Bringing networks together for collective community engagement – Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week 2018

Source: Mon, 19 Mar 2018 12:11 PM
Images: OCHA
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Community engagement was a standout theme at this year’s Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week (HNPW), when more than 1,500 humanitarian practitioners from around the globe converged in Geneva. An official round-up of the event is available, and here's ours!


Rudolf Müller, Director of OCHA Geneva and Kate Halff, Executive Secretary, Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR), co-chair Grand Bargain Participation Revolution Workstream, noted that the Grand Bargain and post-WHS initiatives on the New Way of Working, localisation, and cash have major implications for humanitarian coordination, but that none of these will happen if we don’t properly engage communities, or provide leadership to operational agencies to do the same. But first, said Muller, "we need to recognise that we are not good at it". The latest Grand Bargain progress report showed that the so-called Participation Revolution is lagging behind other areas.


Organised by OCHA, UNICEF, IFRC and the CDAC Network, partners of the Communication and Community Engagement Initiative gathered to hear field staff openly share successes and challenges in coordinated community engagement with global colleagues, standby partners and donors.

Orhan Hacımehmet of the Turkish Red Crescent presented multi-channel community engagement in a major cash programme, including a very active Facebook response service. Access Orhan's presentation

Bronwyn Russel of the Inter-agency Common Feedback Project in Nepal highlighted the need for heavy advocacy up-front if a common approach is to be sustainable. Paryss Kouta of UNICEF discussed the challenging but critical role of the CwC Working Group in assisting Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, supported by a video of frank reflections by consultant and field coordinator Jon Bugge. Jon’s comment, “we didn’t do it well enough, and we didn’t do it fast enough”, was followed by a call for better systems to deploy qualified staff, better delineation between coordination and technical work and more predictable structures for preparedness. Watch Jon's video

The CDAC Network presented an independent review of surge capacity, which led into discussions on key actions for donors, surge agencies and other service providers.

A recurring theme was the need for faster and more predictable human and financial resources to support collective efforts.

>   Five key take-aways from participants

  1. Agencies squabbling over who ‘owns’ community engagement coordination cuts into precious response time. We need to do this work together, and coordinators should be chosen based upon expertise on the ground.
  2. Collaborative community engagement approaches should be embedded in, or fully linked to, existing coordination architecture. They should never be ad-hoc.
  3. Proposals for common service approaches should not be vague descriptions of ‘doing everything’. They should have clear, costed activities which are designated to specific actors. A few committed and resourced agencies making clear contributions will go further and faster, than a model where consensus from every operational agency is required for every decision.
  4. Surge capacity should come from more diverse sources, but the profiles, experience required and capacity should be much more streamlined, and clearly-defined, with both coordination and technical expertise improved. This should support, and never replace, local capacity.
  5. Common community engagement mechanisms take a long time to get buy-in. They need to be set up ahead of time, and in ongoing emergencies (not just large ones categorised as ‘L3’).



Wednesday’s ‘inter-network day’ session saw participants discussing the elements that could make or break coordinated community feedback in emergency response.

Despite Grand Bargain commitments, donor requirements and various humanitarian strategies stating a need for common feedback approaches in emergencies, only around 20% of emergency responses actually have them. Facilitators described a functioning common feedback mechanism in Nepal, demonstrated one way of visualising feedback data from various sources in real time and then opened a frank discussion with participants on ways to increase the prevalence of response-wide feedback mechanisms in the field.

>   Five key take-aways from participants

  1. Common feedback surveys are not Christmas trees that everyone can hang their issues on. Surveys must be short, targeted and concise. Asking ‘how will this question improve your program?’ is key. If the answers sought are not actionable, or can come from somewhere else (e.g. an assessment), they should never be included in a feedback survey.
  2. We will never create the perfect common feedback mechanism. We need to set ‘good enough’ standards without raising expectations for communities and responders alike. This work is expensive and a ‘perfect’ mechanism risks spending too much to validate what we are doing, instead of actually doing it. Developing a ‘good enough’ approach to a common feedback mechanism is a critical need. "If Nepal is the Rolls Royce, what is the Fiat?"
  3. Communities’ preferred feedback methods should be the starting point for setting up a mechanism, not an afterthought. Feedback sources should come from wherever they make sense: formal (surveys), informal (word of mouth), diaspora, social media, face to face. The private sector should be involved, but this doesn’t just mean Google and Facebook. In many contexts, ‘the private sector’ means small businesses who are friends, family members and informants – important members of the community.
  4. When coming from different streams, data standards make it easier to crunch and share information. Clear and simple reports should feed into clusters, inter-cluster/sector meetings, and data should be overlaid with distribution geography and assessment information.
  5. Proof of programmatic change must be collected and shared to ensure continued funding. But the feedback itself does not all need to be openly published. The media has an important role in holding the aid sector to account, but the point of collective feedback projects is to improve programming; not to name and shame or destroy a response.



Down the hall, participants discussed barriers to community engagement more generally, using the example of challenges engaging communities in environmental assessments in Cox’s Bazar.

>   Five key take-aways from participants

  1. We need a nuanced understanding of what constitutes ‘communities’ and ‘engagement’. Communities are not homogenous. Practitioners need to consider who represents who (and why), with particular attention to who is not being represented.
  2. The distinction between community engagement and consultation or assessments is often blurred. Community engagement is a process that is incorporated throughout an entire programmatic cycle and promotes a feedback loop. It is not a standalone once-off activity.
  3. Delays caused by taking the time to do good community engagement are likely to be made up through improved programme quality. While there are challenges to detailed community engagement in the initial phases of a response, improved preparedness, coordination and use of local actors can make effective community engagement more feasible immediately post-disaster.
  4. Community engagement needs to be emphasised during preparedness planning. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and preparedness activities need to capture strategies for implementing and up-scaling appropriate community engagement processes.
  5. Discussions on the localisation agenda of the Grand Bargain should continue to strongly link to community engagement. The use of local actors and existing community structures enables rapid access to communities in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. However, conflict and disasters also disrupt community structures, therefore the format of community engagement needs to adapt accordingly.



It wasn’t enough to just talk about community engagement. Conference attendees may have been surprised to see people walking around in ‘collective feedback mechanism’ t-shirts, stopping people to solicit their feedback.

The presence of so many humanitarian actors in once place was an opportunity to show how a collective mechanism works in the field. With the support of OCHA, UNICEF, UNHCR and students from the Graduate Institute in Geneva, feedback was sought from HNPW participants – over 10% of all attendees were surveyed throughout the week – and results visualised on a big screen, updated in real time.

The results will inform improvements to next year’s event, but they were also used to spark discussions on how common feedback mechanisms can be established in emergency responses. The survey included AAP questions, in which technological challenges, staff capacity and lack of coordination were cited as the three biggest barriers for implementing collective community engagement.

The level of engagement on these issues from a wide range of actors throughout the week bodes well for improvements to collecting community engagement efforts. Let’s hope that these discussions will trigger new efforts, so that we have more examples to put in front of donors, governments and practitioners next year.

Videos from Jon Bugge and the Kenyan Red Cross can be found on our YouTube channel. The official #HNPW18 report is available here.

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