ICVA at 60:
a timeline



The Beginning

  •  ICVA is founded through a merger of three organizations focusing on refugees and migration
  • UNHCR presents ICVA with the Nansen Refugee Award
  • Trusted partner of UNHCR


The International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) was formed in Geneva in March 1962 through the merger of the Conference on Non-Governmental Organizations interested in Migration, the Standing Conference for Voluntary Agencies Working for Refugees, and the International Committee for World Refugee Year. It began with 60 members as one of the first cooperation mechanisms for non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and by the 1970s its membership had grown to 87.

ICVA’s initial purpose was: 

“To build cooperation in refugee matters and extend this out to other areas. To open doors to work in all areas of voluntary agency activity that could benefit from a structured liaison, coordination information exchange and professional services.”

Areas of focus

ICVA was focused on both humanitarian assistance and development in the early days. As a coordinating body for NGOs, it quickly became a forum for discussion, advocacy and sharing experiences. It was also a valuable source of news and information for NGOs, governments and inter-governmental organizations.

Key activities

From the start, ICVA was a close and trusted partner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which enabled NGOs to take an active role in the work of the United Nations (UN).

In 1963, UNHCR presented ICVA with the prestigious Nansen Refugee Award, which recognises outstanding dedication and commitment to supporting people who are refugees, displaced or stateless.

ICVA established three commissions, on refugees and migration, social and economic development, and emergency aid. It represented its members, speaking on their behalf at United Nations and other meetings. Its international profile was raised with the formation of the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR) in 1972. 

During this early period, ICVA was actively involved in migration and population issues, disaster planning, conflict situations, the six-day Arab-Israeli war in 1967, and a drought in the Sahel region of Africa.


1960 1970


Growth and expansion

  • Regional meetings take place in Central America, the Horn of Africa and Sudan
  • The Management for Development programme and the NGO Management Network are created
  • A resource centre opens and ICVA publishes guidelines, statements and ICVA News


During the 1980s, ICVA grew in confidence, reach and membership. It elected a governing body of 20 members, who appointed an Executive Director. Two working groups emerged to address refugee and migration and development issues, and their sub-groups focused increasingly on Africa, Central America, China and the Middle East.

Areas of focus

ICVA continued to work in both the areas of humanitarian assistance and development during this period. The effect of the international debt crisis on people living in poverty came into sharp focus, and efforts were made to improve humanitarian responses to natural and man-made disasters.

Key activities

ICVA built and nurtured collaborative relationships between NGOs and inter-governmental organizations, including the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Food Programme (WFP).

In 1984, it delivered a series of management training workshops for senior NGO executives from regional and national coordinating bodies. This led to the creation of the Management for Development Programme – which helped NGOs improve their management practices – and the launch of the NGO Management Network.

By this stage, ICVA had become well established in its information-sharing role. It opened a resource centre and produced publications and guidelines for NGOs. It published joint statements of collective views on matters such as refugees in Indochina, unaccompanied minors in southeast Asia, and the NGO approach to development. ICVA News was launched.

By the end of the 1980s, it was becoming increasingly clear that ICVA needed to become more inclusive of women and ethnic minority groups. It began to prioritise attracting members from less represented countries by promoting and establishing more regional and national NGO networks. ICVA organised the first meetings in Central America, the Horn of Africa and Sudan. 


Crisis and rebirth

  • A Code of Conduct emerges concerning humanitarian aid in disaster situations
  • ICVA undertakes NGO coordination activities in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia
  • The World Aid ’96 exhibition ends in financial disaster, triggering a revaluation of ICVAs focus
  • ICVA reassesses its development and humanitarian focus
  • A streamlined ICVA emerges, refocusing on refugees and the humanitarian agenda


As the new decade dawned, ICVA was playing an important role in the NGO sector. It was recognised as a unique global forum for NGOs to discuss opinions, share strategies and information, coordinate actions and forge partnerships. It provided an essential interface with governmental and inter-governmental bodies, enabling NGOs to participate in UNHCR’s Partnership in Action Programme (PARinAC). ICVA generated an income of $1 million and its membership increased to almost 100 organizations.

However, the 1990s did not end well for ICVA. It was becoming increasingly difficult to simultaneously pursue the two often conflicting agendas: humanitarian response and assistance on the one hand and social and economic development on the other. Disagreements and tensions built between members. Some expressed the opinion that ICVA was no longer relevant as a humanitarian organization, while others suggested that it wasn’t doing enough to progress the development agenda. To make matters worse, ICVA invested heavily in the financially disastrous World Aid ‘96 exhibition, incurring a CHF 350,000 loss. Recriminations flew from all directions. Some members left to join competing NGO networks and ICVA was on the verge of closure.

ICVA survived this crisis by reinventing itself for the 21st century as a streamlined, forward-thinking humanitarian organization. It dropped its development agenda and focused entirely on supporting refugees and displaced people. It restructured itself, reorganised the Secretariat, and put a financial rescue package in place. A new ICVA was born.

Areas of focus

During the 1990s, ICVA continued to support its members to provide humanitarian assistance to people affected by conflict and disaster. Until its rebirth at the end of the decade, ICVA was also promoting the development of economic, environmental, social and cultural sustainability.

There was collaboration on advocacy, constituency building, capacity building, and other external challenges, such as building relationships with governments.

Key activities

Through its unique relationship with UNHCR, ICVA and members advocate for better protection of the rights of refugees, stateless persons, and other persons of concerns at UNHCR meetings. It was also a vital liaison facilitator between NGOs and inter-governmental organizations, including the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the World Bank, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and several other UN agencies. 

ICVA also participated in the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) from 1993 onwards.

During this decade, ICVA made efforts to address gender balance and equity in the representation of women in committees and meetings. ICVA encouraged members elected to the Executive Committee (EXCOM) to be represented by women at least half of the time, and it established a standing committee on integrating women in decision-making.

Geographically, ICVA’s attention was mainly on what was happening in Bosnia and other parts of the former Yugoslavia through offices in Belgrade, Sarajevo, Tuzla and Banja Luka. The humanitarian crisis in Rwanda was also a priority, and ICVA promoted and supported national and regional NGO networks in Africa, South Asia, Central America and Lebanon.

ICVA produced numerous publications, including a handbook for NGO cooperation at the field level. Its main journal ICVA News was renamed ICVA Forum – it later became On the Record and in 1999 Talk Back.

For the first time in 1996, the ICVA mission statement mentioned a Code of Conduct relating to humanitarian aid in disaster situations, the 1994 Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in disaster relief, designed to maintain the high standards of independence, effectiveness and impact. 

In 1997 ICVA was part of the management committee to set up the Sphere Project in 1997, which defined a humanitarian charter and minimum standards of NGOs interventions in disaster response. And in 1999, the Reach out Refugee Protection Training project was initiated by NGOs and the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, to train humanitarian staff in the basics of refugee protection.



2000 2010

Humanitarianism and human rights

  • ICVA increases it attention on protection, security and human rights
  • ICVA works to build an NGO community and increase interactions with the UN
  • 2005 sees multiple large scale crises: Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean tsunami and Pakistan’s earthquake
  • ICVA plays a major role in the selection of a new UNHCR High Commissioner
  • Principles of Partnership (PoP) forms the basis of inter-agency humanitarian work


ICVA arrived in the new millennium refreshed and with a clear purpose. Its 2003 mission statement focused on promoting and advocating for human rights and bringing a field-based humanitarian perspective into global debates and responses. There was no longer any reference to the development agenda. 

Areas of focus

ICVA worked tirelessly to strengthen humanitarian principles and standards. It focused on protection, security and human rights, and the interface between NGOs and the military, all within the context of post 11 September 2011. Information-sharing, community-building and advocacy were core aspects of ICVA’s work.

Key activities

ICVA supported humanitarian activities in many countries around the world, including Kosovo, Indonesia, Darfur, Uganda and Myanmar. 

2005 was a year of catastrophic disasters. Hurricane Katrina, the Kashmir earthquake in Pakistan, and the tsunami in the Indian Ocean all highlighted the need for increased NGO capacity and improved coordination between the UN and other humanitarian organizations.

One of ICVA’s objectives during this period was to strengthen the NGO community and encourage inter-agency collaboration that would improve the quality of NGO work. The ICVA Secretariat was instrumental in developing the Principles of Partnership (PoP) initiative, endorsed by the Global Humanitarian Platform (GHP) in 2007. Recognising that this represented an opportunity for NGO voices to be heard, ICVA produced a publication entitled Ten Practical Ways to Use the PoP and incorporated it into its new member application process.

ICVA persevered with its efforts to facilitate NGO access to UN agencies and other international organizations. In 2005, ICVA was given a role in the selection process of any new UNHCR Commissioner. It also became involved on several levels in shaping humanitarian reform at the UN – including benchmarking, standards, financing, and the appointment of Humanitarian Coordinators.

ICVA was also active in a range of other notable areas. It formed a task force on protection from sexual exploitation and abuse in refugee camps and continued to develop its Code of Conduct for humanitarian workers. In partnership with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), it created an NGO reference group. It hosted the Building Safer Organizations (BSO) initiative between 2004 and 2007 to support agencies implementing proper complaints and investigation procedures. It supported the 2004 revision of the Sphere Handbook with a greater emphasis on human rights. ICVA was part of the Saving Lives Together oversight committee, a framework for improving security arrangements for NGOs and the UN working in the field.


Diversity, inclusion and global reach

  • ICVA hosts the Sphere Project, an inter-agency initiative, between 2013 - 2016
  • ICVA establishes regional hubs enabling it to expand its global representation
  • The 2016 World Humanitarian Summit increases recognition of ICVA’s value in the humanitarian sector
  • ICVA collaborates with InterAction to set up a joint NGO coordination function
  • Accountability and the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse are prioritised
  • ICVA supports NGOs to respond the COVID-19 pandemic


ICVA became more diverse and inclusive during this period, enabling local and national NGOs to get more involved and be better heard. It brought diverse actors together to harness the power of the collective. It expanded its global presence by establishing member-hosted regional hubs as a framework for national NGOs to engage internationally. ICVA also continued to stimulate NGO engagement in policy and advocacy issues through its coordination role with the UN and other international bodies. It cemented its position as a global information resource for learning and best practice. It built on these strengths and increased its membership, income, and staff numbers during this period.

Areas of focus

ICVA’s key focus areas were forced migration and displacement, humanitarian coordination and finance, and cross-cutting issues of localization; safeguarding; gender; humanitarian, development and peace nexus; bureaucratic impediments to access; diversity, inclusion and equity. ICVA worked intensively in strengthening partnerships between NGOs and States, UN Agencies, regional organizations, and other stakeholders in the humanitarian setting in reference to the Principles of Partnership.

Key activities

Protection of the rights of refugees and vulnerable migrants has remained a priority area. ICVA and members contributed to various important global and regional policy making processes such as the Global Compact on Refugees, the Global Compact on Safe and Regular Migration, and the High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement.

The UNHCR-NGO consultations co-organised by ICVA at regional and global level contributed to an enhanced partnership between UNHCR and NGOs. There are similar initiatives with IOM and with the UN Network on Migration.

ICVA enabled the participation of local and national NGOs in the different mechanisms of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), and with members is included in making strategic, policy and operational decisions with a direct bearing on humanitarian operations on the ground such as the Ebola response, the Syrian context, Sahel region, Yemen, Ethiopia. ICVA spearheaded the duty of care discussions in particular in 2020-2021 with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Following the 2014 ICVA Annual Conference on “Show me the money”, ICVA’s work on humanitarian financing included Less Paper More Aid, an initiative to harmonise and simplify donor reporting requirements.

ICVA was involved in planning and shaping outcomes of the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit (WHS). In the same year ICVA co-chaired the first Sherpa meeting of the Grand Bargain, and has since been involved in its implementation, and shaping the framework for the Grand Bargain 2.0. 

In 2013 ICVA opened its first regional hub in Bangkok, followed by Amman, Addis Ababa, Dakar, Nairobi, and a regional representation in Guadalajara for Latin America. ICVA published several publications on localization, one of many initiatives to provide greater field support to local and national NGOs carrying out humanitarian activities. This includes supporting country level coordination bodies, NGO fora, through organizational capacity development and advocacy support. 

Since 2020, ICVA and UNHCR partner to manage the PSEA Community Outreach and Communications Fund, which invests in community-led efforts aimed at raising community awareness and ensuring that victims know where and how to safely report incidents.

ICVA was instrumental in developing and advocating for adoption of the Climate and Environment Charter for Humanitarian Organizations (2021). ICVA members committed to a climate and environment motion and action at the 2021 General Assembly.

Throughout 2020 and 2021, ICVA worked to support members adjust to the substantial operational and financial challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic and follow up on equitable access to vaccines.

90% of ICVA members contributed to the ICVA 2030, the collective strategy, aspirational transformations and ways of working for the next decade.


2011 2021


Looking Ahead: ICVA 2030


Creating ICVA 2030

ICVA 2030 is our strategic vision for the next decade. Through an inclusive consultation process, we have looked beyond our usual three-year horizon and defined the network we need to become to maximise our relevance and effectiveness in the future. ICVA 2030 is about the impact of the collective missions of ICVA and its members – we can be more than the sum of our parts by working together to influence policy and practice in humanitarian action.

The humanitarian environment

The humanitarian environment is constantly evolving, and events have shown us how disruptive change can be over the last two years. The COVID-19 pandemic and global protests against racism, for example, have drawn attention to the effect of crises on the most vulnerable people. These events occurred against a backdrop of the impact of climate change, long-term shifts in the characteristics of crises, and the changing nature of conflict. Civic space is eroding. Power is shifting from west to east and north to south, and this is likely to continue. Humanitarian action itself is becoming more complex and involves an increasingly wide range of actors. A networked approach is expected to significantly impact future humanitarian responses, so this is an important time to embrace diversity, inclusion, and collaboration.

The ICVA mission and added value

The ICVA 2030 consultations demonstrated a large amount of support for the network. We are committed to promoting principled and effective humanitarian action, and we play a unique and essential role within the humanitarian system. We bring value by explaining and analysing, convening and brokering, influencing and advocating, supporting and collaborating. Our identity and legitimacy are rooted in our diverse membership of local, national, regional and international NGOs, forums and networks.

Transforming our network

For ICVA to grow and achieve its full potential, we need to evolve and transform our network while remaining focused on our mission. 

We have jointly committed to transforming the ICVA network in five ways:

  • Championing principled humanitarian action
  • Addressing the impact of climate change on humanitarianism
  • Being globally distributed and locally rooted
  • Embracing diversity and inclusivity and living our values
  • Proactively engaging in agile collaborative partnerships

Focus areas

ICVA and its members have identified three focus areas to underpin the core elements of the work described in ICVA 2030. 

  • Humanitarian coordination
  • Humanitarian financing
  • Forced migration

ICVA’s 18th General Assembly approved ICVA 2030 and Strategic Priorities (2022 - 2024) in May 2021.


ICVA – International Council of Voluntary Agencies

Asia - Pacific

Latin America

As from 01 July 2022 
Geneva, Switzerland
NGO Humanitarian Hub,
La Voie-Creuse 16, 1202 Geneva

26-28 Avenue Giuseppe Motta,
1202 Geneva