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Community engagement at the centre of disaster response

07 Jun 2017


UN staff meet with local community. Chad. Credit: OCHA/P.Peron

When a disaster strikes, taking the time to provide information and listen to the affected communities may seem like a luxury.

But imagine that a hurricane has swept through your neighbourhood, the roof of your house has been blown away, you can’t locate your family and you don’t know where to get help. An aid truck arrives carrying supplies, but it doesn’t have what you need. In such times of distress and confusion, any information you can access or provide to responders could mean the difference between life and death.

The Core Humanitarian Standard has established that in order for humanitarians to be accountable to the people they serve and ensure that aid is effective, community engagement should never be an option. Instead, it should be an integral part of every response from the onset of an emergency.

However, there are many reasons why humanitarian responders may not fully commit to community engagement. They include:

  • Fear of the negative. Listening to communities may involve hearing negative feedback or having to deal with issues that humanitarians feel they have little control over. For instance, humanitarian organizations may not have the capacity to meet everyone’s needs. Opening communication channels with affected people may therefore seem like a Pandora’s box that will be too difficult and time consuming to handle.
  • Lack of resources. Providing coherent and useful information and listening meaningfully to communities may be seen as tasks that require additional budget and dedicated human resources. But as resources are strained in most emergencies around the world, community engagement often is not considered a priority investment.
  • Competing priorities. In any emergency, time is always of the essence. Life-saving assistance needs to be provided quickly, and taking the time to consult with people may seem counterproductive. Food, water, shelter and health often are considered as the only and most pressing priorities in a crisis.

Yezidi IDPs at Peshkabour border crossing receive information, education, and communication materials from UNICEF on protection and health topics. Credit:UNICEF

But here are three main reasons why community engagement should always be a priority:

  1. It avoids conflict and enables access to communities. The more information communities have, the less chance there is of confusion and misunderstandings. Managing expectations is important in order to prevent conflict that may increase over time if needs are not met, or if people are not aware of what aid is coming and when. If an organization does not know when it can provide much-needed services, it must be honest with the community. This way, affected people can find other means to provide for their needs when necessary. Providing continuous information about which community members are prioritized for assistance can also help prevent conflict within a community or between communities. For example, following Hurricane Matthew in Haiti, several humanitarian organizations had to use armed escorts to deliver aid because of rising tensions and looting. Many people in affected areas were not aware of the criteria for aid distributions or when, and if, they would receive aid again. In many cases, the organizations that did not require armed escorts and were not affected by looting had already invested in community mobilization by working closely with communities to plan aid delivery and during distributions. If affected people receive regular information, know what to expect and are involved in the response, humanitarian organizations will receive less negative feedback.
  2. It makes aid more efficient. If communities are involved from the very beginning (ideally before a crisis occurs), the aid provided will have a greater positive impact on people’s lives. Fewer resources will be wasted, as communities will receive services that are appropriate for the context and tailored to their needs. Investing immediately in national staff who speak local languages and can establish two-way communication channels with communities often goes a long way. If community engagement is considered as a means to an end instead of an ‘add on’ in a humanitarian programme, human and financial resources can be more easily integrated in planning. The 2014 Operational Peer Review of the response in the Central African Republic noted: “Often times, shortcomings in service provision by the international humanitarian community are due to insufficient communication efforts made at the beginning.”
  3. It ensures recovery and resilience. By prioritizing community engagement and making aid more effective, aid organizations ensure that communities are the primary agent of their own recovery. Many humanitarian organizations are only present in a country or in a community at the height of a crisis. When a conflict or the impact of a natural disaster subsides, many of those organizations will leave. But by engaging communities from the start, humanitarian organizations can support communities’ long-term recovery rather than only providing for immediate needs.

OCHA is working with humanitarian partners to advocate for community engagement to be at the centre of all responses. This is to ensure that all responders work together in a coordinated way to provide useful and coherent information to communities, and that feedback and participation inform decision-making processes at the strategic level. OCHA is committed to implementing the Grand Bargain’s Participation Revolution.