Experiences of National Governments in Expanding Their Role in Humanitarian Preparedness and Response

Jeremy Harkey


This paper examines how the governments of El Salvador, Mozambique, Indonesia and the Philippines have strengthened their countries’ disaster management systems. Many actors play important roles in the national disaster management systems, including government agencies, civil society groups, the private sector, and the population itself. In practice, however, thorough strengthening of disaster management systems requires government leadership and commitment to change.

The research for this study included a selective desk review of existing literature on the context and the capacity strengthening process of each country. The field research was conducted between December 2012 and April 2013, with five to ten days allocated per country. The principal researcher held semi structured interviews with representatives of key government institutions, national civil society actors, and international actors including non-governmental organisations (NGOs), agencies of the United Nations, and donors. The study analyses what stimulated the assumption of leadership, how the systems have been strengthened, and how national and international actors contributed to changes.

Key Findings:

  • Civil society advocacy, as well as civil society technical support for changes in legislation, help bring about capacity strengthening changes and improve the quality of the legislation.
  • National disaster management architecture needs to extend from national to community level. National level changes are essential, as they designate laws, policies, and resources that will guide the system. These are also essential to determining how the national government will support the operation and the capacity strengthening of the sub-national system. In turn, the sub-national level is essential for ensuring the strengthening of local systems that are charged with designing and implementing locally adjusted risk mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery tools.
  • Partnerships, led by government leadership, between government, civil society, community, and international actors, are an important part of capacity building. Governments ought to have national capacity strengthening needs assessments and a system to distribute and track the interventions of all actors. Local capacity strengthening should be coordinated with government mechanisms.
  • Governments need to assume a comprehensive view of the disaster management cycle in order to ensure comprehensive protection against natural disasters. One particularly effective way of implementing this view is to mainstream disaster management responsibilities throughout the policies and initiatives of government ministries. Strengthening the ability of line ministries to contribute to disaster management facilitates the best use of all government resources.
  • Government agencies implementing Climate Change Adaption and Disaster Risk Reduction initiatives should coordinate methodologies, and identify and seize opportunities to collaborate when addressing related problems.
  • Community-level work that requires high involvement and ownership by the population to succeed should be allowed sufficient time and resources for implementation and for follow-up.


For national governments:

  • Impetus for Change: National governments need to recognise that they must make changes in order to strengthen and increase the comprehensiveness of the disaster management system, commit to making those changes, and delineate how they will do so.
  • Ensure that legislation properly delineates the disaster management system, and is appropriate to the current context.
  • Establish funding structures to fund all levels of the national disaster management system.
  • Identify national and international actors who are able to contribute to capacity strengthening, and coordinate their working within the framework of a capacity strengthening plan. Assess the type and extent of sub-national disaster coordination mechanisms and offices’ capacity strengthening needs and, together with partners, adopt a plan and allocate resources for addressing them.
  • Mainstream disaster management in all the line ministries. Improve government actors’ ability to work with communities to strengthen disaster management capacity.

For international actors:

  • Strategise interventions so as to work within governments’ national capacity strengthening frameworks and plans.
  • Assess, and address as possible, governments’ needs for support to strengthen their institutional capacity strengthening and human resources training systems.
  • Expand initiatives to strengthen national civil society actors’ technical involvement in the disaster management system, their ability to contribute to national capacity strengthening, and their presence and strength as advocates before national and sub-national government actors.


Harkey, J. (2014). Experiences of National Governments in Expanding Their Role in Humanitarian Preparedness and Response. Somerville, MA: Feinstein International Center, Tufts University.