Participation by the Affected Population in Relief Operations
Draft report for ALNAP
At its fourth meeting in October 1998, The ALNAP (the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Assistance) noted that a recurring theme of discussion at its meeting had been the need to improve accountability to those affected by disasters and humanitarian crisis. A number of initiatives were taken as a result of this meeting including a study to identify empirically types of participation by beneficiaries and their communities over a geographically and socially limited area (i.e. south Sudan). The study was based on a description of the experience of some of the 12 UK based NGOs covered by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) evaluation of the South Sudan humanitarian programme and involved three weeks field work in Nairobi, Lokichoggio and south Sudan. Among the questions specifically addressed by the study were the following:
- What were the types of participation utilised and why?
- Are programmes more effectively delivered if participatory?
- Is there value added beyond the programme if humanitarian assistance is delivered in a participatory fashion?
Findings of the study
The final report is a lengthy document covering aspects of beneficiary participation in the many sectors of humanitarian relief provision. For the purposes of this Field Exchange summary we will only highlight some of the findings that relate to the food and nutrition sector. For more information the reader is referred to the original report.
The study draws an important distinction between beneficiary participation which involves physical energy, e.g. constructing a feeding centre, and participation which involves engagement of the community mind, i.e. planning the intervention. The importance of 'social learning' is also highlighted. For example, although women and children are strictly the only beneficiaries of selective feeding programmes, men need to participate in a social learning sense. This became clear when for example, lack of proper information regarding the purpose of feeding centres resulted, during the early stages of the programme, in households who were receiving rations from the centre not being given the general food ration. The local distribution structure, dominated by men, failed to realise that feeding centre rations were meant for malnourished under fives only and not for the whole household.
A number of agency experiences of participation are summarised in the report. For example:
- Oxfam's use of focus group discussions and key informant interviews to enable the agency to identify vulnerable people for their emergency food and nutrition programme.
- SCF work with local authorities and SRRA representatives who were given responsibility to work with communities to decide who would receive assistance and draw up lists of vulnerable individuals. Through a vulnerability workshop, a call was made by participants to improve representation on the relief committees and ensure their involvement in distribution. Awareness of groups who were not receiving food was also raised and one practical resolution was made to directly and separately target families of children in feeding centres.
- Tear Fund's unique mobile SFP allowing increased beneficiary participation by making it easy for volunteers to work in the feeding centres. Because centres were small, contact between agency staff and beneficiaries was close, increasing opportunities for social learning.
Some Conclusions from the study
Justifications for a participatory approach to emergency aid provision:
- decision making structures still exist in societies affected by emergencies and constitute a valuable resource for agencies implementing emergency programmes;
- limited involvement of beneficiaries or levels of social learning can introduce inefficiencies into the programme;
- agencies have come to realise that it is almost impossible to understand vulnerability without making concerted efforts to involve the affected communities in the defining process. Understanding vulnerability is essential to targeting resources;
- even if targeting is not necessary, participation offers a channel for understanding and addressing issues such as gender relations and understanding the impact of relief on the livelihood system and the social structure in general.
Arguments against a participatory approach
The general belief is that there are some circumstances in which participation is not appropriate or desirable, e.g. in the acute phase of the emergency when there are high rates of mortality and morbidity and it is obvious what needs doing. However, even if the decision about what to provide is not made in a participatory manner, the effective distribution requires some level of participation by beneficiaries. Another issue that deserves consideration is the extent to which particular types of investigation, participation and social learning might result in loss of time and introduce inefficiencies into the programme. It may also be that agencies are reluctant to use participatory approaches for fear of generating unrealisable expectations. For example, in south Sudan, beneficiaries of tools and seeds requested some agencies to give them the tools ahead of the seeds so that they had enough time to work in their fields. Invariably, the agencies stated that they were not prepared to do the double distribution this request would involve. Another issue is whether some forms of participation are disruptive to community relations in terms of say, gender and the local political economy.
Pierson R.T. Nata. Participation by the Affected Population in Relief Operations: A Review of the Experience of DEC agencies during the response to the 1998 Famine in South Sudan.
Taken from Field Exchange Issue 7, July 1999