Stop Doing for People and Start Doing with People
While the humanitarian community has moved (largely?) beyond “fat pink ladies” doing for “poor Africans” the field is still rife with a form of Edward Said’s Orientalism. Humanitarians, being flown in from European and North American capitals, from elite schools and backgrounds, can still have a refined penchant to see the people they serve as the“other,” people who are exotic and different and so far from anything in their own reality. I’m always reminded of one of my mom’s university lectures where she showed students how, in just a few steps, she could go from an accomplished professor to being homeless. We fool ourselves that we are so damn special and so damn different from all the other crazy purple pygmies just trying to make their way on this planet of ours.
Making the people we serve as the “other” is fading, to be sure. It also gets ground down by experience, thank goodness. Yet, we still need to take steps toward the realisation that we are there to serve people. They are our clients—not “beneficiaries.” We need to work with these clients, putting them at the centre of our work. We need to understand them as individuals, moving beyond the awkward lenses of culture and history and toward the particulars of their physical-social-psychological well being, the relationships they have with their families and communities, their precise needs and how actions geared toward nutrition, shelter, food security, protection/human rights, and income/livelihoods, amongst others, enable them to become more independent and dignified. We can't just do these things for them; we need to understand how to work with them.
This isn’t a new concept. For over two decades, the medical field has been moving moving away from the Foucauldian construct of doctors that do to the patient and toward patient-centric care. Doctors understand that one's lifestyle, habits, personal history, and socio-psychological make-up are essential to the most basic preventative and diagnostic care. As humanitarians, we are a bit behind the curve but we are getting there. In fact, this is at the centre of progressive approaches to Accountability to Affected Populations (AAP).
AAP centres on operationalising five core commitments set out by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC). These are: leadership/governance; transparency; feedback and complaints; participation & design; and monitoring and evaluation. While leadership/governance and transparency lie primarily with donors, we see a broad role for M&E in the rest.
Feedback and Complaints: Many humanitarian actors are starting to implement feedback mechanisms into project designs. Because this is relatively new, these tend to include “hotlines” or simple surveys that are based on “push” tactics, e.g. taking the instrument to the intended audience so that they “know” that they can provide feedback and/or complaints on specific interventions. While this can be useful, it is better to integrate “pull” strategies for feedback as well. Pull strategies focus on actually engaging with people, asking open-ended questions that enable people to share their experiences in ways that highlight how different needs manifest, how they expect to address these needs, and how this can be done in ways that are respectful and dignified. Engagement pulls people toward us; a hotline tries to push people into responding. We need to hear people--not simply take information from them.
Participation & Design: These two principles are usefully integrated because of their inherent links and because we feel that, when combined, they provide the most effective way to ensure accountability to affected populations in ways that can generate greater project performance and better results. In essence, the more that affected populations are engaged in the whole programme cycle, the better. For instance, humanitarian actors can introduce a “menu” of interventions that they have the resources and capacity to implement, from Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) treatments to infrastructure improvement. They can then work with communities to understand which of these make most sense, their sequencing, and their associated constraints, dependencies, risks and opportunities. The partner can engage people in every aspect of the design—always sensitively, always respectfully, always in a timely manner—to address immediate needs while also looking toward more sustained interventions that can support resilience and longer-term community-strengthening initiatives. These initial community consultations can be the precursors to deeper community involvement in the implementation phase.
By linking the expertise and resources we bring as humanitarians to the dynamic contexts in which people find themselves during a crises, we can start to forge new ways of working together that will lead to better results overall. Involving communities at this level not only creates better “engagement.” It should lead to better interventions as communities are able to share practical, traditional knowledge and more insight into their coping strategies. We become partners with them, working together to deliver solutions that will lead them out of the crisis.
This level of engagement and involvement ensures that affected populations will actually be more informed and thus better able to seek out specific interventions, specific partners, and specific approaches. Affected populations will be able to have a much more direct say in what works and what doesn’t. It makes traditional “push” strategies for feedback much more active and direct. Instead of supplying a “hot line” and hoping people will call, affected populations will seek out partners and others to tell them what they need and what works and what doesn’t. They will know which partners are more effective in different areas and seek out that expertise, those resources, as they start to recover and rebuild their communities. Indeed, this is the first step towards a more competitive marketplace for our clients where humanitarian actors will need to prove their mettle to those we are there to serve.
Monitoring & Evaluation: We see M&E as ensuring that activities are being delivered effectively but also as a way to create a rich and varied evidence base that can prompt continuous improvements, project adaptations, learning, and change. In relation to Accountability to Affected Populations (AAP), this should entail ways to improve the feedback, participation, and design aspects of interventions but also to set up systems through which relevant data and information can be collected to support such activities. This includes systems to better understand issues that can thwart work with affected populations, like trust, gate-keeper biases, aid diversion/manipulation, and other social, cultural, and community level issues.
As with all M&E work, it all begins with valid, comprehensive, and varied data sets. These can include surveys with individuals/communities but should strive to demonstrate how different ways of working lead to better results. This can be done through comparative analysis. If we compare a community where there was an active partnership in the design and delivery of different interventions, did this community recover sooner than comparable communities? In essence, we need to make the evidentiary links between affected populations and their paths to recovery and stability.
Applying some of these principles will overcome individual biases, any lingering “otherness” that some may lodge toward the people we are there to serve. These principles will facilitate how we design people-centric interventions and programmes that have better results. The medical field has already proven how important this is to a more holistic patient-centered approach. We need to make this the driving model for humanitarian action as well.
1. For IASC, see: https://interagencystandingcommittee.org/accountability-affected-people
2. The community engagement literature is expansive. For a review, see Dayna Brown and Antonio Donini, “Rhetoric or Reality: Putting Affected People at the Centre of Humanitarian Action.” ALNAP Study, ALNAP/ODI, 2014.