If we are to move the ball forward regarding refugee participation in decision-making and service provision, it would be helpful first to understand where the ball is, what, if anything, is blocking its path, what has been tried previously, and why those efforts did not move the ball as far forward as we might want. In this paper, I seek to synthesize the existing literature on the participation of members of crisis-affected groups in decision-making and service provision so that our efforts to move the ball forward are intelligent, informed, and effective.
Participation or engagement of crisis-affected populations in decision-making and service provision can take a range of forms, which makes it hard to define and easy to claim to do. Engagement runs the gamut from, in its most basic form, providing information to affected persons, to partnership approaches, in which international humanitarian agencies and local civil society organizations jointly design and/or implement activities, to, in its most advanced form, local ownership, in which aid agencies’ engagement amounts to supporting responses and programmes designed and implemented by members of the crisis-affected populations.
The Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response similarly conceptualizes participation as occurring along a continuum:
Information sharing Consultation Collaboration Shared control and decision-making.
Calls for greater participation often use language like ‘meaningful participation at all stages of the program cycle’, which excludes token participation but otherwise does little to clarify the extent to which crisis-affected populations are involved. Perhaps a more useful concept is the distinction between supply-driven programming, in which the provider of services chiefly decides what will be provided and how, and demand-driven programming, in which the recipients are the drivers of what will be done and how.
There are three basic rationales for involving members of affected groups in decision-making and service provision:
Value-based: We should involve members of affected groups in decision-making and service provision because it is the right thing to do – it respects their dignity and right to self-determination.
The rationale can affect the extent of engagement: while focus groups may achieve instrumental goals, for example, they do little to advance the other two rationales, whereas local ownership can, if done carefully, advance all three.
As explained in CHS Alliance’s 2018 Humanitarian Accountability Report,
Despite the plethora of commitments, initiatives, standards and collaboration in the past few years, there has been little progress on enabling direct and meaningful participation by (rather than consultation of) affected people in decision-making structures and processes. The many frameworks, processes, mechanisms, guidelines and initiatives have not dealt with changing the power dynamics and governance structures in the humanitarian system to truly enable affected people to have a real voice and choice.
Pledges about participation often include the phrase “at all phases of the project cycle”, so Groupe URD broke down their analysis of participation to the different phases. In the diagnosis phase, the engagement “consists mainly of providing data”; in the design and preparation phase, engagement is “very rare”; engagement in the implementation phase is “frequent in the form of in-kind contributions or labor”; engagement in monitoring is “rare”; and engagement in evaluation is “extremely rare, although the trend is to encourage more involvement.” Although the initial description was written in 2008, it continues to be cited in authoritative reports so, in the absence of contrary or more recent evidence, will be relied upon.
IRC’s Designing for a Change in Perspective does an excellent job of compiling explanations for the low involvement of the target population in project design. First, short turnover between the announcement of a call for proposals and the proposal due date leaves little time to involve the perspectives of the targeted community in project design. In protracted crises, however, agencies should be more able to anticipate donor funding cycles and thus mitigate the time crunch. Nonetheless, the agencies still run into the second barrier: they tend to lack human or financial resources to properly collect the targeted communities’ perspectives. Aggravators include agencies’ limited access to clients and lack of solid relationships with communities, communities’ feedback fatigue (which is a particular risk when agencies do not share their information with each other and when the feedback is not taken into account in project design), or donors not prioritizing the inclusion of perspectives of the target communities and thus not providing enough funding for the collection of perspectives. Further, agencies may avoid directly involving communities in project design due to a worry about raising expectations before a project is approved and funded.
The next barrier is putting the collected feedback to use. First, agencies may lack capacity to analyze the data collected, particularly if donors do not prioritize the perspectives of the target communities and do not provide adequate funding for the analysis. Second, implementers may lack the flexibility to adapt their own priorities to fit those of the affected communities. Third, lack of cooperation within and between agencies can lead to a disconnect in which those who write the proposals do not have or do not trust the information collected on community perspectives.
More broadly, CHS Alliance identifies humanitarians’ unconscious biases as barriers to participation:
Humanitarians (particularly internationals) do not see themselves as community organisers, facilitators, and brokers, but as doers who are there to solve problems deploying solutions that have largely been predetermined… many aid workers feel that their intentions and efforts to save lives should not be questioned, and that this takes priority over their attempts to be participatory.
This mindset maps well onto Groupe URD’s analysis: a humanitarian who sees him/herself as a problem-solver may collect data in the diagnosis phase, and may involve communities in implementation, but would take it upon him/herself to identify a solution and to evaluate the success of the project. Further, it could explain why so little progress has been made despite the rhetoric around stakeholder participation: humanitarian workers who see their roles as doers and problem-solvers are less likely to see the limited participation as a problem, and thus are less likely to hire persons with the skills and inclination to effectively facilitate participation. CHS Alliance’s explanation potentially also explains why the IRC authors seemingly took for granted that targeted communities’ participation would be limited to consultation.
Additionally, CHS Alliance points to power structures as a barrier to greater participation in decision-making: the demand for change “is largely coming from people who do not have the power to incentivise it”, whereas “[t]hose who have the most power in the [humanitarian] system are reluctant to open ‘the club’ in which decisions are made to new members and perspectives which would fundamentally challenge the status quo.” Those in ‘the club’ have the most to lose, as their prestigious positions, methods, and self-image would be called into question by a move towards greater participation by affected persons in decision-making.
The barriers to participation depend in part on where along the continuum the participation is. For communities to have shared control over decision-making at the project design phase, it would be useful for members of the communities to have the tools necessary for designing projects, including writing proposals, as well as of the donor guidelines, the services already provided, the governmental constraints, etc.. Similarly, to participate in monitoring and evaluation beyond simply providing responses to questions that they did not formulate, targeted communities would benefit from knowing the best practices of monitoring and evaluation, including interpreting the data. While it may be unreasonable to expect these skills to exist in a given population immediately after a crisis, protracted situations provide room for such training – assuming that donors will fund it.
Local ownership, in which aid agencies’ engagement amounts to supporting responses and programmes designed and implemented by members of the crisis-affected populations, faces further barriers. Donors’ language biases present one barrier: if calls for proposals are published in English, for example, and proposals have to be written in English, non-English-speaking populations are effectively barred from local ownership. If proposals require complex log frames and community-based organizations lack the requisite expertise, local ownership is difficult. Donors’ lack of knowledge about target communities presents another barrier: if donors do not know which organizations legitimately represent target communities, the donors either risk awarding projects to groups that are not representative or subcontract the decision by granting the project to an organization who then subcontracts it to another, with the funding that goes to beneficiaries shrinking each time. Further, host states can pose barriers to local ownership, be it through making it hard to get accredited as an NGO, hard to get a work permit, hard to open a bank account, or hard to receive funds from foreign donors. Finally, local ownership is not in itself a surefire recipe for participation of all members of the crisis-affected population; the leaders of the local initiatives would still have to work to ensure that all voices are heard and considered.
Finally, humanitarian organizations may be resistant to greater participation because it drags them out of their perceived neutrality and avoidance of politics: given that not everyone from affected communities can be directly involved in decision-making, are representative bodies the solution? If yes, would one have representation by “using existing government and authority structures? By creating new representative bodies? What are the ensuing consequences for the power balance within a community, and for the neutrality and independence of humanitarian organisations?” Faced with such questions, it is easier to simply collect information in focus groups, particularly if one does not subscribe to the emancipatory or value-based rationales for participation in decision-making.
In working on participation, one ought to be mindful of several potential traps. First, crisis-affected populations are not monolithic; they possess within them diverse capacities, perspectives, needs, and vulnerabilities. Understanding and accounting for this diversity is essential if one seeks to avoid perpetuating and reinforcing power inequalities within communities. Second, this paper has largely taken for granted that crisis-affected persons want to participate in decision-making. They are already dealing with a range of disruptions to their lives, and may prefer to focus on their immediate situation rather than program design and implementation. Engagement with crisis-affected persons must bear this in mind, lest we further burden them. This is particularly important in contexts with a multitude of humanitarian actors seeking affected communities’ participation. Third, participation with affected communities can sometimes come into conflict with humanitarian principles and standards, such as nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Humanitarian organizations must be mindful of this when working with crisis-affected populations. Finally, when discussing the role of crisis-affected populations in service design and delivery, one must remember that crisis-affected persons are themselves first responders in ways often invisible to international organizations, and that they play a key role in the provision of services to their own communities with or without the assistance of formal organizations. Their work should not be minimized.
An examination of the barriers to effective participation in decision-making provides clues to what could be done to remove them. However, according to CHS Alliance, “few carrots or sticks in the humanitarian system … can be used to incentivize donors and humanitarian organisations to truly change their approach and decision-making processes”. I largely agree; as stated above, those calling for the changes do not have the power to enact them. If change is to happen, it must come from within. If those with the power to remove the barriers do in fact have the desire to do so, I propose the following steps.
Schools that train humanitarian workers:
 Brown, D. and Dononi, A. (2014) Rhetoric or reality? Putting affected people at the centre of humanitarian action. ALNAP Study. London: ALNAP/ODI, pp. 9-12. Available at https://www.alnap.org/help-library/rhetoric-or-reality-putting-affected-people-at-the-centre-of-humanitarian-action-0.
 Founded in 1972, the purpose of SCHR is to share analysis and learning and promote greater accountability and impact of humanitarian actions. Its current members are ICRC, IFRC, ACT Alliance, CARITAS, CARE, Lutheran World Federation, Oxfam, Save the Children, and World Vision.
 SCHR (2017) Review on Participation: report of findings. Background document for Conference. Geneva: SCHR, p. 3. Available at https://www.schr.info/events-resources. Note that local ownership does not even appear on the continuum.
 Rhetoric or reality? at 20-21.
 CHS Alliance (2018) How Change Happens in the Humanitarian Sector: Humanitarian Accountability Report Edition 2018. CHS Alliance Report. Geneva: CHS Alliance, p. 29. Available at https://www.chsalliance.org/files/files/Humanitarian Accountability Report 2018.pdf.
 Grünewald, F. and de Geoffroy, V. (2008) Principle 7 of the Good Humanitarian Donorship Initiative. Policy Paper. Plaisians: Groupe URD, p. 8. Available at https://www.alnap.org/system/files/content/resource/files/main/principle-7-of-the-ghd-initiative—beneficiary-involvement-2008.pdf.
 See e.g. Seris, N. and Whitley, C. (2017) Designing for a Change in Perspective: Embracing Client Perspectives in Humanitarian Project Design. IRC Report. Nairobi / Geneva: IRC, p. 5. Available at https://www.rescue.org/sites/default/files/document/2183/designingforachangeinperspectivewebcopy.pdf. See also Brown, D. and Knox Clarke, P. (2014) Engagement of crisis-affected people in humanitarian action. Background Paper of ALNAP’s 29th Annual Meeting, 11-12 March 2014, Addis Ababa. London: ALNAP/ODI, Figure 3, p. 12. Available at http://live-cdacollaborative.pantheonsite.io/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Engagement-of-Crisis-Affected-People-in-Humanitarian-Action.pdf.
 CHS Alliance Humanitarian Accountability Report at 33-34.
 CHS Alliance Humanitarian Accountability Report at 34.
 Steets, J., Binder, A. et al (2016) Drivers and Inhibitors of Change in the Humanitarian System: A Political Economy Analysis of Reform Efforts Relating to Cash, Accountability to Affected Populations and Protection. Global Public Policy Institute, p. 31. Available at https://www.gppi.net/2016/05/12/drivers-and-inhibitors-of-change-in-the-humanitarian-system.
 For more on humanitarian principles, see Ch. 2 of the Sphere Handbook, available at https://handbook.spherestandards.org/.
 For a thoughtful take on inclusion of LGBTQI individuals in decision-making, see Langridge, F., Terarova, V. and Close, S. (2018) Inclusion of gender and sexual minorities in peacebuilding. Conciliation Resources. Available at https://www.c-r.org/resources/inclusion-gender-and-sexual-minorities-peacebuilding.
 CHS Alliance Humanitarian Accountability Report at 31.