Issue 73 - Article 7

Making humanitarian response relevant: moving away from a one-size-fits-all model

October 24, 2018
M.M. Nasif Rashad Khan
Hundreds of community-based volunteers and staff, the majority of whom are women, make up the core of BRAC’s team on the ground, ensuring that no one gets left behind.

The humanitarian crisis in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, has sorely tested the humanitarian system. Since 25 August 2017, over 700,000 forcibly displaced Rohingya have fled Myanmar, and require immediate, ongoing humanitarian services to address their basic needs. Most have arrived with no possessions or money. They have used most of their assets on transport and building shelters, often out of bamboo and thin plastic. In all, around 1.3 million people are in need of comprehensive services and support.

BRAC, which has been in Cox’s Bazar for over 35 years, is mounting the largest civil society response for these newly arrived refugees, with more than 3,800 people on the ground, 1,900 of whom are staff, and 1,880 volunteers (1,400 from the Rohingya community). Since September 2017, BRAC has helped hundreds of thousands of people with comprehensive service provision, ensuring day-to-day needs and promoting self-reliance for longer term well-being. BRAC is providing support with water, sanitation and health (WASH), education, shelter, site management, protection (including child protection, community-based protection and sexual/gender-based violence) and food. BRAC also stepped up pre-existing programmes in the host community on financial inclusion, WASH, education, child protection, human rights and empowerment, ultra-poor graduation and self-reliance and livelihoods. BRAC is greatly expanding its focus on livelihoods, expanding its flagship graduation approach to ultra-poverty, increasing the provision of financial services and expanding skills training for work in high market demand. Environmental restoration, a key priority for the local government, and disaster preparedness are also being integrated into BRAC’s community programming.

BRAC is working closely with the government and UN agencies to ensure quality services and maximum reach. In addition, it is actively participating in a number of coordination mechanisms, including the Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) and the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC)’s systems. In Cox’s Bazar, it is a member of the Strategy Advisory Groups on Health and Education, as well as a co-leader for the Mental Health Group. BRAC is a member of the heads of sub-office (HoSO) group, which brings together the heads of UN agencies and representatives of international and national NGOs and donors. It has active partnerships with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the World Food Programme (WFP), the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Global Affairs Canada, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Open Society Foundation (OSF).

Context, partnerships and flexibility

Humanitarian action must be tailored to the context, both at the individual and community levels. Strengthening the capacity of families and communities to cope with shocks, and gradually building resilience, should be the starting-point for all humanitarian interventions. It is critical that the humanitarian system consistently reflects affected people’s opinions and feedback. Local actors with extensive experience in the affected region are well-positioned to capture that knowledge and feed it into the system to inform larger decisions, while INGOs with experience in humanitarian and emergency affairs can assist in guiding local actors with standards and principles of humanitarian response. At a recent UN Economic and Social Council meeting, representatives from states and civil societies stressed the importance of localisation and building the capacity of local actors to improve the humanitarian system. Situation report: Rohingya Refugee Crisis, 5 September, 2018. Despite such calls, the humanitarian system typically develops and delivers responses in the same way, without much input from affected people (both refugees and the host population) and local players, and without a full or clear understanding of the context and situation. It is critical that local actors work hand-in-hand with UN agencies and INGOs, complementing each other’s strengths, to develop a well-coordinated, effective contextual response.

The speed of the Rohingya influx was unprecedented. Within less than a month, more than 400,000 people arrived in Cox’s Bazar. A month later, the number of displaced people had reached over 600,000. Over that two-month period, the refugee population in Cox’s Bazar more than quadrupled. In the initial months of the influx, humanitarian actors struggled to keep up with the speed and scale of the arrivals. No one could predict the speed, but even when the rapidity of the arrivals become evident, most actors, both local and international, could not adjust their responses quickly. Most responders on the ground, including INGOs, were new to the area, and didn’t have adequate staff who could communicate either with the host or displaced Rohingya community.

Local responders who could have acted quickly were held back by a lack of guidance, direction and preparedness, and by delays in getting government approval. Joint Response Plan: Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis. Without strong partnerships between local actors and INGOs, progress in providing critical emergency services was slow. The early phase of the response was not well-coordinated. BRAC and other local actors found it difficult to navigate the humanitarian system, especially the ISCG system (an adapted version of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC)). It was unclear to BRAC how to participate in the various sectoral coordination group meetings under the ISCG, or even that different sectoral coordination groups were in place. Despite 35 years’ presence in Cox’s Bazar, it was difficult for BRAC to participate in ISCG meetings and to provide input in the planning process for the response.

Adapting the response to the specific context would help ensure that humanitarian assistance is demand-driven, focused on appropriate results and seeking to maximise its reach. Making the most of the comparative advantages of the various stakeholders involved could be facilitated by local actors and INGOs working on a partnership basis to develop appropriate responses while working within global humanitarian standards. These guidelines should be more flexible and adaptable, to maximise the reach and ensure the dignity and wellbeing of affected people. Interventions must also abide by the principles of humanity, neutrality, independence and impartiality, while allowing for flexibility in how resources are used to deliver results that are culturally and contextually appropriate.

In the response to the humanitarian crisis in Cox’s Bazar, contextual adaptation in certain services ensured maximum reach to vulnerable people. For example, in the early months of the influx providing immediate life-saving water, sanitation, health and hygiene services was critical. Most of the displaced were living either on the roadside or in hilly terrain. Open defecation was common. To address this, BRAC installed more than 11,000 temporary emergency latrines in September and October (around 45% of the total latrines built). Although the quality of the latrines was variable, context and necessity required them to be built quickly with the resources and technology to hand at the time, consistent with global humanitarian standards. Gradually these latrines were replaced with more durable ones. The early provision of WASH facilities, coupled with government vaccination campaigns, averted a potentially serious epidemic. Thus, it is crucial, during the emergency phase of any humanitarian crisis, to focus on ensuring the maximum reach and quality of critical life-saving services with available resources. It goes without saying that emergency facilities and services should be gradually replaced with more durable provisions as the situation stabilises.

The needs of the host community

In any humanitarian crisis, the needs of people from the host community should not go unaddressed. The humanitarian system should aim to reduce all risks to the lives and livelihoods of everyone, including people from the host community.

The scale of the humanitarian crisis in Cox’s Bazar has meant that the lives of local/host people have been severely affected. Cox’s Bazar is one of Bangladesh’s most vulnerable districts. Malnutrition, health status and food insecurity are at crisis levels, and the poverty rate is well above the national average. Even before the influx, one in five households had poor and borderline food consumption patterns much higher than the national average. On average, a third of the population of Cox’s Bazar live below the poverty line, and 17% below the extreme poverty line. The primary school completion rate is 54%, compared with national rates of around 80%.

The refugee influx has put additional pressure on health services and exacerbated challenges around food security and nutrition. Wages have been forced down and the prices of basic food and non-food items have gone up. Although humanitarian agencies have provided jobs and increased business opportunities, poor people in the host community, especially those who are reliant on day labour, have been severely affected. Inter-communal marriages and relationships between host and Rohingya communities are further complicating the situation. In the Joint Response Plan (JRP) 2018, 20–25% of humanitarian provision is set aside for the host community. Porimol Palma and Rejaul Karim Byron, ‘Rohingya Refugees: $950m Needed in Next 10 Months’, Daily Star, 10 March 2018 ( However, the needs of the host community, and the impact of the refugee influx and the subsequent surge response, require careful assessment and more targeted, tailored responses.

Future challenges

The world is changing, and humanitarian programmes must anticipate the challenges of the future and evolve to meet them more effectively by learning from each crisis, and implementing necessary reforms in the larger humanitarian system. Keeping the above challenges in mind, BRAC is proposing three practical steps to create an enabling system to respond more effectively to complex humanitarian crises:

  • In emergency-/disaster-prone countries, select and train local actors on humanitarian standards and UN policies and procedures, to improve their preparedness.
  • Increase the representation of local actors with a longstanding presence in the affected area and extensive knowledge of the context and situation in coordination groups through a transparent process of selection, admission and nomination.
  • As the needs of the host community are distinct, create parallel coordination groups for the host community, involving different sectors and relevant critical stakeholders, including government development agencies.

M.M. Nasif Rashad Khan is a senior manager at BRAC. Additional inputs were provided by Md. Akramul Islam, Sarah-Jane Saltmarsh, K. A. M. Morshed and Dirk Booy.


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