Women who run a small restaurant in Rhino Camp refugee settlement, Uganda. Here they share some leftover food. Women who run a small restaurant in Rhino Camp refugee settlement, Uganda. Here they share some leftover food. Photo credit: Ayo Degett/Danish Refugee Council
Why attention to detail matters in the participation revolution
by Ayo Degett February 2019

Edward leans forward in his chair. ‘It is like the project is just designed somewhere there. They don’t know if the project is OK or not! What can we do? We need it [humanitarian assistance] here.’ He adds: ‘Us on the ground we don’t know what is decided at higher level, we are just on ground’. Edward arrived in the refugee settlement he’s currently living in two years ago from South Sudan. In his hometown he ran his own Community Based Organisation (CBO), fundraising for primary schools and working as a caseworker for an international NGO specialising in protection.

In Edward’s section of the refugee settlement three protection organisations have arrived recently and set up their services, bringing to five the total number of NGOs working on issues related to individual protection, with overlapping services and clienteles. One frustrated community leader has tried to gain clarification from the NGOs on their roles and responsibilities, but in vain. The community has therefore taken matters into their own hands, inviting local incentive workers from the NGOs to a Sunday meeting to map the services being provided and create their own overview of the various protection efforts in the settlement.

Edward’s experience illustrates a tendency which seems all too common in many humanitarian responses: the lack of timely involvement of affected people before activities begin, along with poor information provision, often leaves them feeling bypassed and frustrated. It also illustrates how affected people themselves often have the capacity and initiative to find solutions, including to challenges created by the humanitarian response; some, like Edward, have specific skills gained from working in the sector itself.

Important global commitments to improve participation in humanitarian action have been launched recently, including as part of the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability and the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Commitments on Accountability to Affected People and Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, alongside interesting approaches tailored to specific contexts, such as the Accountability-framework in South Sudan+http://groundtruthsolutions.org/our-work/developing-a-framework-for-accountability-in-south-sudan/ and the Listen Learn Act Project.+https://www.danchurchaid.org/how-we-work/quality-assurance/listen-learn-act-project Perhaps the most progressive is the Grand Bargain commitment to a ‘participation revolution’ to ‘include people receiving aid in making the decisions which affect their lives’.+https://www.agendaforhumanity.org/initiatives/3861 Given all of this recent activity and attention, decades of commitments and libraries full of participation guidelines and literature, Edward’s experience raises the obvious question: why is the humanitarian sector still struggling to establish meaningful participation? Why is it that Edward and his community are not consulted or even informed about protection providers arriving in their settlement?

To try to answer this question, Danish Refugee Council (DRC) is undertaking a three-year anthropological research project on practices of participation in humanitarian settings. The below reflections are early observations from extensive field studies in the South Sudan refugee response in Uganda involving participant observation, hundreds of conversations and semi-structured interviews with beneficiaries, staff of local and international organisations, refugee-led CBOs, local authorities and host communities and workshops with key stakeholders, research organisations and refugees.

Key observations

An overall finding from the field research is that there was little common understanding of what participation is (and is meant to do), and what specific goal individual organisations (and overall responses) want to reach. Most stakeholders consulted, including affected people themselves, did not seem aware that beneficiaries are supposed to take part in decision-making concerning the design and implementation of activities, and were therefore rarely consulted (if at all) before the end of the programme cycle, when most decisions had already been taken.

Accurate, timely, targeted information

The findings highlight the correlation between lack of information and lack of opportunity to participate in decision-making. As Edward’s experience demonstrates, it is difficult for people to receive accurate and timely information; a significant amount of information was only delivered verbally, and in Edward’s settlement organisations tended to use mostly one channel (the refugee leader chairperson), meaning that information often travelled though many people verbally before reaching the end-user. This practice also risked favouring individuals who could gain personally from holding back certain information, such as scholarship or income opportunities. In one instance, where the amount of items being distributed had been reduced due to exchange rate losses in the budget, this explanation was not shared with the community, who therefore suspected that items that had not been distributed had been misappropriated.


Many frontline staff had trustful and productive relations with communities. Several staff members were South Sudanese themselves, which was a great advantage and made contextual differences and language barriers easier to overcome. However, it was often difficult for people including incentive workers to reach programme staff, physically, on the phone or otherwise. In one example, people in a cash for work programme could not reach programme staff to arrange to pick up bricks, and payment was so delayed that workers doubted they would ever be paid. The community was reluctant to engage wholeheartedly because several previous programmes in the same location had failed, while staff became frustrated by the slow pace of brick-making, which they put down to ‘laziness’ and ‘low morale’. This unfortunate episode might have been avoided had staff been better acquainted with the community and therefore aware of their negative experiences with cash for work.

Closer proximity and presence may also help programme staff understand and act on  issues of ethnicity and local power dynamics, particularly in locations with very heterogeneous ethnic compositions The study found little attention paid to providing conflicting tribes with equal opportunities to present their views in community consultations, and in some consultations the dominant tribe used most of the time up in presenting their own views, interests or concerns. In another example, conflicting tribes were instructed to co-locate against their wishes, increasing tensions and heightening the vulnerability of certain groups, such as people in mixed marriages. The findings confirmed that close relationships between frontline staff and affected people are highly important in understanding their perspectives and creating a level of trust that can encourage productive discussions on such issues as decision-making, modifications to activities and fraud.

Managing expectations

Community members were often not aware whether and how their opinions could affect decisions, highlighting a need for regular explicit dialogue on which decisions communities can influence, and which decisions have already been taken. Many community members said that they felt the information they provided in surveys and assessments went nowhere as activities were rarely modified and feedback was rarely provided. Feeding back assessment results might relieve some of the current ‘assessment fatigue’ and enable communities to use findings for their own benefit.


In most official decision-making forums in the settlement, the refugees were represented by the same dozen or so people, mostly men of the same ethnicity, and many women and marginalised groups, such as ethnic minorities and the elderly, reported not feeling adequately included. For those actually represented at these fora, meeting invitations often arrived at the last minute, agendas were rarely shared beforehand and in no cases (observed by or known to the author) did affected people co-design meeting agendas. This meant that representatives were rarely well-prepared for meetings and had very limited opportunities to consult their community beforehand.

The results of a sample survey showed that South Sudanese staff and incentive workers were largely from similar ethnic backgrounds. As the conflict in South Sudan is progressing along ethnic lines, ethnicity is a sensitive issue. By (un)intentionally excluding certain ethnicities from the decision-making embedded in their work, organisations risk reproducing existing inequalities and increasing tensions.

Planning and operational challenges

Despite good intentions, operational challenges relating to time management, planning (for transport and translation, for instance) often had decisive effects on communities’ attendance at higher-level discussions. Non-English-speaking women representatives were regularly invited to English-language review meetings to represent the voice of women; inputs from communities were often placed as the last agenda item and sometimes skipped; and some refugee representatives arrived hours into meetings due to transport delays or because vehicles were not available. Activities and community consultations were often implemented simultaneously, requiring the attendance of the same people at different locations at the same time. Well-planned arrangements were often interrupted by competing ‘spontaneous’ activities with higher priority, such as an unannounced distribution. Enabling meaningful participation seems to be closely linked to operational priorities, such as building in extra time and resources in activity plans and allowing enough time for co-creating proposals, for inception phases and activity modifications based on community feedback. In this era of the Grand Bargain, donors should be strongly supporting more adaptive funding to allow adequate time for these enablers.

Balancing upwards and downwards accountability

Staff seemed to find it difficult to find time for – and prioritise – comprehensive consultation and inclusion of affected people among their myriad daily obligations. To avoid disappointing people (or to save time), it was not unusual for staff to make promises about arrangements or follow-ups that were not kept. Obligations to donors seemed to carry greater weight, suggesting a need to rebalance upwards and downwards accountability if we are to make progress on the road to meaningful participation.

What can we learn from practice in the field?

Our findings highlight that information provision, transparency, presence and expectation management are all important in establishing an enabling environment for meaningful participation practices in the field. This suggests that we consider incentive workers and frontline staff as more central players in preparing the sector for a participation revolution. In this respect, attention should be given to their skills in and comfort with information provision and communication, and their capacity to facilitate community dialogue, meetings and focus group discussions. As highlighted in the literature on participation, facilitating community meetings requires training.+Dayna Brown and Antonio Donini, Rhetoric or Reality? Putting Affected People at the Centre of Humanitarian Action (London: ALNAP, 2014); Mary B. Anderson, Dayna Brown and Isabella Jean, Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid (Cambridge, MA: CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, 2012). Heterogeneity in the composition of and power dynamics in the community might need to be central in awareness-raising for staff and in activity processes, otherwise we risk some decision-making processes reinforcing existing inequalities.

The findings strongly suggest that one size does not fit all: we might benefit from having an open and honest dialogue with affected populations on how they prefer us to communicate with them, and what systems for improved participation they want. Here, we need to be open to opinions and preferences even if they go against assumptions. In one example, a community preferred more frequent and better-quality field-based community meetings to deliver their feedback, instead of using phones, challenging global priorities around innovation.

If activities, models and systems are co-created with communities, a good foundation for meaningful practice might be built. In contrast, by introducing ready-made solutions with no prior consultation, we risk depriving people of their right to take part in decisions. This would involve shifting into a more results-oriented mindset for participation processes, where perceptions of ‘superior’ knowledge are challenged; where the skills and capacities of refugees like Edward are nurtured; and where people are trusted to take informed decisions based on their expertise at ‘being refugees’.

Many practices relating to participation appeared to be pieces of instrumental performance rather than meaningful inclusion in decisions: boxes in meeting attendance sheets needed to be ticked, FGDs conducted and (endless) needs assessment and M&E surveys carried out. In other words, many consultative processes seemed reduced to a matter of compliance, with attendance lists signed in review meetings but quality translation never attended to, or agencies including community input on a meeting agenda and then skipping it. The classic literature on participation would disqualify these practices as tokenism or manipulation:+Sherry R. Arnstein, ‘A Ladder of Citizen Participation’, Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35(4), 1969. ‘truly effective participation demands that some power be ceded to communities’.+Moving Beyond Rhetoric: Consultation and Participation with Populations Displaced by Conflict or Natural Disasters, Brookings Institution and University of Bern, 2008.

To achieve meaningful participation, affected people need to take an active part in decision-making.+‘Taking active part in decision-making’ is the core element in the most prominent contemporary publications and commitments on participation. See Brown and Donini, Rhetoric or Reality?; the Core Humanitarian Standard; and AAP. If we accept that each humanitarian context is unique, then it follows that it is the nuances, power dynamics and interests in these specific contexts that define practice. My argument is that it is difficult to understand and measure from a distance to what degree people in a humanitarian response are actively involved as decision-makers. It is one thing that women are invited to meetings, but do they understand the language? What questions are they asking? And what answers are they receiving? It is one thing that activity reviews take place, but is feedback shared? Is it acted on? It is one thing that incentive workers take part in decision-making, but are they all representing the same ethnicity in a crisis unfolding along ethnic lines? Without a comprehensive understanding of how participation is practiced and understood on the frontline of humanitarian response, efforts to translate global commitments into concrete action risk missing their mark. Put differently: it is the concrete action and practice on the ground that count – and it is through these actions and practices that people will feel included or excluded from decision-making.

Ayo Degett is a PhD Research Fellow at the Danish Refugee Council (DRC). Her research on participation in humanitarian response is being conducted in affiliation with the Department of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen. The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of DRC.