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Putting affected people at the centre of humanitarian response: Rhetoric or reality?

Time (GMT +01) 16:00 17:30
Paul Knox Clarke - Head of Research and Communications, ALNAP

Dayna Brown - author of the study and Listening Programme Director, CDA

Antonio Donini - author of the study and Visiting Fellow, Feinstein International Center at Tufts University


​Engaging with and being accountable to affected people should be part of any humanitarian worker’s DNA. It’s not an easy motto to live up to, though, and for a few years now humanitarians have been trying to do better.

With a growing number of actors involved – from governments to private sector – and an unprecedented string of four “level 3” humanitarian crises happening simultaneously in Iraq, South Sudan, Syria and the Central African Republic (not to mention the situation in Gaza and the Ebola crisis ), discussion of engagement and accountability to affected communities has never been more urgent.

The launch of the new ALNAP Study ‘Rhetoric or reality? Putting affected people at the centre of humanitarian action’ is an important part of this ongoing global conversation. The authors, Dayna Brown from CDA and Antonio Donini from Tufts University’s Feinstein International Center presented key findings of the study, which distils discussions and identifies key lessons from ALNAP’s 29th Annual Meeting held in March 2014 in Addis Ababa.

The Annual Meeting discussions showed that engagement and accountability remain more rhetoric than reality. Although affected people often have the opportunity to give feedback to humanitarian work, they seldom have an influence over the overall response strategies and rarely feel they are being listened to.

The authors suggested that more systematic engagement on all levels and through all phases of a programme is needed. There are good examples to build on, and the study points to promising experiences in recent years, such as the humanitarian response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Despite these examples, there were discussions on whether – and how far – the system has improved in the last decade.

The discussion also revealed that there is little consensus amongst humanitarians as to what key terms mean: accountability and participation, while very different solutions, are often used interchangeably. Given this lack of clarity, it is not surprising that actors do not always agree on on why and how to engage with affected populations.

The approach to engagement also differs depending on the mandate and objectives of the organisation. As the authors of the study indicated, some humanitarians see engagement as an aim in itself, whereas others highlighted that it can make response action more effective. Some discussants objected to this: ‘Is engagement always good? Don’t we increase the danger for affected people and aid workers in some contexts when engaging with them? Isn’t a top-down directed emergency response more feasible and more effective in saving lives and ‘getting the job done in some cases?’ These discussions also reflected one of the key findings of the study: that one size does not fit all when talking engagement, as there are manifold constraints, challenges and approaches when trying to do so.

The launch discussion further addressed the multiplicity of actors involved in engagement and the power relationships between them. With states becoming an increasingly influential actor in humanitarian responses, the authors of the study suggested to think of engagement not as bilateral, but rather as a triangle involving states, aid agencies and the affected people. At the same time, participants articulated the difficulty to grasp the complexity of the actors involved in crises and disaster response, pointing to the variety of actors within the state and the sometimes diffuse boundaries between those affected and those delivering aid.

Finally, participants mentioned the need for more transparency in humanitarian funding and – in line with the ALNAP study’s findings – called for more standards and measures regarding accountability.