Issue 74 - Article 1

Coordinating a revolution: the critical role of response leadership in improving collective community engagement

February 5, 2019
Alice Chatelet and Meg Sattler
Peer 2 Peer in Somalia, 2017-18.

The Transformative Agenda, World Humanitarian Summit and Grand Bargain gave response-wide community engagement for Accountability to Affected People (AAP) its ‘moment’. The commitment of donors and agencies alike to a ‘participation revolution’ highlighted the need for change, and attention shifted from individual agency feedback mechanisms to the collective, putting increasing pressure on the coordination system to integrate and mainstream community voices into decision-making. However, while humanitarian agencies have increasingly engaged affected people in operations as a matter of course, a genuinely collective approach cannot rely on the sum of these individual efforts. Rather, it demands significant systemic change.

Starting at the top: response leadership

The Peer 2 Peer Support (P2P) team (formerly the Senior Transformative Agenda Implementation Team) was established in late 2013 to support Humanitarian Coordinators and Humanitarian Country Teams (HCTs) to strengthen collective humanitarian assistance and protection. P2P missions to country operations seek to understand successes, gaps and challenges. AAP is one area where the humanitarian community (leadership and practitioners) consistently feel they are under-performing. There is a parallel theme of perceived underperformance in the relevance and quality of aid delivery as a whole. This isn’t coincidental. It starkly highlights the need for investment and capacity strengthening in response coordination to better integrate community engagement, enabling community priorities and feedback to inform operational and strategic decision-making at the inter-cluster/sector and HCT levels.

The HCT Terms of Reference, revised in 2017, now highlight AAP, the Centrality of Protection and the Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse and Gender Based Violence as mandatory issues upon which to act. Anecdotal evidence gathered during P2P missions since the revision demonstrates that this is already helping to frame these issues as vital elements of humanitarian operations, where perhaps leaders didn’t pay such heed to them before. Even so, most leadership teams believe that more time is needed before the sector will see disaster-affected communities sitting at the heart of collective responses.

The roll-out of the HCT Compact, where accountabilities for critical areas are collectively spelled out in each context, could help both in generating collective approaches and holding their leaders and practitioners to account. This is supported by a new Terms of Reference for Inter-cluster Coordination Groups, which now include AAP. But commitments and compacts are not magic bullets; they are simply frameworks paving the way for more tangible collective action.

Systemic change is needed, both top-down and bottom-up

As high-level structural elements seem to be falling into place, we must be careful not to prematurely equate this with progress. In all P2P missions to date, collective AAP was found to be under-performing. From 2014 to 2018, in 23 support missions and Operational Peer Reviews (OPRs), not one country had (at the time of the mission) a functioning, comprehensive collective AAP system, including a collective complaints mechanism or complete AAP strategies with feedback systematically informing decision-making, programming and strategy.

Communities do not necessarily need to be ‘invited’ to the table anymore: they are demanding or indeed taking leadership of response efforts by virtue of being more connected, thanks largely to advances in telecommunications. The localisation agenda also promotes greater community engagement. But ‘the system’ itself needs to become more malleable. If we are to continue to rely on some version of an internationally-led coordination system, the immediate priority for coordination actors is to identify the barriers to community engagement in the humanitarian architecture and process, and break them down. Participation programming aimed at understanding or building community capacity to influence decision-making is important, but won’t be wholly effective if the coordination gates are shut.

Systemic improvements to coordination systems may not be the most exciting elements of reform, but they are a critical part of the participation revolution. The Humanitarian Programme Cycle (HPC) presents a good frame with which to explore barriers and opportunities for community engagement through the various phases of a response. For example, 2018 saw an increase in the inclusion of community engagement analysis in Humanitarian Needs Overviews (HNOs). Behind this has been the inclusion of questions relevant to community information needs and feedback preferences in multi-sector needs assessments, which can then be included in overall needs analysis. This work, helped along by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) AAP Task Team and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), with operational support from REACH, Ground Truth and others, paves the way more methodically for a collective approach to AAP in Humanitarian Response Plans (HRPs). The inclusion of community perception indicators in two HRPs this year (Chad and Syria) opens the door to a whole new layer of analysis of the success of a response: one which is informed by community views. OCHA’s quality scoring for HNOs was updated last year to more directly equate evidence of community engagement with quality; i.e., the more evidence of engagement, the better the score.

Also in 2018, OCHA’s internal HPC guidance was updated to include practical steps towards coordinating community engagement activities and incorporating relevant data into needs analysis and response planning. This means that teams who before may have felt limited to inserting generic AAP text into response planning documents are now being asked to find out how communities can be or are being engaged; what information they need; what channels are best for dialogue; and where gaps exist in formulating a coordinated approach.

This all needs to be supported by information management systems that can handle community feedback data. Such data is currently processed by information management teams on an ad hoc basis, with sections put into databases and their subsequent information products produced as additional to business as usual. Leaders of a response cannot act on community feedback if they cannot see it. There is a need for greater sophistication and coordination in the gathering, analysis, visualisation and sharing of community feedback and perception data so that it can be overlayed with response information and shared, regularly, with leadership.

The revolution in action

Despite the poor results highlighted in P2P missions, there have been some tangible successes following them. In Iraq, an interagency call centre was established in 2015, thanks to a combination of supportive leadership, an interagency community information needs assessment, investment by OCHA in the deployment of Communicating with Communities (CwC) coordination staff, interagency cooperation via the HCT and ICCG, a supportive OPR mission and ultimately a hosting agreement by the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS).

Nigeria this year endorsed a collective AAP strategy at the HCT level, citing a P2P mission as one of its catalysts, and this is currently being rolled out. Pakistan has developed an AAP strategy for informed returns in areas controlled by armed groups, and in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali, AAP coordination staff were hired and efforts launched to scale up individual agency efforts. In CAR, this has involved examining the expansion of a call centre for collective use, the creation of a CwC/AAP working group and collective projects under way under a Communication and Community Engagement Initiative (CCEI) umbrella. Response-wide projects were established in Yemen, for the Rohingya response in Cox’s Bazar and in the Indonesian earthquake response.

One initiative that has shown great promise this year in terms of systemic change was HCT commitments on AAP being put into action in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Not only did this see agencies coming together and signing up to specific accountabilities at HCT level, it also led to the drafting of a response-wide system, including the expansion of a hotline and specific outreach targeting women, co-led by OCHA and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), costed and funded in part under the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) allocation. With very few precedents, this creates an opportunity for other agencies to do the same and integrate community engagement into rapidly funded coordination approaches.

Other efforts, including in Somalia, haven’t enjoyed as much success, but with strong programmatic capacity within agencies there is potential to try again. It is critical that we learn from these efforts rather than dismissing them, highlighting a need for greater monitoring, evaluation and learning around community engagement and AAP.

Failure to act

Improving collective community engagement is not just about complying with new global commitments. With dwindling international resources, increasingly complex crises and local communities and governments demanding to be heard, community-driven prioritisation is critical. Dissatisfaction with and criticism of the aid sector is growing internationally. The vicious circle experienced in  CAR is generally relevant to a variety of other contexts, with limited engagement with communities, reduced feedback or use of feedback leading to:

  • programmes not delivering at the required quality, leading to:
  • deteriorating acceptance by affected communities and increased mistrust and dissatisfaction, leading to:
  • increased insecurity for humanitarian staff, leading to:
  • reduced access to affected communities, leading to:
  • limited engagement with affected communities.

Failure to listen to communities will not stop them voicing opinions and priorities, but will simply mean the system will risk becoming increasingly irrelevant and ineffective. This can further hurt opportunities for already overstretched aid funding, when rather than communities inputting usefully into response coordination, they turn to the media, or turn on aid staff.

Overcoming key obstacles

The P2P missions have highlighted a number of key obstacles to collective community engagement that must be acknowledged if they are to be overcome. Access constraints are often cited, especially when it comes to engaging with populations in non-government-controlled areas, such as those held by non-state actors in Somalia, Syria, Iraq and Nigeria. Targeting of aid workers and assets further constrains access.

Lack of funding for collective work is almost always raised. This is not a one-size-fits-all problem, playing out in different ways in different contexts. In one operation, a reprioritisation exercise saw AAP budgeting removed. In others, there was a general feeling that collective AAP mechanisms came with a hefty price tag and thus couldn’t be justified. The Iraq IDP call centre, one of the most expensive collective AAP mechanisms currently in operation, reportedly cost around $1 million a year. In terms of global funds allocated to the humanitarian response in Iraq (around $1 billion), the cost was negligible, yet humanitarian teams are not accustomed to spending funds on such activities.

Staffing constraints and the continued perception of AAP as an ‘add on’ were also mentioned as barriers. In one country, a temporary, relatively junior community engagement adviser was hired from a surge roster to launch a common feedback project, but was reporting to OCHA’s communication staff and didn’t have access to HCT-level meetings. The project struggled to gain traction without leadership support, and was never launched. Without capacity or systems in-house, reliance on stand-by partners helps but can present challenges to fully embedding community engagement into the response architecture.

A lack of leadership accountability was also noted. Senior leadership must ensure that organisations are held to account for upholding their responsibilities on AAP, but questions arise as to how to do this. Practically, the HCT compact or ToRs don’t bind leadership, and historically there has been no explicit incentive to fulfil their responsibilities as HCT members. This is changing somewhat with pressure applied by donor reforms such as DFID’s Payment by Results, which ties core funding to evidence of a response-wide collective mechanism for community engagement. But more thought should be given to how all response actors in a coordination system can be held to account for collective work.

Where to from here?

This year will be a critical time to put the coordination ‘nuts and bolts’ in place for effective systematisation of community engagement. Since the Grand Bargain, progress has shown itself first in overdue sector-wide commitments, then in leadership reform. After that has come some increased donor pressure, and large agencies across the UN, NGOs and Red Cross Movement committing resources to agency-wide strategies in support of collective reform.

For the coordination system to build on momentum and address the gaps highlighted in P2P missions, it is recommended that:

  • Capacity strengthening for the coordination of community engagement is rolled out across all coordination agencies, with a focus on tangibly mainstreaming it into existing functions and demonstrably linking community input to decision-making.
  • Donors invest in the establishment of collective mechanisms, so that context-appropriate precedents in community engagement coordination become more visible and catalyse change across the sector.
  • Surge staff and processes are strengthened so that expert staff become more widely available and better equipped to help country teams move community engagement from an add-on to an integral part of response coordination.
  • Investment is made in monitoring and evaluating response-wide efforts, to build up a sophisticated evidence base of what works well.
  • All general coordination training, staffing and planning takes into account community engagement, such that mainstreaming begins to happen more naturally.
  • Specific investment is made in tweaking information management systems to better handle and use community feedback and perception data.
  • Efforts are made to systemically link community engagement, AAP and CwC working groups, which are often informal, to the coordination architecture, most likely by strengthening the links between these groups and the ICCG.
  • Donors, response actors and clusters raise awareness of the value of collective work.
  • Initiatives to strengthen PSEA fully take into account the need for response-wide AAP, and vice-versa.

Without these structural reforms, we lose an opportunity to support local and international response actors to improve their community engagement efforts and work towards real, systemic change. To put people at the centre, we need to review what ‘the centre’ currently looks like, opening it up, changing it around and breaking down its walls. Only then will participation become a revolution.

Alice Chatelet is Humanitarian Affairs Officer, Peer 2 Peer Support Team. Meg Sattler is Global Advisor, Community Engagement with OCHA.


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