Issue 74 - Article 13

The Central Sulawesi Earthquake Collective Accountability Approach: a case study of affected people influencing disaster response and recovery

February 5, 2019
Stewart Davies
Children are entertained outside a PMI mobile medical clinic in a remote village in Donggala, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia.

On 28 September 2018, a series of earthquakes struck Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi province, the strongest a 7.4 magnitude event with its epicentre close to the provincial capital, Palu. Over 2,000 people were killed with many more unaccounted for, buried under the liquified ground that consumed several villages. Infrastructure and basic services were badly affected, and thousands of people were displaced into temporary shelters or housed with host families and friends.

In the context of the 2016 Agenda for Humanity’s commitments on national ownership and localisation, stronger integration of humanitarian and development programming and greater inclusion of affected people in decision-making, this article reflects on the challenges and opportunities facing international humanitarian organisations in Indonesia in the aftermath of the earthquake, with a particular focus on collective accountability between the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT), a diverse group of UN agencies, national and international NGO networks, the Red Cross and the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre), and affected people in the Sulawesi operation.

As the primary international humanitarian decision- and policy-making body in Indonesia, the article considers how the HCT has supported the national response with international ‘good practice’ on accountability to affected people; how it has supported the systematic provision of information to communities; how humanitarian agencies’ decisions were informed by the views of communities; and how communities were enabled to appraise agencies’ performance in delivering aid, including on sensitive issues such as sexual exploitation and abuse by those associated with aid provision.

Collective accountability in the Central Sulawesi Earthquake Response Plan

In response to the Indonesian government’s decision to consider specific offers of international assistance, and in line with the priorities outlined on 1 October 2018, the HCT developed and launched the Central Sulawesi Earthquake Response Plan on 5 October. The Plan focused on providing targeted technical assistance in support of the government-led response in areas prioritised by government counterparts. Targeting 200,000 of the most vulnerable people among some 540,000 directly affected by the earthquake and associated tsunami, landslides and liquefaction, the Plan sought to raise $50 million over a three-month response period.

The Response Plan articulated the HCT’s commitment to internationally agreed norms including the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Commitments on Accountability to Affected Populations and Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA), the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability and the Grand Bargain. See ‘Road Map – Indonesia HCT Collective Accountability and the Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse’ ( To provide a form of ‘quality control’ for its support to the government-led response, the HCT developed a well-defined approach to collective accountability, including how it would handle protection from sexual exploitation and abuse.

Several UN agencies and national NGOs in Indonesia, as well as the Red Cross, have experience in implementing multi-channel feedback mechanisms and effective information campaigns as part of their work in disaster risk reduction and development. This expertise and capacity was drawn on to strengthen collective approaches to gathering, analysing and responding to community feedback, and to ensure that temporary mechanisms augment and where possible build the capacity of existing government systems. The HCT also drew on recent experience of developing collective approaches as part of responses in support of governments in the Philippines (2013) and Nepal (2015).

In Nepal, the Inter-Agency Common Feedback Project collected, analysed, reported on and advocated for the perceptions of communities affected by crisis, on behalf of the entire humanitarian, recovery and development community. Originally established following the 2015 Nepal earthquakes, the Common Feedback Project was adapted in early 2016 to address the reconstruction and recovery phase and was thereafter extended for two years. In Nepal, it is now well recognised that humanitarian and recovery decisions must be based on the self-identified needs and perceptions of communities receiving assistance. During the extensive flooding in August 2017, the Common Feedback Project was expanded to work in flood-affected areas during the relief phase. In 2017, feedback was collected from communities in some of the least developed areas of Nepal to inform the UN Country Team’s five-year Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF). This was the first opportunity for communities to actively participate in UN-supported development planning. Much of the success of the project was grounded in how it adapted to inform decision-making through the evolving phases, from response through to rehabilitation and longer-term development.

In Indonesia, organisations, including various parts of the government, HCT members and other local and national responders, often have their own community engagement practices focused on those who directly benefit from their activities. However, the Indonesia HCT approach to collective accountability has had a broader focus on supporting efforts to organise information flows to and from communities, so that the government and other humanitarian leadership at the provincial and country level receive regular overview of community feedback analysis. This approach was not intended to replace government and agency-specific community engagement practices, but rather was designed to support and complement existing capacities. For response managers, it has enabled a common understanding of the overall needs and preferences of affected people, identifying where gaps exist and guiding the prioritisation of sectors.

Delivering on the collective approach

A range of activities were implemented over the course of the operation to deliver on this collective approach. Activities were developed through the support of a technical-level group in Central Sulawesi – the Community Engagement Working Group – and through the HCT PSEA Network in Jakarta. Both coordination groups were formed during the earthquake response, and each was designed to provide a conduit to support government-led efforts on both systematically engaging communities and providing a structured reporting and response mechanism to complaints of sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers. However, while the initial participatory design of the collective approach provided a strong foundation for a coherent way forward, challenges remain in effectively integrating these critical elements throughout the response.

A suite of actions has enhanced the collective accountability of the Central Sulawesi response. These included advocating for and integrating people’s information needs and preferences into assessments; surveying people’s perceptions across the humanitarian response, including tracking rumours and providing appropriate responses; and coordinating messaging to address community information needs. Two components in particular are generally considered ‘non-negotiable’ in meeting global commitments and standards on accountability to affected people. The first ‘non-negotiable’ was to provide humanitarian leadership with the regular concise community feedback required to trigger decisions and adapt programming. Suara Komunitas, or ‘Community Voices’ in Bahasa, is an information bulletin that presents feedback gathered from communities affected by the earthquake. It is designed to help humanitarian responders understand what communities are saying as the response progresses. Informed by inter-agency community engagement efforts, including discussions with affected people and radio programmes, it comprises quantitative data and qualitative information to complement the community feedback humanitarians are already responding to.

Suara Komunitas is a product of the Community Engagement Working Group. Suara Komunitas edition no. 1 in Bahasa and English: It was developed by Palang Merah Indonesia (PMI), the Indonesia Red Cross and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), with support from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Pulse Lab Jakarta, REACH and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). A broad range of responders attend the Working Group, which meets weekly in Palu, the provincial capital, to present sector-based feedback and coordinate collective action on rumours, questions and complaints. The Working Group has also identified the ongoing need for risk communications and common messaging, for instance on disease prevention and sanitation.

Two editions published in November and December 2018 used data and information gathered through multiple feedback sources, including assessments, agency community feedback mechanisms and monitoring tools. The findings were reported to the government and humanitarian agencies. Reports are distributed digitally and physically in Bahasa and English. The publications have helped close the ‘feedback loop’ by working with different parts of the government and the Community Engagement Working Group to provide contextualised analysis and recommendations based on feedback from people on the receiving end of assistance. The project engages radio broadcasters to ensure that programmes address the major concerns of affected communities. Moving forward, an additional publication is under way; the critical next step will be to analyse the overall impact of the publications on decision-making.

The second ‘non-negotiable’ from the Central Sulawesi response has been a common approach to PSEA through the formation of the HCT PSEA Network. The Network has sought to build the capacity of humanitarian actors to prevent, mitigate and respond to incidents associated with aid workers. This has included training 118 people from the UN, civil society and government in Central Sulawesi and over 30 staff from the HCT in Jakarta. The Network has developed a code of conduct and sought to raise awareness on PSEA, and has made some headway in providing a survivor-centred response to incidents through coordination with gender-based violence service providers. Commonly agreed principles are embedded in reporting systems and community-based complaints mechanisms.

Overall, the collective approach is illustrating the need to build and nurture links between PSEA and community engagement initiatives, including through the Community Engagement Working Group and various outreach approaches and community feedback and complaints mechanisms. Since drafting a PSEA Action Plan, the Network has improved awareness among participating organisations, and is working to ensure that organisations have investigation and reporting procedures in place. However, gaps remain in terms of community outreach, implementation capacity and inter-agency agreement on reporting, including on information-sharing protocols for referral and investigation, post-event support to survivors and information management and monitoring of the overall system.

Reflecting on progress three months after the earthquake struck, collective efforts need to continue. Moving forward, humanitarian agencies need to continue to ensure that their programme decision-making is ground-truthed by those they support in a systematic way. Agencies need to continue to share information with communities based on the feedback the response is gathering, and communities need to feel empowered to appraise agencies’ performance in delivering aid, including on sensitive issues such as sexual exploitation and abuse.

Lessons from the Nepal earthquake response have demonstrated that providing information to affected communities, ensuring that humanitarian agencies’ decisions are informed by the views of communities and enabling communities to comment on agencies’ performance are not only essential components of emergency response, but are also critical to programme adaptation well into the recovery and rehabilitation phases. Founded on indigenous information and communication ecosystems, this means that government and its partners need to continue to scale up and integrate multi-purpose and multi-channel information and feedback mechanisms within the Sulawesi operation, so that broader, community-grounded information flows into decision-making as the recovery moves forward and attention shifts back to ongoing national- level emergency preparedness and disaster risk reduction planning.

Stewart Davies is Humanitarian Affairs Officer at OCHA. He has advised on collective accountability in the Philippines in the response to Typhoon Bopha in 2012, the Zamboanga siege, the Bohol earthquake and Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, and developed a response-wide community feedback mechanism following the 2015 Nepal earthquakes. He has also supported operations in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, Syria and Yemen.


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