07 May 14 13 Dec 16

Opinion and debate: Six reasons why the NGO certification process is not the solution

Please note: Views expressed in this section are those of the author(s) alone and do NOT reflect the official position of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

Sandrine Tiller
Humanitarian Adviser for Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), based in London
Twitter: @sandrinetiller

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Any outsider would find it hard to believe that that there is no system in place to define who is and who isn’t a non-governmental organisation (NGO), let alone to define those which may be good or bad NGOs.

The Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response is currently trialing a certification process for NGOs and is looking for feedback from the NGO community. Critiques have come from a variety of quarters,[1] but the process seems to be rumbling on, without any clear decisive moment.

The intention is a good one though. With over 2,800 humanitarian NGOs on the scene,[2] there are tremendous variations in the quality of their work. There have been calls for improving standards of care in acute emergencies especially in conflict areas. MSF, for example, has recently highlighted serious problems in emergency response in Central African Republic (CAR)[3] and in South Sudan.[4]

Although there is an urgent need to improve how humanitarian agencies (both NGOs and UN agencies) respond to emergencies, certification is not the solution. Here are some of the reasons:

1. Feast or famine?

Certification aims to address the proliferation of NGOs, as was seen during the Haiti earthquake response. But when the going gets tough, are there really too many organisations on the ground? On the contrary, even in Haiti, only very few organisations were able to step up to the challenge of responding to cholera during the outbreak. In much less accessible places, such as Syria, CAR and South Sudan, there are very few NGOs operating in areas outside the main capital. Even fewer are working in areas not held by the government.

2. What about the elephants in the room?

How would the UN system be part of the certification process? UN humanitarian agencies are the main architects of emergency response and define operational space, the type and scope of interventions, the targeting and design of programmes, and much of the timing and resourcing.

The performance of UN agencies themselves have a huge impact on how NGOs respond, for good and for bad. Focusing only on NGOs or 'humanitarian organisations' (which are not very clearly defined) may miss the elephants in the room.


3. Another obstacle for access?

Could certification be used by some governments or armed groups as a way to further restrict access of humanitarian organisations? There are certainly many examples where governments have imposed controls on humanitarian agencies (and NGOs and civil society organisations more broadly) in order to decide what kind of assistance is given to whom, and to limit protection and human rights activities that may be critical to them.

Governments may use certification as a barrier to entry for those that choose not to participate in the process. In this way, the certification process could become prone to political manipulation.

4. Who’s on the ground? And who’s in the club?

There is an increasing diversity within the humanitarian system, with private sector, local organisations, governments and all kinds of other actors getting involved, beyond the existing UN and NGO system.

 It's not clear that certification will be able to bring in all these different actors. Indeed, by focusing on those that are able to fill in the forms and participate in the discussions, it may naturally exclude some significant actors that are running operations on the ground. In Syria for example, diaspora groups are providing significant humanitarian aid.

5. More bureaucracy

The humanitarian system has become increasingly bureaucratic and process-driven – the certification process may just create additional layers of process which continue to keep attention away from the field.

A new certification system which is built on, and complementary to, existing ones (whose impact is debateable) will only increase the administrative burden without leading to change.  A voluntary certification system without sanctions or enforcement is unlikely to have a significant impact.

6. Who will be certifying?

The certification process vision states that certification will allow affected people to make an informed choice about which organisation might give them assistance and protection. This is simply unrealistic. There is a dearth of organisations in the most difficult places where humanitarian aid is most needed, and the decisions about where aid is provided and who receives it are taken through a complex formula determined by donors, the UN and NGOs.

The current system is simply not equipped for affected people to choose the assistance and protection they may receive. The literature now states that there would be a 'Certification Body' which is proposed to do the certifying but it is unclear how it would be governed and whether it would have any impact.

We should welcome efforts to improve standards and, above all, to deliver better emergency response. However, the current proposals for certification are not the right solution.

What do you think? Have your say and join the debate below

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