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The Sea and natural hazards have had a major influence on the life of the Icelandic population through the centuries. Many have lost their lives due to accidents at sea and natural hazards including volcanic eruptions, avalanches and earthquakes.

Health and sanitation, Education, Protection
Children, Youth, Women
883.257 USD that is 3.4% of ODA.

Scope of involvement


The Icelandic government started to support international humanitarian assistance with the Red Cross and then other NGOs followed.


The Icelandic Red Cross, established in 1924, started by constructing a health shelter for sailors where a nurse took care of sick sailors and taught them first aid.

Turning point

The National Lifesaving Association of Iceland was established in 1928, the same year the first search and rescue unit was established after an accident at sea where 15 sailors drowned. The aim of the association was to reduce accidents and organise rescue at sea. In 1999 the association merged with Landsbjörg, the National Lifesaving Association of Iceland, and the Icelandic Association of Search and Rescue (ICE-SAR) was established. ICE-SAR consists of 100 smaller rescue groups with thousands of volunteers across the country. The rescue groups receive training and can respond quickly to any danger that may threaten inhabited areas, seafarers and travellers on land.


Types of stakeholders

NGO in general

The majority of Icelandic humanitarian actors are NGOs; two of them work internationally while three work both internationally and within Iceland. Two of the actors are state based; one works on international peacekeeping while the other focuses on disasters and natural hazards within Iceland.

National Red Cross Society

International humanitarian assistance started in 1939 through the Icelandic Red Cross sending financial assistance to Chile after the earthquake. The Red Cross embarkeded upon a fundraising campaign for the famine in Biafra in 1968 which the Icelandic church participated in.

Faith-based organisations

In 1969, in the aftermath of the humanitarian crisis in Biafra, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland founded the Icelandic Church Aid. The Icelandic Church Aid carries out humanitarian assistance both internationally and in Iceland. Another faith-based organisation,the Icelandic Lutheran Mission was established earlier, in 1929, and although their focus was on missionary work they have participated in development and humanitarian assistance.

State humanitarianism

Ministries and State Agencies involved

The Icelandic government has collaborated informally with NGOs since the beginning of the 1970s. Humanitarian action abroad falls under the Strategy for Iceland’s International Development Cooperation and has its legal base in Act No. 121/2008. The collaboration was formalized in 2009 when official guidelines and criteria for collaboration with NGOs were published. The first development strategy approved by the parliament was adopted in 2011 and has since been revised once. In 2012, a budget line was established for supporting NGOs working in development and humanitarian action abroad. According to the current strategy the government plans to increase the share of NGOs working with development and humanitarian assistance from 6% to 8% in 2014.


There is much interaction and collaboration between actors working within Iceland and abroad. Those working with international humanitarian assistance have a stakeholder group that organises meetings, seminars and trainings. The assistance of the actors mainly consists of funding and field operations, but some also do advocacy along with education and training.

Specific roles of international organisations

United Nations

The funding for humanitarian assistance goes partly through the international organisations WFP, CERF, OCHA and the World Bank. Iceland also supports a number of UN institutions working in development and humanitarian action.


Specific focus


The humanitarian assistance abroad mainly focuses on assistance during natural hazards, assistance to refugees and medical assistance, while humanitarian assistance within Iceland is more specialised in disasters and natural hazards.


Specific expertise

ICE-SAR has extensive knowledge and experience during disasters and natural hazards and in 1999 an international team was formed that has assisted various countries in the aftermath of earthquakes. The team collaborates internationally with INSARAG.


Humanitarian Education

Higher education

The University of Iceland does not have any specific course focusing particularly on humanitarian action. There is however, a plan on starting an MA programme in Humanitarian Action in the University of Iceland in parallel with the programme for MA in Development Studies which already touches upon the topic of humanitarian action and MA in Global Relations, Migration and Multicultural Studies. The course may include the aspects that Icelanders have specialised in, particularly in the area of natural disasters.

In-house training

The main education and training providers are ICE-SAR, The Civil Protection and the Icelandic Red Cross that organise theoretical and practical courses for volunteers who receive training about disasters and natural hazards.

Seminar/short courses

The University organised, in collaboration with the Icelandic International Development Agency, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Red Cross, a five day refresher course in humanitarian assistance in 2010 and 2012.


Icelandic Church Aid. ‘Icelandic church aid – A short overview’, Available at http://www.help.is/id/9 (Accessed: 8 May 2014).

ICE-SAR. ‘Englishmen abroad’. Retrieved from http://www.landsbjorg.is/assets/felagidfrettirogutgafapostlistiskjol/grein%20ships%20monthly.pdf (Accessed: 8 May 2014)

ICE-SAR. ‘Alþjóðabjörgunarsveitin’. Available at: http://www.landsbjorg.is/bjorgunarsveitir/althjodabjorgunarsveitin (Accessed: 8 May 2014).

Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 2013. Þróunarsamvinnuáætlun 2013-2016. Reykjavík: Utanríkisráðuneytið.

Red Cross in Iceland. ‘Rauði krossinn á Suðurnesjum fyrir daga Suðurnesjadeildar’. Available at: http://www.sudredcross.is/saga/sudsaga.htm (Accessed: 8 May 2014).

Tíminn. ‘Gjafir héðan 6 milljónir’. Available at: http://timarit.is/view_page_init.jsp?issId=247499&lang=gl (Accessed: 8 May 2014).


Sigrídur Baldursdottir and Jónína Einarsdóttir
University of Iceland

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