Why engagement is not a one-size-fits-all matter

I remember ALNAP’s Annual Meeting in Addis fondly. As an INGO participant, it was a great experience to be part of the debates and to consider how they might be translated into action.

During the meeting I found myself imagining what would happen if I sat a Dunantist (Mr D) and a Rights-based representative (Ms R) to talk engagement. Now that the lessons from that meeting have been distilled in our new study out on 7 October, I thought I’d reproduce that discussion for you.

Ms R: For an effective humanitarian response we must engage with crisis-affected people but we are not allocating sufficient resources to do it consistently and effectively. We need more resources!

Mr D: Well, in theory I understand what you are saying but, in practice, emergency response does not happen in an ideal world but in the real one. To be able to have meaningful dialogue with affected people we need to first be there! The must for me is to gain access to those who need it the most. We need more access and presence in the field!

You both are saying interesting things related with the topic and tackling different aspects, how do you consider the system should establish priorities?

Ms R: Accountability is a must. We are trying to make a better system of humanitarian delivery, tackle the root causes of the problems and link our humanitarian work with development and resilience efforts to be better in the longer term. To achieve that we need to make sure we respond taking into account the views of affected people and that requires more investment of resources. You have to remember that affected people do not necessarily distinguish between development efforts and humanitarian ones.

Mr D: Fair enough. Imagine for a second, though, that we do all that. I have doubts on whether all these things you are suggesting we add fall into ‘humanitarian work’ but… more importantly, the added resources; money, time, personnel and so forth, where do you get them from? We are responding to Syria, Ebola, South Sudan, Central African Republic, and Iraq, just to name five ongoing crises…What are you going to sacrifice from emergency response at a large scale today? And who decides who is ‘the system’ anyway, we should not lose the focus of saving lives and alleviating suffering today, that is humanitarian work, complex enough to make it more complicated with extra added things.

Mmm… Maybe we are expecting too much of humanitarian work?

Ms R: These things are not added extras! We need to improve our practice and to be more effective with the multiple large scale crises taking place. Just remember there will be more to come: think of climate change, urbanisation, population growth. We need local and national actors to be much more part of the emergency effort. Now they are responding but face a multitude of barriers to their participation in coordination mechanisms. We, international humanitarians, should put building capacities at national level higher in the agenda. It’s not just me saying that, there is robust evidence that suggests that investing in local capacities leads to more successful and cheaper programmes!

Mr D: It is true that emergencies are overlapping and putting pressure on competing priorities, but that means we need to focus on response. Let others do the rest. Local response being cheaper and better may well be the case for small scale responses in more stable places. Yet in the midst of a complex emergency in a large scale, by definition local capacities are overwhelmed. Top-down approaches save more lives here. Humanitarian activities should be guided by technical standards and neither lend themselves to participatory approaches nor require much consultation.

The technical critique as highlighted in the ALNAP report!

Ms R: Yes, there are grounds for what you are saying. However building local capacity as part of an effort led by disaster-affected countries is the future. Don’t give a fish, teach them how to fish!

Mr D: We are not going to judge what policies the countries affected by disasters push forward to manage disasters. We do collaborate with many institutions from the states where we work. The point is more on situations where the state is unwilling or unable to help its own people and local capacities are not there. What do you do in the meantime? Wait? Who takes responsibility for those choices? Who decides which people get immediate assistance and which ones don’t? Don’t expect the surgeon operating on a road accident casualty to fix the roads!

There are different views on the role and value of international involvement in humanitarian responses and diversity of humanitarian contexts, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach to engagement with crisis-affected people…

Ms R: Indeed, we need to remember humanitarian principles, be present and in proximity to do so.

Mr D: Yes, and promote the participation and meaningful engagement of crisis-affected people, invest in what exists at local level.

And keep on analysing what works, and how it works, to be able to learn and improve practice.

(Just for the record, I’m glad to say this is not only happening in my imagination!) It is good to see that the debate is alive and kicking. From ALNAP we will continue to put our efforts into providing spaces to allow useful debate, and support efforts to generate evidence on what works, and to share this evidence across the network. The floor is open!

Why engagement is not a one-size-fits-all matter