What we do



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

In search of inclusive humanitarian responses

Written by Veronique Barbelet, Oliver Lough

Hero image description: A woman walks past two sacks of charcoal near John Segredo accommodation centre fro people displaced by Cyclone Idai near Dondo, Mozambique. Image credit:James Oatway. April 18, 2019 Image license:© UNICEF

How to achieve more inclusive humanitarian is a key focus of much of our current work at the Humanitarian Policy Group. In particular, we’re grappling with one of the most challenging questions in this area: What might genuinely inclusive humanitarian responses look like, and why do we so rarely see them in practice? We’ve approached this question from a couple of different angles in 2020: first, we’ve recently launched a new overview and analysis of how humanitarians currently address inclusion in both theory and practice. Second, we’ve carried out extensive research on collective approaches to community engagement, which has looked at how the humanitarian ‘system’ has tried to institutionalise elements of inclusion into the structure responses over the past decade.

Inclusion and exclusion – the state of play

What exactly do we mean when we talk about inclusion, and why is it important in humanitarian settings? Although definitions vary, there are two common components to how it’s understood in humanitarian crises: first, it’s about removing barriers faced by individuals and groups who are marginalised or excluded through patterns of discrimination and denial of rights. Second, it’s about ensuring people’s equitable involvement and participation in the planning and execution of humanitarian responses.

Inclusion is important because it poses several challenges to the standard model of humanitarian action, where relief efforts are largely structured according to a basic logic of supply and demand (i.e. what are the needs, how far can we meet them?). For example:

  • By focusing on processes of marginalization, inclusion forces us to look beyond who has what needs, to examine instead how those needs have arisen, and how they evolve over time. In particular, this relational approach challenges the idea of static categories of vulnerability that often frame how aid is prioritised, such as female-headed households, or people with disabilities. Rather, it asks us to look at how needs are shaped by human interaction and social dynamics – or, in other words, who does what to whom.
  • Inclusion also recentres the issue of rights when looking at the different barriers people face in accessing assistance. Here, a failure to provide services that account for the needs of the most marginalised is not just a programming shortfall, but a failure to uphold obligations grounded in international law.
  • By placing an emphasis on participation, an inclusion lens also insists that we look at people’s capacities as well as their vulnerabilities.

Fundamentally, inclusion shouldn’t be seen as a new concept, or another ‘thing’ for humanitarian actors to add to their growing laundry list of priorities. Rather, it describes the operationalization of one of the most fundamental components of humanitarianism – the principle of impartiality, or the idea that aid should be guided by where the need is most urgent.

So, does an inclusive humanitarian response look like in practice? One thing it doesn’t mean is aspiring to meet every need of every individual. Rather, it requires three things: first, it requires a commitment to transparently analysing, documenting, and revisiting the dilemmas responses face in allocating and prioritizing resources. Second, it means understanding the barriers people face in accessing aid, and adapting to address them. And third, it involves the participation of affected people in all their diversity – not just the usual suspects – in shaping decision-making around humanitarian action.

A number of structural barriers make inclusive responses hard to achieve in practice. Inclusion continues to be approached in a narrow, technocratic way in the humanitarian sector. The focus is often on providing guidelines or training to support a growing list of specific categories of people. This risks reinforcing a static, siloed understanding of vulnerability that doesn’t account for how different power dynamics intersect and affect different people in different ways. It also misses the bigger picture in terms of the tensions and trade-offs on how limited resources should be prioritised and targeted. How should a balance be struck between diverse specific needs and acute collective needs? This is fundamentally a political discussion, and one that humanitarian actors are not always comfortable with.

Collective approaches to community engagement – one way to mainstream inclusion?

One policy approach that’s been used to try and make humanitarian responses more inclusive in recent years is the adoption of more collective approaches to community engagement and accountability to affected populations (AAP) in crises. Over the course of the past year, HPG has published case studies in different countries to examine what models of collective AAP might be most useful in different contexts, the challenges in achieving them, and possible ways forward.

A push for more collective AAP is important because without it, efforts to communicate with crisis-affected people and include them in decision-making processes can be fragmented and ineffective. People don’t live in silos: their needs and priorities regularly cut across different organizational mandates or programme focuses. They shouldn’t be expected, for example, to navigate a labyrinth of different systems to register feedback or ask questions. Collective AAP seeks to break through these divides and focus on engaging communities in a more integrated way, encompassing the humanitarian system as a whole rather than any one component of it. This makes it a potentially powerful vehicle for more rights-based approaches that re-focus attention on the priorities of affected people, rather than those of the organisations providing aid.

There has been increasing high-level commitment to collective AAP in recent years. However, this has yet to be matched by systematic implementation on the ground. Certain elements – such as community engagement working groups and common feedback mechanisms – are becoming increasingly common features of the humanitarian coordination landscape. However, implementing a collective approach predictably across different contexts, and in a way that genuinely impacts decision-making, remains a challenge. A lot of this relates to an ongoing lack of shared understanding, with different agencies using different terminologies and often engaging in parallel or at crossed purposes. We saw this most acutely in the DR Congo Ebola response, where interagency competition, tangled lines of accountability, and misalignment between public health and humanitarian responses resulted in a confused and conflicting series of attempts to coordinate community engagement.

Leadership is critical here – for collective AAP processes to work, they have to secure buy-in across the response, and need entry points to decision-making processes. We saw a positive example of this in the Central African Republic, where high-level commitment from the humanitarian country team helped embed collective AAP across the humanitarian programme cycle, creating space for it to feed into response planning, and giving legitimacy to the mechanisms it worked through. But this is more difficult if humanitarian leadership is missing in action. In the cyclone Idai response in Mozambique, various tools for collective AAP were deployed. However, without any overarching vision from response leadership of how they should fit together and where they should plug in, it was hard for them to achieve their full potential. More donor leadership is important here as well, as collective approaches regularly struggle to get off the ground for lack of resources, and are still seen as ‘nice to have’ pilot activities rather than integral components of humanitarian responses. The IASC’s Results Group 2 on Accountability and Inclusion is in the process of rolling-out a results tracker that will include indicators for collective AAP aimed at humanitarian coordinators and country teams, and we’re very interested to see if this leads to a step-change in how responses prioritise the issue.

Yet change can’t be exclusively top-down. As we’ve seen time and again throughout our work, a failure to put local actors and local knowledge in the driving seat can seriously hobble effectiveness. Local humanitarians often have better understandings of context, and closer relationships with affected people than their international counterparts. This was a missed opportunity in the Sulawesi earthquake response in Indonesia, where local humanitarian actors heavily involved in community engagement on the ground found it more straightforward to collaborate among themselves rather than engage with ‘formal’ AAP coordination mechanisms. This raises the question of how far overly-rigid approaches built around the needs of ‘the system’ can contribute to genuinely collective action. Attempts by international organisations to devolve collective AAP to local actors can also prove problematic in complex conflict settings in the absence of clear-eyed engagement with local politics and power dynamics. This was the case in Yemen, where international actors’ over-reliance on working through existing community powerholders resulted in a ‘false localisation’ that further excluded already marginalised groups.

Where next?

HPG will continue to dig into how humanitarian responses handle inclusion and exclusion as we re-start some of our fieldwork in 2021, exploring these issues from different angles through case studies in internal displacement settings in northern Nigeria and Mindanao in the Philippines, as well as in refugee responses in urban Jordan and the camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. As we do so, we’ll be focusing on trying to understand the following questions that we see as critical to unlocking more inclusive humanitarian action:

  • What models or approaches might help to embed inclusion as a cross-cutting commitment at the core of humanitarian work?
  • What are the promises and risks of participatory approaches for a more inclusive and community-led humanitarianism?
  • What should the role of humanitarians be in engaging with the underlying power dynamics and politics that shape inclusion and exclusion? What does this mean for humanitarian principles?