Although their make-up and mandates vary widely, from aid delivery and disaster relief to co-ordination and funding, they are typically part of wider economic or political blocs, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
Yet despite the major roles they have played in crises like those in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the Asian Tsunami, many still feel – and are also perceived to be - on the humanitarian system’s periphery, treated in some cases as little more than sub-contractors to support traditional aid agencies.
“Regional organisations are expanding their agendas and relationships, and there is a growing recognition of these emerging humanitarian operators,” notes Sara Pantuliano, director of the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) at the Overseas Development Institute in London.
“What are the implications of this trend?” she asked. “Will there be the emergence of a parallel system or will it lead to multiple and more diverse systems with a wider range of different actors and partners?”
Pantuliano’s questions, which came in her opening address to a three-day HPG-organised conference in Dubai focusing on regional humanitarianism, are not easy to answer.
“Right now people are confused,” Steve Zyck, an HPG research fellow, told IRIN. “We’re starting to see policy frameworks and strategic plans, but no-one really knows what the regional organisations are going to do and so no-one knows quite how to respond.
“I don’t think it’s that traditional humanitarian actors are afraid that these new entities are going to steal their beat, or capture a large share of donor resources. I think it’s they feel that they are only just working out the kinks in the Transformative Agenda (a process of reforming emergency aid that began in 2005) with the cluster system etc. So the thought that someone else could now try to radically change the path of co-ordination or duplicate co-ordination, is unsettling.”
Duplication plays on the mind of regional organisations too, but in the opposite way.
Nuur Mohamud Sheekh is a senior conflict and humanitarian advisor in the Peace and Security Division of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an eight-country bloc in the Horn of Africa.
“We see a lot of international humanitarian organisations playing a positive role in our region where there have been many crises, but we think humanitarian intervention is best as a collective effort,” he said, speaking on the sidelines of the HPG conference.
“We thank international organisations for their interventions, but we don’t want them to set up parallel systems in our countries,” he said. “They need to work with regional and local groups and governments. When they come in and set up parallel systems it can act as a brain drain and undermine local capacity development.”
Ronald Jackson, executive director for the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), set up in the 1990s by the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) agrees, to some extent.
“Regional organisations may not have the resources and capacity of the international actors, but we do understand the culture of the people affected and we are closer to societies, which means we can play an important role in co-ordination,” he said.
“Mandate and sovereignty must be respected. At CDEMA, we see ourselves as a very important bridge between the national and international organisations, especially in terms of capacity building and proving mechanisms to scale up and down.”
And he added: “For an international organisation, there is no better way to build an effective legacy than to work with national and regional actors.”
An example of when a regional humanitarian organisation has played a major role supporting a crisis is the intervention by the OIC during the Somalia famine response in 2011 and 2012.
The 57-member organisation, which established its Humanitarian Affairs Department (ICHAD) in 2008, steered a coalition of Somali and foreign Arab and Islamic NGOs delivering aid to communities including those inside areas controlled by Islamist militant group Al Shabab.
Due to insecurity, the United Nations and international NGOs had had limited presence in many parts of the country since 2009, but in 2011 the OIC set up an office in the capital Mogadishu and set about co-ordinating aid distribution from there.
"We were there and we were co-ordinating and it was one of our major success stories," explained Hesham Youssef, OIC assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs.
Playing down the idea that OIC has ambitions to become a Muslim version of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Youssef told IRIN: “Everybody knows that there are some things that can be done by some that cannot be done by others… the whole world relied on Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to respond to Ebola, and we were there in Somalia.
“It’s not about wanting to replace the system; we need the international system. It’s about how we can work together to all our strengths,” he explained. “We are of the view that as we are currently incapable to solve the world’s humanitarian problems together, we need to multiply and find additional efforts."
Kiki Gbeho, OCHA head of office in Somalia during the 2012-2013 famine, told IRIN: “The OIC did a good job in Somalia. We welcome contributions from organisations like the OIC; there are more than enough crises to go around so the more actors that we can have working together to respond, the better.
“As OCHA, we need to continue strengthening our co-ordination in terms of how we work with regional humanitarian groups. It’s important that we work together and that our systems and organisations understand each other. Ultimately it is about responding to people in need.”
In a 24-page working paper published last week, HPG recognized ICHAD’s significant contributions in Somalia, but noted “limited reporting and accountability”.
Zyck, who co-authored the report, said many of the NGOs working under ICHAD’s banner were “more concerned about getting the aid into the affected areas and less concerned about being able to document where every single food parcel went”.
This style of aid delivery is unsettling for more traditional humanitarian organisations, known for their attention to process and documentation, both because it is faster and more flexible, but also because it leaves unanswered questions about the quality of the aid delivery.
For Zyck, it was important that OIC and other similar organisations improved their reporting and accountability, but he cautioned against them becoming overburdened by UN-style processes and red tape.
“Some regional humanitarian organisations are very much modelling themselves after the UN and are hiring former UN staff members as advisors to design their institutions and policies and frameworks,” he said.
“That is good in terms of helping them engage in the formal system, but if there is too much UN-speak and focus on process, they could risk losing that sense of innovation that many people are hoping to see from regional organisations.”
Speaking at the conclusion of the HPG conference, which was held at Dubai’s International Humanitarian City, Jackson of CDEMA said: “I think there is an awakening among international actors that regional organisations can and should play a bigger role.
“We have had some interesting discussions here this week about co-operation and engagement, but now it’s time to see what can be put into practice and tested out in programming terms.”