Issue 74 - Article 4

Yemen: setting up a common service in a high-risk environment

February 5, 2019
Justus Olielo and Charles-Antoine Hofmann
A child in Yemen.

Yemen remains the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Four years since the current crisis began in March 2015, approximately 22.2 million people or 75% of the population are in need of humanitarian assistance. The conflict has led to severe economic decline, food insecurity and the collapse of essential services, and exacerbated social deprivation and vulnerability to diseases, including the world’s worst cholera outbreak, with over 1.5 million suspected cases. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), as of October 2018 a total of 17.8 million people were food insecure, 8.4 million did not know where their next meal was coming from, 16 million did not have access to safe water and 25% of children were out of school.

Putting people at the centre of humanitarian action

A Community Engagement Working Group (CEWG) was established in late 2015 to facilitate and better coordinate system-wide communication and engagement with affected populations in the humanitarian response. Chaired by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the CEWG comprises 25 participating agencies with over 100 staff on the mailing list, including from the UN and international and national NGOs, who meet regularly (at least bi-weekly in 2017), with OCHA providing overall coordination and a secretariat role.

The CEWG works to establish common, shared mechanisms to ensure that affected people have accurate, relevant and timely information to make informed decisions to protect themselves and their families and to ensure that the overall humanitarian response is systematically informed by the views of affected communities. Among its first priorities was to develop a framework for accountability to affected populations (AAP) for inclusion in the 2017 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan (YHRP), based on agency and cluster best practices and to raise the profile of AAP at cluster, inter-cluster and Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) levels.

The framework, subsequently discussed and adopted at the inter-cluster level and endorsed by the HCT in May 2016, addresses six core components of accountability to affected populations, the first being that accurate, relevant and regularly updated information on the humanitarian response is provided publicly and made readily available and accessible to affected communities. This requires participating agencies to organise regular consultations with women, men, girls and boys in order to understand, develop and disseminate key messages addressing information needs, and to provide information on projects in ways consistent with the preferences and interests of affected communities.

Second, the framework requires the involvement and participation of communities in decision-making, especially in the design, monitoring and evaluation of humanitarian assistance, through regular consultation and feedback mechanisms. Third, it stipulates the use of community complaints and feedback for learning and improving the quality of the response, including minimum standards for establishing and managing complaints and feedback mechanisms and closing the feedback loop. The fourth component sets out measures to ensure that staff attitudes and behaviours reflect and are consistent with humanitarian principles, the Core Humanitarian Standard and accountabilities to affected people, and calls on agencies to issue codes of conduct and provide training to staff. The fifth and sixth components require agencies to collectively conduct quarterly reviews for project learning: i.e. feedback analysis, monitoring reports, assessments and evaluations, and organise learning workshops, reports and meetings with partners, clusters and the HCT to review progress and share learning.

The CEWG has been instrumental in advocating for the adoption of accountability to affected populations as a core principle in the humanitarian response consistent with the Core Humanitarian Standard, and in building the capacity of its members to improve communication and community engagement interventions. Among its key achievements are establishing minimum standards for feedback mechanisms. These group community complaints and feedback into three categories, each with recommended referral pathways (Table 1).

The CEWG also conducted a ‘4Ws’ (who, what, where, when) exercise and established a registry of existing organisational feedback mechanisms to better understand the different approaches and systems in use, with a view to learning from each and establishing common system-wide feedback platforms that participating agencies can benefit and learn from.

Quality of the humanitarian response: community perception surveys and feedback

As part of facilitating community participation and feedback and to monitor communities’ perceptions of the humanitarian response and their capacity to participate, their information needs and preferred communication methods, the CEWG conducted two perception surveys among affected people in 2016 and 2017 (a third was under way for 2018) on the quality of the humanitarian response. Affected populations include internally displaced, host and receiving families/communities, those living in areas of active armed conflicts and refugee populations. Using convenience sampling, the surveys comprised 50 questions linked to the five Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) commitments to AAP and the nine commitments under the Core Humanitarian Standard. The surveys were administered to affected populations and key informants at community level. Partners completed the questionnaires in the field and entered completed forms online using Kobo. The CEWG in Sana’a compiled and analysed the data from both surveys.

The survey results have been instrumental in bringing the views of affected populations into the Yemen humanitarian response plans, and in addressing the serious disconnects Yemenis saw between the humanitarian response and their priority needs. In 2016, 93% of the affected population living in areas where humanitarian agencies were operating considered humanitarian staff and volunteers respectful, 84% reported that the presence of humanitarian agencies had made them feel safer and 60% thought that their community was able to influence the modality and type of humanitarian assistance. However, just 41% believed humanitarian assistance was provided in a fair way, with a huge discrepancy between areas controlled by de facto authorities (Taiz: 24%) and those controlled by or pro the legitimate government (Aden: 41%). Only 15% knew how to provide feedback or complain to humanitarian agencies, with the elderly, people with mental disability, the illiterate and marginalised or socially excluded communities Yemen has a large population of traditionally socially excluded groups like the Muhamusheens. seen as having the most difficulty accessing information and assistance. The greatest information needs were around accessing assistance – where and how (72%), who was entitled to assistance (46%) and how to provide feedback (32%). Personal channels were the most trusted sources of information, primarily word of mouth (from relatives or mosques etc. 54%) through cell phones (52%) and community volunteers (36%); 23% said humanitarian workers (UN/NGO staff) and 23% the radio.

Significantly, only 12% thought that humanitarian assistance was meeting their priority needs. Among the internally displaced, a solid 60% reported specifically that the aid they received did not support them or their community in meeting priority needs. Unmet needs highlighted by respondents included electricity and legal services, especially among women. Of those who provided feedback to an agency, 71% felt that it had not been considered.

In 2017, the questionnaires were more in-depth and the results more revealing – all core community indicators had declined between August 2016 and October 2017, perhaps as a consequence of the escalation of the conflict and the deteriorating operating environment. Overall, while food, water and health remained top priorities for affected people, the majority of respondents were more dissatisfied with the humanitarian assistance they were receiving than in 2016. A majority also perceived assistance lists as not reflecting those most in need (19% among IDPs and 53% among non-displaced communities). A majority (56% of those surveyed) said that they did not have the information they needed to access available assistance, and 55% said they did not know how to register their needs with aid agencies. Only 25% of women knew how to make a complaint to an agency. Across the board, displaced populations’ perception of the quality of the humanitarian response was much lower than that of non-displaced people.

These results were widely shared with individual agencies, clusters, the inter-cluster coordination group and at the HCT, and have become an important basis for planning the humanitarian response at all levels. For example, communication and community engagement became a critical response strategy in containing the cholera outbreak, where affected communities were at the centre of decisions such as where to establish rehydration and diarrhoea treatment centres.

The HCT for its part made commitment to the integration of AAP a mandatory requirement for agencies included in Yemen Humanitarian Response Plans and for accessing pooled funds. Similarly, cluster and inter-cluster coordination meetings have been encouraged to include AAP as a standing agenda item. Led by UNICEF and OCHA, the CEWG has conducted two workshops in Aden and Sana’a to train over 50 staff from 25 participating agencies to enhance their understanding of AAP principles and boost their skills in communication and community engagement.

While considerable progress has been made, this has not been without challenges. AAP activities continue to compete for resources and attention with many other priorities. At the collective level, the lack of clear policies and guidelines and the lack of a critical mass of dedicated staff with the knowledge and experience to articulate, plan and implement AAP still means that it is at best ad hoc, and limited to a few agencies. Clusters are also still struggling to come up with clear indicators for reporting.

Luckily, prioritisation of AAP at the HCT level is beginning to pay dividends, including the allocation of $1 million of YHRP pooled funds to support the establishment of a system-wide common feedback mechanism (a call centre and other digital platforms) to ensure that affected communities are actively engaged and provided with timely, relevant and actionable lifesaving information, and that their feedback and complaints are effectively responded to and acted on. This funding supports capacity-building of partners to effectively engage with communities, in particular national NGO partners through community engagement efforts and staff training in AAP approaches and systems – including minimum standards and codes of conduct, as well as strengthening local partnerships to enhance the capacity of community volunteers and frontline staff to facilitate dialogue and other communication interventions. More perception surveys and community consultation forums will be arranged, to ensure that humanitarian action and decision-making processes are informed by the constructive participation and feedback of affected communities throughout the humanitarian response cycle, including at the most senior levels of decision-making.

Justus Olielo is Emergency Specialist and Charles-Antoine Hofmann Senior Advisor, Accountability to Affected Populations, in the UNICEF EMOPS AAP unit.


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