africa, the Nestlé baby milk campaign (Keck & Sikkink, 1998), the Jubilee 2000 campaign (Clark, 2003), and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (Cox, 2011). These movements were possible partly because of globalizing trends, such as increasing impacts of multinational companies’ operations and globalized economic flows. They were also particularly enabled by new communications technologies: initially email, followed by technologies such as Skype which enabled instantaneous and cheap communication (Mawdsley, Townsend, Porter, & Oakley, 2002; Waddell, 2011).

International natural hazard governance has been constructed over the past two decades through such vehicles as the UN International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (1990–1999) and frameworks such as the Yokohama Strategy (1995), the Hyogo Framework for Action (2005), and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015). Concerned about a lack of acknowledgment of local knowledge and experience within the international system, NGOs have campaigned continuously since the mid-1990s for greater recognition of local voices in the design of these frameworks. The authors of this chapter have been closely involved with one such network of several hundred NGOs, the Global Network for Disaster Reduction, founded in 2007 and growing out of NGO activism at the 2005 UNISDR Global Platform for Disaster Reduction in Kobe, Japan (Gibson, 2017; Gibson & Wisner, 2016).

Typology of NGOs

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the early 21st century encompass a wide range of scales, modes of action, locations, and sources of resources. As a result, they are diverse, and this diversity needs to be understood before considering their roles in natural hazard governance.


With an income of over US$600 million2 the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee can claim to be the largest NGO in the world, though Davies (2014) suggests that if the International Co-Operative Alliance (ICA) is regarded as an NGO, it is even larger, with a membership of 1.2 billion and a turnover of US$2.1 trillion worldwide.3 International NGOs (INGOs) operating globally manage huge revenues. World Vision International, Oxfam International, Save the Children International, Plan International, Médecins Sans Frontières, CARE International, CARITAS International, and ActionAid International had combined revenues of over US$11.7 billion in 2011 (Morton, 2013). National NGOs (NNGOs) can also be substantial in scale, whereas at local level, many millions of local NGOs (LNGOs) (Techreport, 2018) may have as few as two or three staff and extremely limited resources.


NGOs operate across a spectrum from service delivery to advocacy and from development to humanitarian response. At the international scale an agency such as Save the Children is strongly focused on service delivery, for instance their Education Safe from Disasters program (Save the Children, 2017) and distribution of Birthing Essentials and Care of Newborns (BEACON) boxes after disasters; whereas the Global Networks for Disaster Reduction’s (GNDR’s)4 activities concentrate on advocacy, knowledge creation, and research. Among NNGOs the picture is more blurred, as these organizations tend to respond to the needs of the specific situations where they operate. For example, the Center for Disaster Preparedness in the Philippines5 has a range of programs building partnerships for community disaster risk reduction. It also responds to humanitarian crises such as Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. At the same time, it engages with regional and national government to advocate policy change and has played a role in securing local disaster risk reduction (DRR) expenditure by national government. External factors influence NGOs’ modes of action, in particular their sources of resources, often pushing them toward service delivery defined by external donors.

Location and Situation

Location and situation (length of time in a location and sociopolitical embeddedness) are significant attributes of NGOs. Some organizations are embedded in particular local contexts: for example, the Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific Kiribati works on a single Pacific island with a population of just over 100,000. Others are regional, and may work in a small number of countries: for example, Jeunes Volontaires pour l’Environnement (JVE) which operates in 25 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. JVE is a very small organization compared with BRAC, but BRAC itself only operates in 11 countries in Asia and Africa, with strong roots in Bangladesh. Chinese NGOs have experienced growth since the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Dozens work within regions of China, and some have begun to work overseas, for instance in Haiti (2010) and Nepal (2015) (Ji, 2016).

Some organizations also operate in locations remote from their main area of focus. Frequent characteristics of such bodies include: membership of global consortia; a global reach, size and scope; enhanced organizational capacity; a wide range of partnerships; and a high level of legitimacy and influence (Morton, 2013). Examples of these are Oxfam and ActionAid. However, the legitimacy of such agencies, which have global reach but less local engagement, is sometimes called into question, for example in the recent debate about the relative strengths of global versus local agencies that took place during the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit (Start Network, 2017).

Organizations situated in a particular locality or nation and engaged in local programs are able to play a bridging role between local and remote actors, accessing local knowledge (Jasanoff & Martello, 2004). Local NNGO staff and their understanding of local experience and priorities are essential to bridge the gap for INGOs, whose staff may be professionally trained but have high job mobility among international agencies rather than locally rooted (Chambers, 2008; Duffield, 2007). This in turn has a strong bearing on INGOs’ legitimacy and authority in advocacy contexts, as well as on their ability to collaborate appropriately with local populations.


Resources are a fundamental determinant of NGO behavior. Dependent on funding and on staffing, NGOs both large and small often find that their programs are shaped by sources of funding rather than by the priorities of the people with whom they work. Globally, only 1.2% of total aid is directed to local level, the remainder being managed by international agencies as intermediaries (Development Initiatives, 2015). Dependent often on externally restricted funding, small NGOs bemoan the funding cycle trap, in which donor agencies (international agencies, INGOs, governments, or private foundations) define the programs they wish to support, their timescales (with a preference for short timescales in order to report results), and specific outputs and outcomes. For example, heads of three small West African agencies recounted the difficulties they had experienced in accessing resources (T.Gibson, personal communication, 2011), and outlined plans to generate unrestricted funding from commercial activities, including establishing a conference center and starting a cocoa plantation. These activities would provide income which could be spent according to local development objectives and not be bound by donors’ objectives and timetables.

INGOs face a similar problem, because an increasing proportion of their income has come from institutional sources rather than public donation. In the UK, institutional funding is greater than public donation income (Bond, 2016). This funding situation leads to unavoidable alignment with the objectives of national governments and international institutions rather than those of the INGO or the people with whom it works (Baird & Shoemaker, 2007; Mosse, 2004). For example, Oxfam secures 57% of its total income from governments, multilaterals, and foundations, all of which is restricted (Oxfam, 2016). Some are critical of this aid dependency: for example, the Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF), which champions methods of securing funding locally for local activities.6

These characteristics of NGO structure, organization, and behavior are summed up in Table 1.

Table 1. NGO Typology

Aspect of NGO Typology





In-country NNGOs & LNGOs operating in localities, subnational jurisdictions or nationally

LNGOs and NNGOs established in a locality and engaged in community development or specific programs in agriculture, finance, health, water supply, flood early warning, etc.


Often operating across a particular world region and may have localized subnational and national operations

NGOs such as BRAC and JVE, which have expanded across national borders or formed loose federations to combine local action and broader influence


Operating across a large number of countries with specific programs deployed locally

Large INGOs, such as World Vision and Oxfam, with multiple offices and many project locations

Coalitions and Networks

Enabling NGOs of all scales to engage in national and global governance in concert

Campaigns such as Jubilee 2000, networks such as GNDR, regional organizations such as ADRRN (Asian Disaster Risk Reduction Network)


Service delivery and humanitarian assistance

LNGOs & NNGOs responding to national crises and global NGOs deploying staff and resources

Safe Schools as a program focus of Save the Children; global, regional, and local NGOs responding to Gorkha earthquake in Nepal

Mobilization of local actors and advocacy

Issues-based local partners’ priorities and broader campaigns coalitions and networks

Huiarou Commission (gender); RIADIS (disability); GNDR (DRR); Safe Kids Worldwide (preventing accidents; Fundación Pachamama (rights of indigenous people)

Knowledge access and learning

Relies on local staff and long-term, trust-based relationships with communities

GNDR’s “Action at the Frontline” programs

Promotion of DRR, Development, and CCA perspectives

Local NGOs involved in community development and programs of global NGOs deployed locally

Community-based Disaster Risk Management (CBDRM) programs led by local agencies and by field operations of INGOs

Encouragement of transformative approaches

Monitoring changes in underlying risk factors and communication of these to social movements and to local and national governments

GNDR’s “Views from the Frontline” and “Frontline” programs



NNGOs & LNGOs with local involvements and locally rooted staff engaged in local development, advocacy, and humanitarian action

LNGOs operating in one city or region, often emerging from local community action


Regional and global NGOs mobilizing programs across different territories, either using remote staff or partnering with local NGOs

Normally headquartered in one location, often with country offices and defined programs, methods, and tools (e.g. World Vision, Oxfam)



Government, multilateral, and philanthropic funding, often restricted to specified purposes and goals

Program funding from agencies such as World Bank; donor governments; foundations (e.g. Rockefeller, Gates, Qiaonyu foundations,7 and Tata Trusts8)


Sources of funding can be applied in line with priorities identified by NGOs and local people

Public donations; local income generation from associated business activities; community foundations

It can be seen from the typology (Table 1) that there is more to an NGO than its size. NGOs’ roles and modes of operation are also influenced by their funding sources and by their location and situation.

NGO Roles in Natural Hazard Governance and Range of Methods Used

A Schematic Overview

Figure 1 organizes elements of the system of natural hazard governance in order to consider the roles, opportunities, and constraints of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Global Overview of the Role of NGOs in Natural Hazard GovernanceClick to view larger

Figure 1. NGO roles, opportunities, and constraints in governance of natural hazards

In the rightmost section of the figure the impact of hazards is indicated through the combination of exposure and vulnerability. The effect of changing contexts is also portrayed because the social creation of risk may be highly significant. Thus, the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction’s (UNISDR’s) Global Assessment Review (GAR) stated:

. . . most countries have understood and practiced risk reduction as the management of disasters . . . while this approach is appropriate to manage disasters, it has proved unfit for purpose to manage the underlying risks. Given that these risks are generated inside development, addressing them requires actions such as reducing poverty, planning and managing cities appropriately and protecting and restoring ecosystems.

(UNISDR, 2015b, p. xv; italics added)

Factors such as rapid urbanization, investment in megaprojects, growth of the informal sector, globalization, climate change, geopolitical tensions, conflict, migration, and internal displacement create rapidly shifting risk profiles. Figure 1 distinguishes between national and international scales of governance and highlights responsibilities at each scale. Moving leftward in the figure, one overviews the challenges faced in national and global governance.

NGOs may organize themselves in various ways so as to act in response to the hazards to which populations are exposed, particularly those arising from these risk-creating processes. Figure 1 summarizes the roles NGOs may play, their methods, the particular opportunities they enjoy, and the constraints they face. Thus visualized in a single schema, NGOs can be seen as part of an evolving “ecosystem” of actors (Lassa, 2018) and as filling gaps between local needs and national capacities, thus enhancing “community resilience” (Ji, 2016).

Specific NGO Roles, Methods, Opportunities, and Constraints in Governance of Natural Hazards

The following sections discuss each of the five roles identified in Table 1 that NGOs play in natural hazard governance, expanding on Table 1 and further clarifying Figure 1 by providing examples of specific opportunities for NGOs to contribute, and the specific constraints they face in each role.

Service Delivery and Humanitarian Response

By providing services to support developmental processes and humanitarian response, NGOs indirectly influence the governance of natural hazards. An example at local level is a program in Yogyakarta region of Indonesia that promotes climate-adaptive farming and counters climate change impacts and which is managed by the NGO Yakkum Emergency Unit (YEU). The influence may be positive in that the NGO models innovative practices and methods, and transfers methods from other locations to the local context. It may also be negative, however, if its actions undermine other governance processes. There is a difficult balance to be struck, and debate is continuous as to whether or not service delivery by NGOs weakens the state and erodes its credibility in the eyes of ordinary people, who grow to associate essential services like water and healthcare with NGOs and not with that state (Gustafson, 2013; Zaidi, 1999).

Governance of humanitarian response to disasters may also be influenced by NGO involvement. For example, in Kathmandu, Nepal, the NGO the National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET) has promoted local-level groups and associations that provide small-scale nonstructural earthquake mitigation measures, as well as training and coordination of first responders. This has strengthened local natural hazard governance by drawing community groups together and strengthening their relationships with local authorities (Shresha et al., 2018). However, NGOs may override or undermine existing structures of governance, and in this case their influence may be negative. For example, according to the government of Vanuatu, the huge influx of responding international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) personnel there overwhelmed national governance after Hurricane Pam (IFRC, 2011).

Mobilization of Local Actors and Advocacy

NGOs are able to work at the interfaces among actors to promote partnerships, collaborations, and coalitions to manage the potential harms resulting from natural hazards, thus strengthening formal and informal governance as well as creating enabling conditions for advocacy to influence governance at other scales.

Advocates may press for change within formal structures, or operate from outside in campaigning mode where necessary, putting pressure on formal structures. For example, an NGO coalition in the Philippines persisted with advocacy addressed to the national government for nearly a decade. This was influential in establishing legislation supporting local-level disaster risk reduction (DRR) in the country (Fellizar-Cagay, 2013).

Where government is resistant to change, NGOs may act to promote social demand for change, as in the work of the NGO the Pattan Development Organization, working in the Sindh valley of central Pakistan. In this case, local problems with flooding have resulted from decisions made by local government under pressure from wealthy landowners. The NGO’s strategy has been to motivate local communities to combine and campaign for changes in local watercourse management, which it has done by publicizing its cause in the local media (Bari, 2018).

These examples illustrate the access which NGOs have to a range of actors—from national government to local community groups—and how this access creates opportunities to influence governance.

However, legitimate advocacy depends on bringing authentic voices to bear on governance processes and INGOs have been found to be weakly connected to the local constituencies for which they claim to speak (ALNAP, 2015; Schmitz, Rago, & Van Vijfeijken, 2011). In such cases their role can be called into question.

Knowledge Access and Learning

Knowledge is a foundation of good governance. A tendency to valorize formal scientific and technical knowledge over local experiential or situated knowledge can lead to the latter’s being excluded from decision-making (Gibson, 2012; Gibson & Wisner, 2016; Jasonoff & Martello, 2004). As bridge-builders, NGO networks and INGOs are able to bring these two knowledge domains together, facilitating flows of knowledge from the local to the national and international, and vice versa. They can also promote and provide reflective learning. Such knowledge transfer and learning activities underpin the strengthening of governance of natural hazards.

Knowledge can be aggregated and shared at a global scale. Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI) does this through its Know Your City program, which has gathered data on local situations and experience from 7,712 slums in 224 cities (SDI, 2018) and made it visible internationally. The Global Network for Disaster Reduction’s (GNDR’s) “Views from the Frontline” program mobilized over 600 NGOs to gather information on local experience of risks and resilience from 100,000 respondents in over 60 countries. International agencies such as the UNISDR have increasingly recognized the value of integrating lessons from this information into their frameworks.

At a local level, NGOs also contribute to strengthening knowledge flows to support natural hazard governance. For example, on Kiribati Island in the central Pacific, multiple consequences of climate change (including a rise in sea level, salt-water incursion, higher spring tides and erosion, fisheries damage, land loss, internal migration, and increasing social tension) are being addressed by programs coordinated by the local NGO in partnership with community groups, other agencies, and the local government. As a result, local knowledge of the complex socioeconomic and environmental effects of climate change in the islands has been combined with meteorological, hydrological, and other scientific information to understand and prepare for future scenarios (Aretaake, 2018).

The importance of integrating local experience and knowledge with more technical sources to strengthen natural hazard governance has grown, and this is a key opportunity for NGOs. There are limitations and constraints that must be acknowledged. When assuming a role, NGOs often fail to reflect on or address failures. In particular, they are pressured by the donor-driven requirement for results to present success stories. Reports that explore lessons from what didn’t work as well as what did are important, however. One of several exceptions, and a positive example, is the IFRC report on the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (IFRC, 2011).

Promotion of Disaster Risk Reduction, Development, and Climate Change Adaptation Perspectives

A particular challenge to effective natural hazards governance is fragmentation of responsibility among a number of government departments and ministries, and the jealous maintenance of silo boundaries and budgets. Because many NGOs at all scales work in a way that integrates action on relief, recovery, preparedness, disaster risk reduction (DRR), development, and climate change adaptation (CCA), they are able to model and promote integration of these understandings and interventions. Of course, NGOs, especially larger INGOs, are not immune to fragmentation and the production of competitive silos; there may be pressure from funders to focus on narrow, strictly defined projects that fall neatly into sectors. This precludes exploiting, or makes it difficult to exploit, the value of interlocking DRR, development, and CCA perspectives.

NGOs take a range of positions regarding the nature and origin of natural hazard risk and its relationship to economic and human development. Some support the UNISDR’s view that natural hazards are a major driver of risk, while social drivers, such as lack of understanding and risk-enhancing behaviors, are secondary. According to this view, DRR should be coordinated with development efforts, but such coordination is considered a separate and specialized area of policy and practice. Some take a less orthodox approach and argue that development must take DRR on board as routine, mainstream practice, or even that DRR and good development are identical. On the most radical end of this spectrum, some suggest that disasters are a sign of failed development and that maldevelopment—for example, land grabs and large-scale megaprojects that displace people and degrade the environment—create a disaster risk (Lavell & Maskrey, 2013; Lewis & Kelman, 2012). Some INGOs have been influenced by this kind of academic analysis.

NGOs may aim to promote integrated approaches at an international, regional, and national scale. The Gender and Disaster Network (GDN)9 maintains a useful web resource and attends international meetings to support integration of gender in DRR policy and frameworks. Regionally, ActionAid developed a Gender Sensitive Resilience Index to be deployed in seven countries in South Asia (ActionAid, 2014). By using the overarching concept of resilience to provide a holistic view of hazard governance and drawing in the issue of gender, ActionAid aimed to engage with governments, donors, and organizations across the region to open up dialog about integrated approaches. Another example is the regionally active African Centre for Disaster Studies, which maintains a learning network that seeks to mainstream gender issues into DRR (ACDS, 2018).

NGOs promote integrated approaches at global and regional meetings such as the UNISDR’s biannual Global Platform for Disaster Reduction10 and the annual Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction.11 More critical views are also disseminated via NGO websites, social media, and reports such as Views from the Frontline,12 the South Asia Disaster Report,13 and many books, published in Spanish by a network of NGO practitioners and consultants and academics in 10 Latin American countries.14

At local level, NGOs tend naturally to bridge disasters and development in their work, for example in Cameroon, where a local NGO, Geotechnology, Environmental Assessment and Disaster Risk Reduction (GEADIRR), found that government legislation and management was limited to emergency response. Communities there did not understand their own role in reducing risk and regarded disasters fatalistically. The NGO mobilized communities to clear watercourses and reduce seasonal flooding and landslips, and also pressed local and national government to take action to address risk-creating activities such as allowing building to take place on unstable land (Aka, 2018).

Promotion of Transformative Context-Specific Approaches

NGOs at all levels can channel pressure from populations to address underlying risk drivers. National and local NGOs are able to engage with local populations to strengthen social demand and support the evolution of effective institutions with the means to enact transformative change.

Despite obstacles, all types of NGOs can also access local experience, whether on a Pacific island (Aretaake, 2018), in a dense urban setting (Gupta, 2018), or across a broad range of respondents (e.g. the work of SDI and GNDR). Local experience enables them to report on the consequences of changing contexts such as urbanization, informality, globalization, overdevelopment, climate change, geopolitics, and migration. For example, in Vietnam an NGO engaged on a practical level in service delivery has also documented the disconnect between national level DRR policy and the needs of people outside the urban middle classes, and also contributes information to GNDR’s global surveys and campaigns (Chantry & Norton, 2018).

Through networked collaboration, NGOs can highlight the differential impact of disasters on the most vulnerable, and make this information available to national governments and global frameworks such as the Sendai Framework for Disaster Reduction (see the example of GNDR in Box 1).

Larger NGOs have professional staff who monitor environmental and climate change. As linkages between academia and NGOs have grown, reports and digests of the findings of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other specialized research institutes have become more readily available to these NGO staff. In addition, specialized INGOs, outside or on the boundaries of the DRR and humanitarian communities of practice, provide their own reports. Examples include the International Rivers15 and the Forest Peoples Programme.16 The INGO Friends of the Earth and its Mozambican partner, Justiça Ambiental, have reported on risk creation caused by large colonial-era dams such as Cahora Bassa on the Zambezi River (JA, 2018; Isaacman & Morton, 2012). From the 1980s onward, some campaigning INGOs have alerted the public to the impacts of structural changes, mandated by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), on the health of children and other vulnerable groups. Some NGOs have monitored such economic changes, particularly the impacts of the 2007 economic crisis and subsequent austerity policies. Their links with academic researchers have been a vital method of staying abreast of change. Use of social media, as well as relations with contacts in the conventional news media, have been important means for NGOs to mobilize public opinion.

In many cases, early warnings of trends affecting marginal people in marginal places are observed in the course of their daily work over time by NGOs whose location and situation is stable and engaged. These warnings frequently take the form of what social scientists term qualitative data. This is often disregarded by policymakers who, if they listen to scientists at all, are used to following guidance that is based on quantitative data. Nevertheless, when combined with quantitative results from reports such as those by the IPCC, by UN Habitat on urban conditions, and others, and when supported by academic partners, such local knowledge can be persuasive.

For NGOs to exercise their voice, and gain the leverage to call for transformative approaches in the face of threatening trends, depends on their having a degree of independence and autonomy; however, this is at risk of being eroded by the increasing evidence of the influence exerted on these organizations by donors, and their worldviews and perceived interests. In the UK, institutional giving to INGOs has now outstripped public donations (Bond, 2016), and the influence of foreign-policy concerns of governments on institutional funding is growing; for example, there has been a shift in EU rules, which now allow aid to support security interests (CONCORD, 2018). This represents a threat to the independent voice of NGOs.

An example of NGO engagement in the roles discussed above is presented in Box 1.

Sources of Funding

Funding originates from a range of sources, primarily from large donors such as governments and international and philanthropic funds. Usually these funds pass through intermediary organizations to reach their final destination—hence the loudly voiced complaint from NGOs based in the Global South, at the 2016 UN World Humanitarian Summit, that only 1.2% of all funding to the NGO sector is directly received at local level (Development Initiatives, 2015). This has been described as forming an “aid chain” (Wallace, Bornstein, & Chapman, 2007).

Financial Headwaters: The International Development Assistance System

National governments allocate nearly US$145 billion annually to international aid (OECD, 2016). Many governments have specific departments tasked with distributing this money, such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in the United States, the Department for International Development (DFID) in the United Kingdom, EuropeAid and the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) in the European Union, AusAid in Australia, Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, and so on. While in principle aid and development departments apply their expertise in order to allocate aid where it is most needed, in practice their autonomy is limited by the influence on their decisions of other departments and branches of government. For example, a study of three highly regarded national foreign-aid departments in the UK, Sweden, and Norway found that all three aid agencies experience limitations. Their decisions are influenced by government in general, and foreign policy in particular (Gulranani, 2015). This affects which countries will be supported and which priorities are set for the application of aid. An increasing proportion of government aid is also disbursed by other departments, which have their own agendas (UK International Development Committee, 2018). These considerations limit the freedom with which recipient organizations can apply resources.

Delinking provision of aid from national priorities is one intended purpose of multilateral agencies, many of which form part of the UN system, such as the UN Development Program (UNDP), the World Bank’s Global Fund for Disaster Risk Reduction (GFDRR), and UN-OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), which is primarily responsible for the UN response to emergencies. Specialized agencies of the UN channel significant funding as well as technical expertise. So, for example, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) is very active in building national and regional capacity to monitor weather events, providing warning of hazards and forecasting (Hewitt et al., 2015). In principle, multilateral agencies aggregate funding received from governments and other donors, decide how funding is allocated, and reinstate a degree of autonomy to the agencies in allowing aid to be allocated independent of donor government preferences. However, it has become established practice for governments to have a say in how multilateral aid is disbursed (Apadoca, 2017).

Private foundations provide a further source of funding; these are less connected to national political considerations, but have their own priorities and agenda. Examples include the Ford, Gates, Kellogg, Rockefeller, Pew, and Soros foundations based in the United States, the Tata Trusts in India and the Qiaonyu Foundation in China). For example, the Rockefeller Foundation supports a widespread network called 100 Resilient Cities.18 Operating independently of national politics, such foundations have considerably greater freedom of action to set their own objectives and use their funding to support them.

Governments, multilaterals, and foundations provide a substantial proportion of the funding needed to sustain humanitarian response, DRR, CCA, international development, and public health as they are currently shaped. Some of this is channeled through INGOs on the way to its final destinations.

Finance Flowing Through INGOs

As the NGO sector has grown, so too have its financial needs. INGOs have substantial budgets, with an estimated total income for humanitarian response of US$9.2 billion in 2017 (Development Initiatives, 2018). They are an important element of the aid chain. For example, budget figures for the UN mission to Syria in 2018 show that nearly 43% of aid to the region was allocated to INGOs (UNOCHA, 2018). While INGOs may be perceived as dependent on public support, the proportion of INGO income from bilateral and multilateral donors has steadily increased. In the UK, it has outstripped public donations since 2014 (Bond, 2016).

Many INGOs pursue a partnership model as they move this money along the aid chain. They rely on smaller national and local NGOs to implement programs. In such cases, INGOs form a link between bilateral and multilateral donors upstream and national NGOs (NNGOs) and local NGOs (LNGOs) downstream.

Financing Local NGOs

As noted above, only 1.2% of aid is routed directly to local level, most finance being funneled through organizations such as INGOs, governments, and multilaterals. National and local NGOs often find the constraints attached to such funding onerous (Buckley & Ward, 2015) and seek complementary sources of funding. The Global Fund for Community Foundations19 was established specifically to promote local sources of funding such as local “community philanthropy,” and INGOs such as Oxfam have trading operations such as charity shops to generate unrestricted income.

Local NGOs are well equipped to judge how money can be spent effectively on community-based projects, but with money comes accountability and forms of monitoring, evaluation, and reporting that emphasize “upward accountability towards the sources of funds rather than downward accountability to the people the whole system is intended to serve” (Edelman, 2007).


The scale of funding received and channeled by INGOs for humanitarian response and development has led to an increasing need for clear accountability for what they do and how they do it. What they do is concerned with implementation. What are the goals of their activities and to what extent have these been achieved? Such assessments are often inflected by assumptions and attitudes shaped by neoliberalism and its belief in the centrality of the market; thus, the question becomes whether INGO work represents “value for money.” How INGOs do what they do is an issue which is under increasing scrutiny from within the industry itself, from its institutional funders and from the general public. Exposure of sexual exploitation both of vulnerable populations and of aid-agency staff in 2018 (UK House of Commons, 2018) led to widening ripples throughout the industry, though these issues had been raised numerous times previously. Broader questions have been raised about the way that NGOs operate, concerning their sensitivity to the contexts they operate in and their accountability and responsiveness to the populations with which they work (Banks, Hulme, & Edwards, 2015).

Besides submission of audited financial accounts, tools from evaluating implementation include project plans defining theories of change and goals, targets and deadlines (“logframes”—logical frameworks, in the idiom of the industry), monitoring of programs of work in progress, evaluation of programs of work, and reporting to stakeholders. All these mechanisms of accountability may be addressed upward, to donors, inward, to organization staff, and downward, to those the programs are meant to support (Jordan, 2005).

Upward Accountability

The dominant form of accountability is upward, reflecting the sources of finance for work programs. The NGO sector and UN agencies have documented the increasing burden of upward accountability that rests on the shoulders of implementing agencies. Progress reporting is often six-monthly and is based on increasingly complex reporting templates that are rarely harmonized among funding agencies (Caccavale, Haver, & Stoddard, 2016). An assessment by the Norwegian Refugee Council demonstrated the administrative burden of this reporting (NRC, 2016).

Accountability for the substantial sums spent in international aid for DRR, CCA, and development is important, and without it government and public support would likely diminish, but from a range of perspectives it is recognized that the administrative burden and the inflexibility imposed by such mechanisms constrains effective action by NGOs. An assessment conducted by the UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC, 2016) highlighted both the burden of reporting to each individual funder, and the lack of harmonization among reporting frameworks for different major funders. A report commissioned by USAID/OFDA (U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance) similarly found that the burden of reporting was high among NGOs, particularly in relation to USAID and ECHO (EU humanitarian funding) (Caccavale et al., 2016). NGO networks have also highlighted the increasing burden of reporting and the negative impact of this on implementation of programs. A report from the International Council for Voluntary Agencies stated the situation as follows:

The predominant emphasis on financial and accounting systems, and management and audit capacity, while critical, runs the risk of effectively removing the focus from other, equally essential areas of assessment such as prospects for long term partnerships for transformational change beyond transactional service provision. Ultimately, this emphasis may reduce the role of NGOs to that of sub-contractors, or view them as risks to be managed or simply as transactional partnerships.

(ICVA, 2015)

The resultant emphasis on upward accountability also dilutes the focus on downward accountability and learning.

Downward Accountability

INGO accounting to NNGO partners, local civil society, and local populations is a matter of principle rather than necessity. So, too, are an NNGO’s responsibilities “downward”: to the people it serves. A study of the views of 1067 partners of 25 INGOs was conducted by consultancy firm Keystone (2011). The report found that the weakest areas of partnership were concerned with flexibility of funding, consultation, and collaboration with partners. The Keystone team found that “respondents want northern NGOs’ help to become strong, independent and influential organizations. They contrast this with being contracted to implement northern NGOs’ projects and priorities.”

A survey of INGO practice (ALNAP, 2015) suggested that consultation was typically carried out through feedback questionnaires. In other words, it was based on one-directional feedback rather than discussion. Furthermore, the study found that in humanitarian contexts, only 33% of aid recipients had been consulted on their needs, and of these, only 20% said the agency had acted on feedback. Therefore only 7% of respondents had been consulted and had witnessed a response to their feedback.

The INGO member organization, Accountable Now, established to encourage thorough and transparent accountability among its 22 member organizations, encourages them to produce annual accountability reports. In a feedback letter responding to the 2016 reports it found:

coordination with local communities is still an overall weakness [...] Do you take into account local market conditions and think about working alongside local organisations building their capacity? We suggest that [members] should start to consider their impact on the sustainability and independence of local civil society in all their work (such as planning, budgeting, economic impact, etc.

(Accountable Now, 2016)

Downward accountability to local populations faces similar challenges. A consultation of 152 NGO leaders from around the world reported by Schmitz et al. (2011) revealed a contrast between aspiration and practice. While respondents recognized the importance of accountability to local populations in principle, in practice only 48% referred to their duty to account to “beneficiaries.” By contrast, 78% of respondents highlighted the need for accountability upward to donors.

Given NGOs’ predominantly top-down sources of funding, their consequent reporting pressures leading to an emphasis on upward accountability, and the administrative burden of such reporting, it is not surprising that evidence from surveys of NGOs suggests their downward accountability is poorly developed, limiting engagement with and accountability to the local level for programs of action. Where accountability is more of a dialog, the actions of large-scale organizations can be shaped and influenced by local experience and knowledge. For example, the methods used in the early versions of GNDR’s major global action, “Views from the Frontline” (or VFL), were challenged by the network’s member organizations:

Members complained that the VFL studies remained distant from local people’s needs and aspirations. People were only asked about the priorities framed by the UN and about hazards and risks prioritised by outside experts. VFL’s narrow focus failed to reflect peoples’ everyday experience. The GNDR participating member organisations asked how the process could be re-designed.

(Gibson & Wisner, 2016)

As a result of this dialog, the program was completely redesigned around local open-ended conversations.

Inward Accountability

The idea that INGOs and NNGOs should be accountable to their own staff is laudable, but recent scandals suggest an inward-accountability deficit. Inward accountability ranges from reactive, such as whistleblowing, to more proactive staff consultations and participation in policy decisions. Potter issued a challenge to INGOs: “Accountability – don’t forget your staff” (Potter, 2011). Many organizations recognize a duty of care for employees and other staff in dangerous and psychologically stressful situations and try to protect them. One study of 754 NGO staff working in such circumstances found that 79% had experienced mental health issues (Douglas & Quinn, 2016). Between January 2016 and March 2017, there were 150 attacks in 20 countries that affected 238 aid workers, of whom 88 died (Reliefweb, 2017). There have been UN resolutions on the issue, and numerous studies of the possible causes for the increase in the number of such attacks, but the problem remains unsolved (Dyke, 2015).20

Lateral Accountability

Many INGOs, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and some national aid agencies subscribe to consensus-based international standards for humanitarian practice such as the Sphere standards.21 The International Standards Organization (ISO) has also developed and continues to review and update quality assurance standards for some aspects of DRR, such as the resilience of city infrastructure and services.22 The Core Humanitarian Standard is another.23 Lateral accountability is not a required or formal matter, but proceeds for reasons of peer pressure and reputation. Similarly, there is no formal sanction for a country’s failing to meet agreed risk-reduction targets under the Sendai Framework for Disaster Reduction (SFDRR), but poor performance as revealed by the Sendai Monitor during the period 2019–2030 could lead to “naming and shaming” by advocacy organizations.

NGO Relations with Governments

The schematic overview presented earlier as Figure 1 highlights constraints as well as opportunities for non-governmental organizations (NGOs). As has been discussed in some detail in this article, NGOs are rarely free agents, and processes of co-option or political exclusion (at two extremes) can limit their ability to participate (Thompson, 2012). In addition, their own internal development, scale, and increasing financial dependency can limit their ability to act in line with the potential roles that we have outlined.

Relations with government can vary considerably; for some NGOs, these are very close, as in the case of those who act as contractors for government foreign-aid departments, such as CARE with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), or Oxfam in its relationship with the Department for International Development (DFID) (Banks et al., 2015). In some countries, NGOs may be tightly controlled by governments, as is news and the media; in those locations, criticism of economic policy, of development projects, and of disaster management may put them into conflict with officials, as in the People’s Republic of China. This applies to both national NGOs and international NGOs (INGOs). After a tropical cyclone caused devastating damage there, the government of Myanmar blocked entry to foreign INGO staff, and delayed aid supplies until the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) could negotiate terms as an intermediary between the government and INGOs (Belanger & Horsey, 2008; MacKinnon, 2009; United Nations, 2008).


Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) play important roles in that they: strengthen natural hazard governance through service delivery and humanitarian response; mobilize local actors and work for advocacy, knowledge access, and integration; promote disaster risk reduction (DRR), development, and climate change adaptation (CCA) perspectives; and facilitate calls for transformative approaches. Some roles are best undertaken by large international NGOs (INGOs) and national NGOs (NNGOs) and some are the province of local NGOs (LNGOs). The sector as a whole plays a vital role by both challenging actors and bridge-building among them, as well as by modeling innovative practice, highlighting changing risk drivers, and engaging in policy advocacy. The NGO sector has been shaped by the history of its growth. Ranging from small and local to very large and global, the enormous potential of these organizations as civil society actors is constrained by several factors. Resource requirements for INGOs cause them to focus on upward accountability, especially to donor governments, weakening downward accountability for their actions. Resource demands for small LNGOs can trap them in project cycles. These constraints blunt the ability of the sector to build bridges among local, national, and global actors by drawing together the work that has been carried out and the lessons that have been learned from disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation, and transformative development as interlinked activities. Recommendations that could strengthen the transformative role of NGOs and unshackle them from these constraints, include adopting the following practices:

  • a stronger emphasis on downward accountability

  • a focus on local-level learning

  • a more nuanced and critical management of institutional funding and accountability

  • stronger and more equitable partnerships with local-level NGOs

  • providing LNGOs with greater access to financial resources and capacity-building.

Initiatives such as the Grand Bargain that emerged from the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) seek to refashion and rebalance the sector (United Nations, 2016), but they do not go far enough, and, indeed, there is a considerable gap between WHS rhetoric and the implementation on the ground that has taken place since the summit.

Reforms would strengthen the ability of the whole sector to support local capacities in integrated disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation, and transformative development. They would also allow NGO actors to support mobilized citizens and their organizations in addressing the root causes (underlying risk factors) that constrain local progress on DRR. The WHS reforms would provide more resources for local actors (NNGOs, LNGOs, and local civil society) to hold their governments to account for turning the institutional changes and rhetoric inspired by the Sendai Framework into action.


The authors would like to thank the staff, advisors, supporters, and participating organizations that make up the Global Network of Civil Society Organizations for Disaster Reduction, and also two anonymous reviewers.

Appendix 1: Acronyms


Building Resources Across Communities

(previously Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee)


Community-based disaster risk management


Community-based organization


Climate change adaptation


Civil society organization


Department for International Development (UK)


Disaster risk reduction


European Community Humanitarian Office


Economic and Social Council (of the UN)


Global Assessment Report (of UNISDR)


Geotechnology, Environmental Assessment and Disaster Risk Reduction (Cameroon NGO)


Global Fund for Community Foundations


Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (of the World Bank)


Global Network for Disaster Reduction


Ireland-based INGO


Heavily indebted poor countries


Inter-Agency Standing Committee (of the UN)


International Co-operative Alliance


International Council of Voluntary Agencies


International Federation of Red Cross (and Red Crescent)


International Monetary Fund


International non-governmental organization


Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change


International Organization for Standardization


Justiça Ambiental


Jeunes Volontaires pour l’ Environnement (West African NGO network)


Local non-governmental organization


National non-governmental organization


Norwegian Refugee Council


National Society for Earthquake Technology (Nepali NGO)


Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (of UN)


Overseas Development Institute


Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development


Private international organization


Latin American Network of Non-Governmental Organizations of Persons With Disabilities and their Families (English translation)


Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation


Slum/Shack Dwellers International


Humanitarian Standards Project


United Nations


United Nations Development Programme


United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction


United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs


United States Agency for International Development


Views from the Frontline (GNDR project)


World Health Organization


Yakkum Emergency Unit (Indonesian NGO)

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(1.) GOAL is perhaps less well known than the others.

(2.) BRAC, p. 68.

(3.) ICA.

(4.) GNDR.

(6.) GFCF.

(7.) GDN.

(12.) The La Red site has a publications section that includes links to more recent books and monograph length reports such as J. Viand & F. Briones (Eds.). (2015), Riesgos al Sur: Diversidad de riesgos de desastres en Argentina; and A. Maskrey & A. Lavell (Eds.). (2013), The Future of Disaster Risk Management. An alternative La Red site provides access to many others from 1993–2008, including V. Garcia Acosta (Ed.), Historia y Desastres en America Latina; G. Wilches-Chaux (2007), ENSO-What? La Red guide to getting radical with ENSO risks; and A. Lavell (2003), Local Risk Management.

(17.) For example, “Safety and security of humanitarian personnel and protection of United Nations personnel” (A/73/L.51) at General Assembly, Seventy-third session (GA/12106).

(21.) GNDR.

(22.) See the story by John Koppisch, “Asia’s 2017 Heroes of Philanthropy,” Forbes, June 28, 2017.