Community water reservoir and filling station. Community water reservoir and filling station. Photo credit: SJM, Haiti
Learning from survivor- and community-led response in Haiti
by Charlotte Greene, Chris Ball, Foster Jovin, Frantceau Panier, Jonides Villarson, Naomie Beaujour, Nathalie Töpperwien Blom and Simone Di Vicenz May 2021

This initiative is a collaboration between the Local to Global Protection Initiative and 12 national non-governmental organisations (NNGOs) in Haiti: GADEL, KORAL, ATEPASE, ACDED, SCH, SJM, AHAAMES, FNGA, GARR, Haiti Survie, RODEP and RSFP.   Act Church of Sweden, Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe, Christian Aid, and Lutheran World Federation provided support through mentoring and knowledge capture, and in the co-design and implementation of the survivor- and community-led response (sclr) approach in Haiti.

Survivor/community-led crisis response (sclr) enables national and international NGOs to work with and support spontaneous self-help actions by disaster- and crisis-affected people. So far, the approach has been co-designed and adapted in collaboration with nearly 30 NNGOs in the Philippines, Myanmar, the West Bank and Gaza, Sudan, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and Haiti. Together, these responses have addressed crises including floods, earthquakes, typhoons, droughts, conflict-related displacement, protracted crises, the Covid-19 pandemic and long-term poverty.

Sclr aims to support crisis-affected communities to lead and manage their own holistic, coordinated responses to emergencies in ways that improve immediate survival, protection and well-being, strengthen longer-term resilience and facilitate greater social cohesion.

Sclr includes the following components:      

  1. Participatory Action Learning in Crises (PALC)+1. PALC is a community mobilisation and facilitation process that combines appreciative inquiry, identifying locally relevant do-no-harm mechanisms, and supports experiential learning and information sharing. 
  2. Provision of emergency micro-grants
  3. Strengthening capacity in crises
  4. Addressing root causes during crises
  5. Enabling demand-led coordination systems
  6. Changing institutional relationships

This way of working has developed through practice, but it is not meant as a ‘blueprint’. Each organisation applying sclr needs to adapt it based on the context and local expertise.

The Haiti experience

Phase I of the programme in Haiti, involving six NNGOs began in June 2019; phase II, involving an additional six NNGOs, ran from July 2020 until April 2021. Each NNGO received a grant of between $12,500 and $23,000 to practice the sclr approach. A series of micro-projects designed by self-help groups and community-based organisations (CBOs) were selected, funded and implemented by the self-help groups and CBOs themselves.

Phase I funded 28 group grants benefitting 7,532 people (4,395 women and 3,137 men). The needs addressed by these micro-projects were diverse: construction of family and public latrines, nutritional assistance to infants, repair of water catchments and cisterns, repair of a health centre and community centre, assistance to small traders, support to farmers, road improvement, water system extension and improvement, and extension of the electricity network. Phase II supported 21 group grants benefitting 18,449 people (9,773 women and 8,676 men). These micro-projects funded the construction of water tanks, installation of solar lamps and repair of electrical networks in areas at risk of violence, distribution of school kits, food distribution to vulnerable groups, construction of community spaces, rehabilitation of irrigation and drainage canals, road repair and restarting a local ambulance service.

What has changed as a result of using the sclr approach?

After phase I, the NNGOs involved were asked to reflect on major changes at implementation sites (towns, villages, neighbourhoods, communities). Change was defined as perceived outcomes within the framework of planning, monitoring and reporting processes, including specific results at the micro-grant level, the behaviour of certain people/actors, dynamics within the community, the relationship between organisations and communities and working methods. During a learning workshop with NNGOs organised in July 2020, changes were analysed in terms of the extent to which the sclr approach had contributed to their realisation and impact.

The most significant changes attributable to the sclr approach relate to the following:

  1. Social cohesion, solidarity and a sense of ownership, leading to strong involvement and greater focus on meeting the needs of marginalised groups.
  2. Empowerment and capacity-strengthening of participating groups to identify community actions and manage micro-projects and grants, increasing the effectiveness of and participation in community implementation of projects.

Most of the NNGOs indicated an increase in social cohesion,+2. Social cohesion refers to the extent of connectedness and solidarity among groups in society. It identifies two main dimensions: the sense of belonging of a community and the relationships among members within the community itself. both within communities and in their organisation’s facilitation of community engagement. ATEPASE+3. ATEPASE: Association de Techniciens pour la Promotion de l’Agriculture et la Protection de l’Environnement du Sud’Est attests that ‘leaders shared all of the information with the committee but also with the beneficiaries, including details of exactly what they would receive, such as construction materials. So, everyone knew what to expect and if something was going to change, it had to be discussed in a larger community meeting so that everyone was aware’. This points to the role sclr can play in facilitating feedback, again strengthening social cohesion. As FNGA+4. FNGA: Fondation Nouvelle Grand-Anse put it: ‘With this activity we start to see the relaunching of aktivite kominotè, a traditional approach of community mobilisation and self-help’.

Another important characteristic and outcome of sclr is empowerment.+5. Empowerment in this text is defined as the individual and collective ability to create and resist change. Specifically, managing funds is a significant factor contributing to the feeling of control and agency for communities. The transfer of control in this way leads to a strong sense of independence, with communities and groups choosing the solutions they think are right for themselves, and which are most effective for their own communities. A major feature of sclr is that it encourages communities to take initiative, not just implement project funded activities. One aspect of this is that groups take a leading role in solving the problems they face and can prioritise their own issues. This leads to significant engagement, enthusiasm and participation in micro-projects. The PALC facilitator (a key component of the sclr approach) acted as a common resource for communities, NNGOs, INGOs and local government, and PALC volunteers are still serving the communities today. Additionally, communities and groups are encouraged to show entrepreneurialism in their solutions (further contributing to their empowerment). As an example, a member of one group that received a micro-grant visited an NNGO’s office (GADEL+6. GADEL: Group d’Appui au Développement Local.), where they saw a tippy tap.+7. A tippy tap is a hands-free hand washing apparatus mainly designed for rural or developing areas without running water. It is made from inexpensive and generally locally available materials, making it accessible and affordable. They became interested and asked how it worked. Back in the community, a group member explained the hand-washing apparatus to another member and together they helped the community construct more than 30 tippy taps with no external support.

Reflection during the learning workshop in July 2020 also focused on changes at the institutional level within organisations through the application of the sclr approach, including behaviour, practices, thinking, profile and credibility. The NNGOs involved claimed that sclr had helped to strengthen relationships between the facilitating NNGOs, the groups and other actors in terms of increased trust, open communication and collective accountability. As a GADEL staff member described it, ‘We have a close relationship with the communities, working in close collaboration, compared to before. This approach has allowed us to better orient our actions, which facilitates perfect collaboration with the communities. The relationship is more open, there is more of a sense of teamwork, and more confidence’.

Another example of improved relationships comes from FNGA: ‘In one community there are some thieves who steal livestock. Before, community members wouldn’t have spoken about it with our organization because we work on livestock and the community feared that if they told us about this problem, maybe they wouldn’t be selected as beneficiaries for livestock activities. Now they are speaking about this issue, sharing how they are dealing with it (surveillance brigades, keeping the animals closer to home at night)’. However, understanding of sclr is not instantaneous, and takes time to establish. Furthermore, at the start of phase I, some NNGOs expressed concerns about a loss of control, though they gradually let go as the benefits of renewed community relationships, the enthusiasm of groups and the inherent accountability of sclr became clear. This became even more apparent in the second phase of implementation. 

Key learning

Handing over decision-making power significantly increased participation. Responsibility for and power over funding is a significant factor in groups feeling they have control over the actions being carried out in their community. Making financial decisions is not usually an aspect that community members have control over (or even knowledge of) in more traditional approaches to humanitarian aid. Communities are more likely to be inspired to be involved if they also feel empowered to do so, and this is what autonomy over their budgets achieves. One NNGO (ATEPASE) noted that it is far more difficult to achieve community participation when the organisation intervenes directly, but that with sclr engagement is automatic, meaning that the process becomes, as a whole, far more autonomous.

Nevertheless, planning systematic communication and exchange is extremely important for sclr to work well. It takes thoughtful analysis and planning on how information is communicated and coordinated with the main actors, with predefined modalities to minimise rumour, jealousy and tension in communities, because not everyone benefits. Pre-recorded messages informing the wider community about initiatives and regular meetings were chosen as effective ways to do no harm and increase inclusion.

Continuous accompaniment+8. ‘Accompaniment’ refers to the support that community groups require from local partners. This includes skills upgrading as well as technical support (depending on the type of activity), and most importantly support with financial management. in the form of mentoring and support to capacity-strengthening is essential but can be a challenge. Skills in financial reporting as well as technical skills are the key to success. Strengthening key competencies is a fundamental component of the approach. This takes time and good working methods. Although sclr is a less ‘hands-on’ approach, it does require substantial accompaniment depending on the existing capacity of community groups. Some groups had never involved local authorities in their work. One group, for example, ‘didn’t see any need to inform or seek authorisation from the DINEPA+9. DINEPA: Haitian National Directorate of Drinking Water and Sanitation. because it is “chez eux” [their home]’ (ATEPASE). This required ATEPASE to sensitise the group about the importance of getting authorisation from local authorities and working collaboratively with them to maximise impacts. The importance and necessity of this is now understood, though this was not the case prior to the sclr pilot.

One of the main lessons at field level was that groups should not take decisions independently, but with the wider community to ensure that everyone has the same information. This point was raised in relation to salaries, where a verbal contract had been ‘agreed’, but the money paid was not what the contractor had expected. To address this problem the group proposed preparing a brief contract to be signed by parties involved and witnessed by ATEPASE. The lesson here is the need to ensure that agreements are done more formally. In another instance, it was found that the sclr approach could be assimilated within other ongoing projects in the same area with similar aims. Referring to a parallel women’s empowerment project, for  instance, FNGA reflected that ‘there are similarities between the approaches, and perhaps this can be further developed’. Aligning the additional components and processes of sclr, such as the PALC, to ongoing projects could help increase impact and identify what works best in a specific context. Thus, another lesson is perhaps to look outward to the community and gain a wider perspective.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing an NNGO with regard to sclr is that the concept can take time to be fully understood, as members of the organisation are effectively doing the inverse of what they have historically been trained to do. They have to unlearn current practice in order to let go of control. Over the years, local partners have been subject to constantly changing requirements and increasingly stringent standards from donors and INGOs. They have increased their capacities and, in order to respond to these requirements, have become in some respects boxed in, or forced to prioritise the needs of donors over the aspirations of communities, or had to increase their control over every aspect of projects or risk losing funding. What we are doing now, through the sclr approach, is asking them to take a step back, to hand over control, and to enable communities to lead, make mistakes and facilitate collective learning.

Conclusion

Overall, the co-design and implementation of sclr in Haiti demonstrated the potential of this approach. Sclr has proved to be relevant to the context, effective and able to draw on local capacities and social cohesion. It has been well received by the 12 NNGOs involved because it allows them to engage with communities in a positive and effective way, while addressing bespoke needs.

Sclr is a new concept, meaning that there are inevitable challenges to be dealt with and lessons to be learnt. One challenge requiring reflection and innovation is how to promote this approach with donors. As ATEPASE explains, most humanitarian donors want to know beforehand what results the project aims to achieve, and this can be difficult when communities have a lot more control over a project. Sclr presents a process-based approach to emergency response, rather than a results-based one. This promises true innovation in the way impacts are formulated – logframes are restrictive in the sense that they do not capture processes but focus merely on results. In this sense, sclr may herald an exciting shift in the humanitarian system and requires advocacy for changes in donor standards. Sharing of best practice and relaying successes to donors is necessary to move forward with the approach. The benefits of sclr are widely felt and acknowledged; the ability to enable community empowerment is important in itself, but the implications of doing so make sclr even more far-reaching in its effects. The two phases of the programme illuminated some challenges, but it is clear that these can be overcome, and doing so will be exciting. There is scope for sclr to be widely adopted in Haiti, and this joint collaboration between the Local to Global Protection Initiative and four INGOs providing support, documenting learning, and acting as mentors to the 12 NNGOs has shown the possibilities of working and learning together for the benefit of people affected by crisis.

Charlotte Greene is Associate Director with the Joint Office of Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe/Lutheran World Federation/Norwegian Church Aid in Haiti. 

Chris Ball is a Disaster Risk Reduction Advisor with Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe. 

Frantceau Panier is the Disaster, Preparedness and Response & Humanitarian Logistics Coordinator with the Joint Office of Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe/Lutheran World Federation/Norwegian Church Aid in Haiti.     

Foster Jovin is a Senior Officer with the Joint Office of Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe/Lutheran World Federation/Norwegian Church Aid in Haiti. 

Jonides Villarson is Programme Officer with Christian Aid in Haiti.  

Naomie Beaujour is Programme Manager with the Joint Office of Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe/Lutheran World Federation/Norwegian Church Aid in Haiti.  

Nathalie Töpperwien Blom is Programme Manager with Act Church of Sweden. Simone Di Vicenz is Head of Humanitarian Programmes, Policy and Advocacy Christian Aid and Local to Global facilitator.