Cross-sectoral networks and the Challenge of Disaster Relief Coordination

Having recently completed my doctoral research and with the aim of stimulating discussion on the topic, I reflect here on disaster coordination and cross-sectoral networks.  It is precisely this interest that motivated my research to investigate such initiatives for their potential to support improved disaster response, enhancing health resource mobilization in the context of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake.

Disaster relief is now the target of global attention.  Until recently, governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with specialized interests and skills shaped the disaster response domain.  But today, an expanded set of humanitarian actors is engaged in disaster work, and response to the Haitian 2010 earthquake was indicative. In fact, “roughly 10,000 NGOs descended upon Haiti –all of which worked on separate, small projects, with varying objectives ranging from healthcare to shelter to feeding the hungry” (Anderson, Fall 2011, para. 9).  Coordination of these multiple actors, in addition to others from other sectors, represents a very significant challenge. Disaster relief efforts are chaotic environments with much evidence suggesting these initiatives suffer from high levels of confusion, miscommunication, inefficiency, redundancy, and poor collaboration. And yet, the lives, livelihoods, health and welfare of those affected by these events depend on coordinated action.

Recently, corporations have sought to respond to disasters in increasing numbers.  Globally, these trends have prompted the emergence of cross-sectoral humanitarian actors.  The involvement of the for-profit sector has established a new cadre of actors who, by their presence, numbers and overlapping interests in these crises, have changed the disaster response process, including its expected outcomes and accountabilities. Among the emergent forms of corporate involvement in relief are collaborations with NGOs. Damlamian has highlighted a central NGO-business cooperation engagement challenge.  On the one hand, “NGOs have become instrumental in development work internationally, but they generally do not have the means and resources to carry out their projects efficiently in a sustainable manner” (2006, p. 5).  On the other hand, “Companies desiring to be more responsible do not necessarily have the knowledge, training, or dedication to carry out development programs” (Damlamian, 2006, p.5).  NGOs are leading the way in relationships with businesses to address disasters, but they must do so in ways that also permit firms to realize their aims. Civil society organizations need support and corporate actors need expert partners in disaster relief efforts. Cross-sectoral networks provide a platform for NGO-firm exchanges of expertise, resources, information and talent.

Voluntary interdependence, or networks, represent forms of governance that often include corporations, non-profits and governments reassessing the “strengths and limitations of public/governmental, private/commercial, and civil society institutions in grappling with world problems” (Widdus, 2001, p.714). Networks, according to Vandeventer and Mandel (2007), are “any sustained effort around which different, autonomous organizations work in concert as equal partners in pursuit of a common social or civic purpose” (p. 5).  Such collaborative efforts are blossoming as never before in the disaster domain.  The common denominator among these initiatives is their call for increased cross-sector engagement to enhance resource mobilization for improved aid delivery. Networks offer their participants potential to galvanize cross-sectoral action by sharing best practices, translating knowledge, developing social capital and complementing each other’s missions.   My research findings suggest that these networks often serve as a surrogate for a central coordinating body and authority in disaster relief scenarios. I also found that galvanizing collective network action is by no means automatic, but involves catalyzing relationship building, learning within a joint framework, providing a collaborative space, negotiating trade-offs, and managing conflict—all with the goal of flexibly and dynamically creating shared purpose, social cohesion, trust, and direction among otherwise autonomous members.  Finally, I found that efforts to create communication and collaboration pathways among involved organizations prior to disaster events improves later NGO-business disaster response to crises.

Cross-sectoral networks represent an invaluable resource at varying operating and relational scales to address the crisis relief and response challenge. In the end, sustained study of the roles of cross-sectoral networks in responding to natural disasters has the potential to inform policy, provide engaged organization leaders insights for future planning and action and to increase public understanding of the complexities attending crisis response and NGO-business partnerships. What is more, evaluation of the dynamics and outcomes of such networks and their continuing evolution is now pivotal to understanding whether our collective turn to these more complex organizational forms is yielding desired results.

Imagine a world in which networks are the preferred application for cross-sectoral messaging. A “collaboration app” would allow users to communicate and coordinate efforts globally and nearly instantaneously via text, photos, video-conferencing and meetings. This “network app” would be a spin-off of the same dynamics that power partnerships: trust, learning and social cohesion. Cross-sectoral disaster response networks are today repurposing both NGO and business’ missions to create shared value for global disaster response and development. The challenge is old, the instruments are as yet little understood and the potential for improved effectiveness and equity in post-disaster aid delivery is large.


Anderson, L. (2011, Fall). Haiti’s medicine man. Kogod NOW. Retrieved from

Damlamian, C. (2006). Corporate-NGO partnerships for sustainable development:  How corporations and nongovernmental organizations can work together. (Bachelors Senior Honors Thesis), University of Pennsylvania.  Retrieved from

Vandeventer, P., & Mandell, M. (2007). Networks that work. Los Angeles, CA: Community Partners.

Widdus, R. (2001). Public-private partnerships for health: their main targets, their diversity, and their future directions. World Health Organization Bulletin, 79(8), 713–720. Retrieved from



Vero headshot 2010Verónica Arroyave will receive her Ph.D. from Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs in May 2013.  Her research interests include global health, nonprofit alliances, disaster management and the role of corporate philanthropy in international and sustainable development.  Prior to returning to graduate school, she spent 14 years working in the non-profit and corporate sectors including serving as Director of Corporate Relations and Medical Procurement and Logistics at MAP International, a global health and development organization operating in more than 100 countries from 2000-2006. Before her stint at MAP International Verónica served as Senior Program Manager for a USAID Global Health Initiative, MEASURE Evaluation from 1998-2000.  Verónica earned a Masters in Public Health from Tulane University’s School of Public Health & Tropical Medicine in 1995 and has published in Public Administration Review, American Review of Public Administration and Pharmacy World & Science. She holds a BS in Business Administration from Holy Cross College.

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