Cooperation from Crisis? Regional Responses to Humanitarian Emergencies

Jérémie Labbé, Lilianne Fan, Walter Kemp


With the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Syria and the broader Middle East in mind, this report investigates how past examples of regional responses to humanitarian crises have succeeded or failed to meet humanitarian objectives, in order to inform responses to contemporary crises. Second, it assesses whether such regional responses contributed to strengthening regional integration and cooperation, paving the way for increased regional stability and an improved capacity to respond to emergencies.

The report looks at two very different humanitarian crises: the war in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008. It explores the ways in which countries in each region and regional organizations addressed humanitarian needs. The last section then draws lessons from these past experiences that could be applied in contemporary crises, especially the one in Syria.

The case study focusing on the Balkans examines how four countries in the region—namely, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, and Serbia—worked together to address the long-term consequences of population displacement, almost fifteen years after the end of the conflict in 1995. It finds that external factors, primarily the pull factor of integration into the European Union, were crucial for triggering and fostering closer regional cooperation on displacement. In addition, once the process began, regional cooperation for dealing with the humanitarian crisis was in and of itself an important confidence-building measure. By working together constructively, the parties re-established trust and normal working relations.

Furthermore, the process generated political goodwill and a positive spirit that could be channelled into other outstanding regional issues, like missing persons and borders. The Cyclone Nargis case study focuses on the role that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) played in opening up humanitarian access and organizing the humanitarian response in Myanmar—a country highly suspicious of any international interference. It concludes that ASEAN played a crucial role as a diplomatic bridge between the government and the international community, and facilitated trust building and problem solving at a regional level. The regional response to Nargis—which benefited from a pre-existing, albeit nascent, disaster management structure and an emerging humanitarian consciousness—arguably contributed to the Myanmar government’s increased openness toward the international community, the country’s greater integration into the region, and a strengthening of ASEAN’s institutional disaster management framework.

These case studies of regional responses to humanitarian crises offer a number of lessons that can be usefully applied to contemporary emergencies. While not always straightforward, particularly when addressing the humanitarian impact of conflict, these experiences demonstrate that regional cooperation can contribute to efficiently addressing some immediate humanitarian needs and, as importantly, may set in motion a virtuous circle of greater trust and mutual understanding between regional stakeholders. Greater regional cohesion, made possible through the establishment of working relationships aimed at addressing urgent and concrete needs, has the potential to strengthen regional integration, which in turn might benefit responses to crises in the future.

Four useful lessons can be drawn from the case studies that could help interested parties overcome initial obstacles to regional cooperation, especially in politically charged situations of conflict:

  • Regional stakeholders’ ownership over the response through leadership and direct involvement is crucial, but not necessarily spontaneous. External actors can usefully contribute through a balanced mix of pressure and technical support, while being cautious to leave the necessary room for a regionally owned process to develop.
  • Pre-existing regional organizations can provide an institutional framework on which to build the response, particularly where there is an emerging humanitarian consciousness and a nascent disaster management structure.
  • A vulnerability-based approach that focuses on concrete and specific issues can contribute to depoliticizing discussions by addressing the least controversial issues first, while strengthening trust and mutual understanding among regional stakeholders.
  • Complementarity between a high-level policy process and an expert-level process is key to equipping the response with both the vision and political commitment necessary. It also facilitates the development of working relationships aimed at addressing tangible needs.

The paper concludes with an attempt to apply some of these lessons to the crisis in Syria and the neighboring countries, suggesting that the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation could provide a useful institutional framework for addressing the increasing needs of refugees. Past cases show that constructive engagement on concrete and compelling humanitarian needs may then set the ground for strengthened regional cooperation on the political front, a highly desirable outcome given the numerous challenges the Middle East now faces.


Labbé J., L. Fan and W. Kemp (2013). Cooperation from Crisis? Regional Responses to Humanitarian Emergencies, New York: International Peace Institute, September 2013.