Eliminating barriers to meaningful participation in humanitarian response

Source: Wed, 23 May 2018 12:38 PM
Picture from Brown, Dayna, and Antonio Donino. Rhetoric or Reality? Putting Affected People at the Centre of Humanitarian Action. London: ALNAP/ODI, 2014.
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Despite all the promises by the humanitarian community to increase engagement with crisis-affected populations, there is a still major gap between the rhetoric and the reality. Studies and analysis repeatedly show that we do not systematically engage communities in project design and implementation and that even when we do, it is not always in a meaningful way. Given participatory methods have been discussed since the 1980’s, why do aid agencies still find this such a challenge?

In a webinar organised by the IFRC Kenya, Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS), IRC and CDA Collaborative Learning and hosted by the CDAC Network on 23 May 2018, three experts explored the barriers to meaningful participation in humanitarian response and proposed strategies for overcoming them.


Nicolas Seris of IRC noted several internal and external barriers that humanitarian staff were facing with their clients (the term they use for beneficiaries) particularly in the design phase, which emerged from a piece of research, Designing for a Change in Perspective: Embracing Client Perspectives in Humanitarian Project Design. Many of the identified barriers will resonate: limited time, resources and access; a fear of feedback fatigue or raising expectations before funding has been secured; a lack of capacity to analyse and use the data and in donor flexibility to change programmes once they’ve started.

The research went on to looking at strategies to overcome these barriers. For example, where it really isn’t possible to engage clients to inform project design perhaps due to inaccessibility it might be possible to use appropriate data from previous projects or organisations. Another strategy could be to involve national staff very closely in the design process, drawing on their knowledge and experience of the communities. To avoid feedback fatigue informing people why you are collecting the data, only collecting what you need and can use, and closing the loop by letting people know how their feedback has been used will all help to assure that people’s efforts are worthwhile. Building in an inception phase or contingency budget lines could enable a project to be designed in a way that is very responsive to feedback.

Project Design is the time when communities could have the greater level of influence on the type of aid they receive yet this is also the phase where there is the least engagement with communities. There are indeed barriers but there are also a good number of practical ways for us to collect the perspectives of communities to inform the design of our projects. This is first up to us, humanitarian organisations, to do it and we can,” explained Nicolas.


IRC’s new Guidance on Client-Responsive Project Design explores the barriers and strategies for overcoming them in more detail, based on their research and provides detailed, practical advice on how to implement a project design feedback cycle.


Lydia Atiema of the Kenya Red Cross Society took us through her organisation’s journey to mainstream accountability to communities. The journey started with a pilot project that engaged senior leaders in the organisation. The timing of this was opportune as the organisation was undergoing a strategy revision which integrated accountability to communities in the new organisational strategy, meaning that this was now a priority area for all staff. A scorecard was used in organisation-consultations to take a baseline of accountability practices and funds were raised to be able to take the work further. This next stage, led by the MEAL team, involved training for staff, volunteers and community representatives and working with communities in order to get their input on what priority should be addressed by the Society.

What emerged was that it should focus on putting in place feedback mechanisms. To design this mechanism, the Society further engaged communities include people living with disabilities, women, children in and out of school, and many others so as to establish a preference: to set up a hotline so that people can provide feedback, raise complaints, discuss rumours and so on.  A Complaints and Feedback Mechanism Guideline supported the process and set of key indicators for the mechanisms were developed to ensure it was working well.

Lydia outlined her main learning points: “Accountability to our communities enables our response-ability as humanitarian actors. However, it needs the whole organisation’s involvement and commitment to succeed” she noted after explaining that it helps to have a team or unit to champion the agenda.  Both regional staff and board member were engaged through consultations, with the board playing a strong role in addressing issues that were coming up through the mechanism. Having leadership support has a trickle effect in that the issue becomes a strategic and organisational priority, which means that staff are allocated time and space to work on this, and partners are financed to do this. Staff and volunteers found that their work on the mechanism built trust with the community and helped them to feel safer as communities were more open and supportive towards them.  Interestingly, the mechanism also serves as an early warning mechanism as issues can be flagged – and addressed – early.

An operational case study captures the journey in more detail. Though the feedback mechanism has been a great stride forward, the Society has realised that this is only one element of accountability to communities and is now scaling up its efforts to do more in other areas as well.  Though it is struggling with funding for doing more, it has a strategy to overcome this: accountability is mainstreamed into all new funding proposals with the help of its MEAL team, so little by little it will be built into each and every piece of work it undertakes.


Sarah Cechvala of CDA Collaborative Learning has worked closely with both the Kenya Red Cross Society, IRC, and many other organisations in order to collate experiences and share lessons learned for the entire sector. A first key point is that it is not always clear on what is meant by participation and engagement. Engagement could be information provision, it could be ownership, or stages in-between (see picture above). What is key isn’t necessarily where we lie on that scale but how we centre people at the core of our decisions and involved them in those. Several strategies can help to enable broader accountability to affected communities and enable enhanced participatory practices.

It comes from the top. As Lydia had remarked as well, senior leaders and frontline managers play a key role in setting the direction and tone for the organisation and its staff. In an example from Pakistan, a manager held a standing meeting at the end of every day, asking staff what they had heard that day from the community. What staff reported was categorised as to what action was needed: e.g. what could be addressed immediately, what needed further investigation, had to be referred to another organisations, and so on.  This daily practice of collective problem-solving, made incoming feedback feel less daunting to manage and also set a tone where staff began to listen and bring in more examples of how programming could be tweaked in order to address recurring issues. This practice set expectations for staff that management was engaged and listening, and that feedback was important and would be addressed.

Adequately resourcing. Without adequately resourcing (both financially and personnel-wise) we should expect to see gaps in our programmes. So being creative, making sure staff have training and are supported, and planning for accountability to communities in budgeting and project design is key. It’s not necessarily expensive but does help if it’s planned for, particularly in the initial stages of designing our programs.

It starts with your internal processes and systems. Paraphrasing a colleague in Pakistan, “the biggest challenge to accountability to communities that we overcame in our organisation was realising that accountability started with us”. This means several things. First, we must model accountability efforts internally if we are expected to get them right externally with our clients and communities. Second, this means that we need to understand how our organisation receives, shares, analyses, makes decisions upon, and responds to feedback from the communities we serve. Establishing strong internal referral pathways and systems will help to streamline and enable decision-makers to see client feedback is a valid and important data point, and support them in using feedback to make decisions. 

Flexibility and adaptability are also both important components so that community feedback can be acted on. If we truly strive for rapid feedback and learning cycles, we all need to improve the skills to be able to think more evaluatively and critically about what we hear, see, and do. Much of this starts with cogent, robust, institutional structures and processes and most importantly internal cultures of accountability. If we want our presence and services to be relevant and capable of supporting positive and lasting outcomes then utilizing adaptive management strategies will be critical in order to meet changing contexts, needs and preferences, and donors shifts in priorities and commitments. And importantly, in order to remain relevant and appropriate there must be space for the voices of local people to inform these decisions and adaptations. 

Finally, it is key to take the time to reflect, learn, share and repeat this process.


In her closing, CDAC Executive Director, Marian Casey-Maslen noted that though there are barriers to meaningful participation in humanitarian response, it is encouraging to see organisations that are finding ways to overcome these through leadership and very practical action. The number of participants on the webinar with a thirst to learn more is also a great encouragement that this is a matter being taken seriously and we are taking strides forwards.




If you missed the webinar or would like to listen to it again you can do so via this link.




Download the presentation slides at the bottom of the page.




From Nicolas’ presentation

Guidance on Client-Responsive Project Design

This guidance helps humanitarian staff to overcome common challenges they may face when designing projects in a client-responsive manner, including limitations to their time/budget and balancing donor requirements with client preferences. Based on research (see next reference) conducted between September and November 2017 with 120 staff from across the IRC and other international/national NGOs, the guidance was written to benefit staff in many different contexts and organisations.


Designing for a Change in Perspective: Embracing Client Perspectives in Humanitarian Project Design

A short report on the research that informed the Guidance on Client-Responsive Project Design



From Lydia’s presentation

Mainstreaming of Accountability to Communities: An Operational Case Study

A detailed Operational Case Study by CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, documenting Kenya Red Cross’ experience and lessons learned mainstreaming accountability to communities across the organization over a two-year period.


Kenya Red Cross Accountability video

A short video interviewing Kenya Red Cross staff, volunteers and community members about the difference greater accountability to communities has made to them.


Red Cross Red Crescent Movement Guide to Community Engagement and Accountability

A how-to guide from the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement on how community engagement and accountability approaches can be integrated throughout the programme and emergency cycle.


Red Cross Red Crescent Community Engagement and Accountability toolkit

A set of tools, guidelines and resources to support the implementation of better community engagement and accountability.


General information

The latest research, guidance and case studies on community engagement and accountability from across the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.


From Sarah’s presentation

Feedback to Action: Strategies to improve the use of feedback in programmatic decision making

An IRC-CDA study that aims to identify the factors that enable effective feedback utilization in programmatic decision-making within humanitarian agencies


Beneficiary Feedback: How we hinder and enable good practice

A CDA-BOND publication that was produced on behalf of the Beneficiary Feedback Learning Group. This paper uses lessons from the experiences of organizations and seeks to answer: has the increased attention paid to accountability to communities and beneficiary feedback indicate that we have reached a tipping point?

Download PDF: Eliminating barriers - CDAC-N Webinar (May 2018) Download PDF: Eliminating barriers - CDAC-N Webinar (May 2018)

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