National humanitarian response


What are the lessons arising from case studies illustrating the development of nationally-owned and -led systems for responding to humanitarian crises in developing countries? How do governments manage flexible budgeting and planning processes to respond to these crises?


National governments have the primary responsibility for leading and coordinating humanitarian response in their countries. Where they have the capacity, state-led responses have been evaluated to be more effective than responses led by others. However, international actors often fail to work effectively with national authorities.

The cases studies analysed in this review indicate that national disaster management systems can be strengthened through:

  • An impetus for change such as a specific disaster highlighting state weakness or civil society advocacy that can inspire governments to assume leadership.
  • National disaster management legislation which provides a framework for ordered and distributed responsibility and the institutional and financial tools needed.
  • National disaster management institutions such as a structure at the national level that coordinates disaster management operations and policy among all national and international actors and a national agency with operational disaster management responsibilities.
  • Strengthening and coordinating the national to community level.
  • Government led partnerships with civil society, community, and international actors.
  • Mainstreaming disaster management throughout different government ministries.
  • Training and sharing of knowledge, such as through whole-of-government disaster simulations.
  • Evaluations to learn from and improve on previous responses.
  • South-south capacity building that can be an important source of support.
  • The military which also play an important role in responding to natural disasters.

The review also highlight several challenges for developing and strengthening national humanitarian response, including:

  • Low-income countries can struggle to develop effective national humanitarian response.
  • Limited capacity, especially at the local level, as a result of low government spending priorities, lack of effective frameworks and structures and an overall lack of resources.
  • Competition for resources with other agencies, short term political planning and high staff turnover limit the capacity of national disaster management agencies.
  • International actors may ignore or undermine government actors in their response.
  • There is sometimes a lack of trust between government and international actors over humanitarian response.
  • States, especially in conflict-contexts, may be reluctant to meet their humanitarian obligations.
  • Large-scale disasters can overwhelm national systems.
  • Donor funding constraints can be counterproductive to national disaster management strengthening.


Suggested citation

Rohwerder, B. (2015). National humanitarian response (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 1309). Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.