Community reflections on the State of the Humanitarian System report: returning findings to research participants

This blog was contributed to by Malak Abdulghafour, Yves Badesire, Anagabriela Centeno, Carlos Pedraja Araujo, and by researchers in Yemen who have chosen to remain anonymous for security reasons.

Each edition of the State of the Humanitarian System report has reflected the views of people receiving humanitarian assistance and protection, through a combination of surveys and focus group interviews. For our 2022 edition, we went a step further by asking aid recipients during the start of our research what questions and issues they wanted to see the SOHS address - and we also committed to bring those answer back to communities in short presentations of the research findings.

In early 2023, the in-country Research Associates (RAs) who gathered data for the report went back to hold focus group discussions in DRC, Lebanon, Venezuela and Yemen with contributing communities affected by crisis.

Previously we shared what we’d heard from humanitarian practitioner audiences over the course of the past year in over 50 dissemination events. Here, we present the issues that were top of mind for the community focus groups in 2020, and the responses we got when presenting these findings back to the communities in 2022. We also share our key learnings on the value and challenges of working more inclusively with crisis affected communities in humanitarian research.

Aid recipient reactions to the key findings:

Does aid go to the right people?

The targeting of aid was one of the key issues communities wanted ALNAP to explore in research design. Our research found this to be a consistent and pressing issue for the relationship between agencies and communities, beset with a number of challenges including funding pressures, lack of adequate consultation in needs assessment, as well as the less frequently discussed challenges of aid diversion and corruption. It is unsurprising that these findings chimed loudly for communities in the feedback discussions. People affected by crisis in both DRC and Venezuela strongly agreed with ALNAP’s multi-country aid recipient survey that assistance was neither sufficient and nor was it reaching everyone who needed support. Participants in DRC had limited confidence in selection decisions and were concerned that unless more attention was paid to effective targeting by humanitarian agencies, community and household social cohesion would be threatened.

How are local organisations and actors included in humanitarian action?

In the 2020 focus groups, discussants wanted to see the report delve into the roles and opportunities for local organisations in delivering humanitarian support. Participants in the 2023 feedback sessions in Venezuela noted that the global figures on funding flows to local and national actors featured in the report helped them to better understand the challenges faced by Venezuelan organisations in supporting everyone in need of assistance. They also wanted to see more participation of local actors, including community-based groups, in humanitarian forums to help identify needs and improve delivery for Venezuelans.

What are humanitarian organisations doing to be accountable to crisis affected people and what are the opportunities to hold them to account?

Our findings on the limited progress on accountability to affected populations came as no surprise to the community members we presented the findings to this year. In the feedback sessions, participants called for a greater focus on accountability and participation – noting that this needed to go beyond communicating effectively with communities to responsively close the feedback loop. Participants in DRC requested that humanitarians listen to what communities identify as their own needs and that agencies have clearer strategies for responding to their complaints.

Why don’t humanitarian agencies do more to address resilience?

In contexts affected by protracted crises, the findings on resilience and working across the HDP-nexus was high on the agenda for communities. In Yemen, session participants said they hoped aid providers would use the report’s findings to promote improved humanitarian services while also shifting to a greater focus on development programming to support sustainability. Similarly, participants in DRC raised the issue of resilience and called for greater relevance of aid to their most pressing needs in conflict situations. One remarked,

“That's the big problem, you find someone whose house has been destroyed, and then you bring him the help of flour, pots, and plates for example, do you think that can help him?”

Learning from participatory research processes in humanitarian settings

Think about the balance between ‘global’ report audiences and in-country audiences.

Some community participants planned their own active role in using the findings from the global report to influence change. For example, by speaking to aid providers about improving needs assessments or sharing the report findings with other crisis affected communities so they have a better picture of the challenges faced by crisis affected people and the humanitarian actors operating in their contexts.

There were, however, some questions on the value of a global synthesis report for supporting local action. Some participants in Venezuela questioned the ability to use global synthesized information to affect national change, suggesting that clearer country-specific sections in the SOHS report would be more useful for them to use for advocacy. Indeed, one participant from the original research said they did not want to take part in the feedback session as there was no chapter on Venezuela.

The SOHS research will need to find a balance as it moves forward, given its global scope and framing – however, our experiences reflected how important it is for learning and evaluation efforts that are focused on specific countries or contexts to involve communities at every step of the research process. There is a real appetite from communities to be more involved in humanitarian knowledge production and country or context specific research and evaluation can have a much more meaningful impact when done in a participatory way with communities.

Closing the research feedback loop with crisis affected communities is important – but also requires forward planning and adequate resourcing

Engaging communities from design through to dissemination of findings was a new endeavour for this more participatory edition of the SOHS. While ethically important, the returning of findings was not without challenges in several contexts. Reaching the original research participants proved tricky due to a combination of restrictions by authorities – particularly in DRC and Yemen – and due to the time elapsed since the original data gathering stage. The delay mant that some participants, including IDPs, had moved on to new locations and other did not remember engaging in the research. Memory was a particular challenge for those who had given their time to multiple other research projects in the intervening period. Aside from reaching communities, one researcher questioned whether communities were always making a clear distinction between independent researchers and humanitarian actors with more power to control resources, eliciting concerns of inadvertently raised expectations.

These reflections –both about community priorities and how to improve our efforts to close the research feedback loop - are useful to incorporate in our planning for the 6th edition of the SOHS report, considering both the ethical imperative to return its findings to those who provided vital information for creating the research and the challenge of making best use of their valuable time. While heartening to hear the plans some community members had for engaging in their own advocacy with the findings, most of the RAs also commented that for change to happen for these communities, a range of different actors working in those contexts also need to engage with these findings and communities’ expressed hopes for change. As the RA from Yemen remarked:

“Actually, returning the findings to people will not change their lives unless these findings reach the decision makers and they take them seriously in order to promote their service."