Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Code of Conduct in Disaster Relief

Code of Conduct
for The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief

The Code of Conduct for The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief, was developed and agreed upon by eight of the world's largest disaster response agencies in the summer of 1994 and represents a huge leap forward in setting standards for disaster response. It is being used by the International Federation to monitor its own standards of relief delivery and to encourage other agencies to set similar standards.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s there has been a steady growth in the number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), both national and international, involved in disaster relief. In the autumn of 1994 there were over 120 NGOs registered in Kigali, the war ravaged capital of Rwanda.

Many of these agencies, including National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the church agencies, Oxfam, the Save the Children Fund or CARE, have a history going back many decades and have gained a reputation for effective work. Others, more recently formed, such as Médecins Sans Frontières, have rapidly evolved to become respected operators. Along with these large and well-known agencies there are today a multitude of small, newly-formed groups, often coming into existence to assist in one specific disaster or in a specialised field of work.

What few people outside of the disaster-response system realise is that all these agencies, from the old to the new, from multi-million dollar outfits to one-man shows, have no accepted body of professional standards to guide their work. There is still an assumption in many countries that disaster relief is essentially "charitable" work and therefore anything that is done in the name of helping disaster victims is acceptable.

However, this is far from the truth. Agencies, whether experienced or newly-created, can make mistakes, be misguided and sometimes deliberately misuse the trust that is placed in them. And disaster relief is no longer a small-time business. Today, even if those caught up in war are excluded, something in the region of 250 to 300 million people a year are affected by disasters, and this figure is growing at a rate of around 10 million a year. The Federation alone assisted some 19.4 million disaster victims during 1994.

The immediacy of disaster relief can often lead NGOs unwittingly to put pressure on themselves, pressure which leads to short-sighted and inappropriate work. Programmes which rely on foreign imports or expertise, projects which pay little attention to local custom and culture, and activities which accept the easy and high media profile tasks of relief but leave for others the less appealing and more difficult ones of disaster preparedness and long-term rehabilitation.

All NGOs, big and small, are susceptible to these internal and external pressures. And as NGOs are asked to do more, and the incidence of complex disasters involving natural, economic and often military factors increases, the need for some sort of basic professional code becomes more and more pressing.

It is for all these reasons that six of the world's oldest and largest networks of NGOs came together in 1994 with the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to draw up a professional Code of Conduct to set, for the first time, universal basic standards to govern the way they should work in disaster assistance.

The Code of Conduct, like most professional codes, is a voluntary one. It is applicable to any NGO, be it national or international, small or large. It lays down 10 points of principle which all NGOs should adhere to in their disaster response work, and goes on to describe the relationships agencies working in disasters should seek with donor governments, host governments and the UN system.

The Code is self-policing. No one NGO is going to force another to act in a certain way and there is as yet no international association for disaster-response NGOs which possesses any authority to sanction its members.

It is hoped that NGOs around the world will find it useful and will want to commit themselves publicly to abiding by it. Governments and donor bodies may want to use it as a yardstick against which to judge the conduct of those agencies with which they work. And disaster-affected communities have a right to expect those who seek to assist them to measure up to these standards.

Code of Conduct for The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief
Principle Commitments:

  1. The Humanitarian imperative comes first.
  2. Aid is given regardless of the race, creed or nationality of the recipients and without adverse distinction of any kind. Aid priorities are calculated on the basis of need alone.
  3. Aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint.
  4. We shall endeavour not to act as instruments of government foreign policy.
  5. We shall respect culture and custom.
  6. We shall attempt to build disaster response on local capacities.
  7. Ways shall be found to involve programme beneficiaries in the management of relief aid.
  8. Relief aid must strive to reduce future vulnerabilities to disaster as well as meeting basic needs.
  9. We hold ourselves accountable to both those we seek to assist and those from whom we accept resources.
  10. In our information, publicity and advertising activities, we shall recognise disaster victims as dignified human beings, not hopeless objects.