Six factors that influence the redistribution of decision-making power in the humanitarian response


This article is an excerpt of the thesis written by Annina Hunziker during the Master of Advanced Studies in Humanitarian Action at the Centre for Education and Research in Humanitarian Action (CERAH) in Geneva. The full thesis can be read by following this link. Please do not hesitate to reach out to the author with any requests or inquiries:


Geneva, April 2020. There is an inherent power imbalance between the different actors involved in the humanitarian response due to unequal access to resources and the varying agendas informing their decision-making (Pouligny, 2014, p. 18). The participation[1] discourse in the humanitarian sector evolved in an attempt to redistribute power towards people affected by crisis, that comprises a diverse group of first responders and recipients of humanitarian aid. These people are often deprived of any influence over the decisions affecting their lives (Bennett, 2016, p. 16). The participation discourse emerged more than 20 years ago and has been incorporated into organisational policies and commitments in the humanitarian sector (Pouligny, 2014, p. 6). However, in the Humanitarian Accountability Report, Austin et al. (2018) show that a significant gap remains between what is discussed on paper and at conferences and the actual opportunities for affected communities to participate in important decisions (p. 125). This article summarises current knowledge of six factors supporting the redistribution of decision-making power to people affected by crisis. These factors and their limitations provide some explanation for the gap between the participation discourse and its practical implementation.

Factor 1: Local capacity and the bidirectional flow of information and knowledge

The bidirectional flow of information between the affected populations and humanitarian organisations is an important factor in enabling participatory decision-making (Pouligny, 2014, p.14). People affected by crisis who are informed about humanitarian organisations, their agendas and programmes are more able to engage with humanitarian actors and exert influence at critical points in the decision-making process (Degett, 2019, p. 36). By strengthening and using local capacities, affected communities can cultivate ownership of projects, leading to a transfer of decision-making power and more sustainable humanitarian response (Austin et al., 2018, pp. 32-33). However, information and knowledge from communities is too often gathered but not really exchanged, creating a one-way communication process that results in affected communities lacking proper timely knowledge about the programmes, timelines and activities of the humanitarian response (Degett, 2019, p. 36). Participatory tools are frequently used to obtain information but are insufficient to close accountability and feedback loops (Austin et al., 2018, p. 33). It is important to engage local capacities and establish a two-way stream of communication and information and knowledge sharing.

Factor 2: Dedicating time and building trust

Dedicating time and building trust are crucial factors with the potential to enable meaningful participation and the transfer of decision-making to affected communities (Anderson, 2012, pp. 125-126). In the report by Anderson et al. (2012), affected communities stated that building trust and making decisions requires time, and often the timelines imposed by humanitarian organisations do not fit with their agendas and decision-making processes (Anderson et al., 2012, p. 71). Another issue is the limited time that humanitarian workers have to interact with affected communities, as they are occupied with other tasks such as reporting (Anderson et al., 2012, pp. 125-126, Knox Clarke et al. 2018, pp. 162-163). Similarly, affected communities have limited time for participating in humanitarian programmes due to other obligations, such as income generation or familial responsibilities (Anderson et al., 2012, p. 129). Time is a crucial resource, which, when used in the right way, may foster trust and collaboration between different actors in the humanitarian response in the decision-making process.

Factor 3: Commitment, mindset of humanitarian organisations and skills of aid workers

Additional crucial factors enabling participatory decision-making are: humanitarian organisations’ commitments to encouraging participation (Anderson et al., 2012, pp. 129-131), the paradigm shift towards more participatory processes in the humanitarian sector as a whole (Knox Clarke et al., 2018, p. 164), a genuine will to engage affected persons in decision-making (Anderson et al., 2012, pp. 129-131), individual and organisational mindsets (Knox Clarke et al., 2018, p. 164), and the specific skills of aid workers and representatives of affected communities (Anderson et al., 2012, pp. 129-132, Austin et al., 2018, p. 32). For example, working and collaborating with affected communities by planning and making decisions together requires listening, facilitation, conflict resolution and problem-solving skills. Additionally, a genuine interest in the context, people, and political and cultural background is needed to support these processes. Only trained people can facilitate a shared decision-making process, making sure that affected communities and representatives of humanitarian organisations participate equally in decision-making (Anderson et al. 2012, pp. 129-131, Austin et al. 2018, p. 32). These skills must be supported by a participation-oriented organisational culture and mindset among staff and affected communities. However, organisational change takes time, and resistance to changes in organisational culture from people working within a system can limit potential benefits of participatory processes (Knox Clarke et al., 2018, p. 164). Knox Clarke et al. (2018) state that the humanitarian sector is not yet ready for this shift of mentality and organisational culture towards ceding power and genuinely sharing decisions with affected communities (p. 164).

Factor 4: Donor-related influences

Progress has been made in recent years in terms of donors’ commitments[2] to accountability and consideration of participatory processes (Austin et al., 2018, p. 27). Commitments include requiring closed feedback loops and decreased earmarked funds to give agencies and humanitarian organisations freedom to choose where to invest resources (IASC 1, 2019). These requirements could create conditions in which decision-making power could be transferred (Austin et al., 2018, p. 33). However, a wide gap remains between the commitments made on paper and actual funding operations that move too quickly to adequately consider views of affected communities (Austin et al., 2018, p. 35). These limitations are mostly due to funding procedures and reporting requirements from donors, which focus mainly on measurable outputs rather than qualitative outcomes and affected communities’ inputs (Anderson et al., 2012, pp. 69-77).

Factor 5: Access to affected communities and understanding of the local context

An important prerequisite for participatory decision-making is access (physical and relational) to communities (Anderson et al. 2012, pp. 128-129) and in-depth understanding of complex contexts (Knox Clark et al., 2018, pp. 163-164) regarding ethnicities, political affiliations, social structures and tensions, power dynamics, traditions and taboos, language, culture and decision-making processes within affected communities (Austin et al, 2018, p. 35). Several major limitations on these factors are complex security situations, remote locations of communities and negative perceptions of humanitarian organisations which lead to a lack of access (Anderson et al. 2012, pp. 128-129). In addition, participatory decision-making is constrained by contextual misunderstandings or fear of supporting local power dynamics which may have a negative effect on aid delivery and potentially exclude marginalised groups further (Austin et al., 2018, p. 35). The standardisation of participatory tools, donor requirements, funding procedures and the desire for consistency among programmes in different contexts tend to limit the adaptation of programmes and processes to a specific context (Knox Clarke et al., 2018, pp. 163-164). Finally, impartiality may be compromised by engaging with people who politicise the humanitarian response to suit their own interests (Austin et al., 2018, p. 45).

Factor 6: Organisational structure, procedures, resources and clarity regarding concepts

Organisational policies, procedures, practices, cultures (Anderson et al., 2012, pp. 65-82) and staff skills (Austin et al. 2018, p. 32) are all enabling factors that support establishing trust, dedicating time, promoting longer-term funding procedures and obtaining in-depth understanding of the context. In recent years humanitarian organisations have committed themselves to participatory approaches and tools in their responses. Some procedures led to improved transparency and greater fairness in humanitarian action, but notable increased proceduralization in recent years has also had negative impacts (Anderson et al. , 2012, pp. 65-82). Anderson et al.’s (2012) research showed that new bureaucratic procedures are often too complicated, inflexible, time consuming and even counterproductive. Humanitarian workers and people affected by crisis referred to some procedures as “box-ticking exercises,” and the value behind the procedures is lost in practice. The procedures also undermine innovation and lead to poorly designed projects (pp. 65-82). A less rigid approach, participatory decision-making requires that all levels of management foster an environment and culture embracing collaboration with affected communities. This includes actively fostering specific skills among staff and developing a framework for recruitment, evaluation and assessment to promote these skills. The leadership must act as a role model in participatory processes and foster an organisational culture of engagement and inclusion (Austin et al., 2018, p. 32-36).

Furthermore, clarity on concepts and participatory approaches throughout an organisation is essential in order to actively engage with communities in a comprehensive manner (Knox Clarke et al., 2018, p. 162). Disincentives still exist for sharing power with affected communities; letting go of power is accompanied by a sense of uncertainty, insecurity and a loss of resources on individual and organisational level (Austin et al., 2018, p. 32-36).


In conclusion, these factors have the potential to help redistribute decision-making power in the humanitarian response. However, these factors are highly interlinked and may trigger or exacerbate each other. Therefore, more research is needed to understand the changed dynamics when decision-making power is distributed differently. Moreover, an active exchange of best practices should be fostered between organisations and affected communities. There are examples of organisations fostering mindsets that actively support a culture of sharing or transferring decision-making power. Article 2 of this series describes one example of an organisation that has explored different ways of working and partnering with affected communities.


[1] The definition of participation by the Core Humanitarian Standards (CHS) Alliance and the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), both of which play an important role in the participation discourse: “Participation involves enabling crisis-affected people to play an active role in the decision-making processes that affect them. It is achieved through the establishment of clear guidelines and practices to engage them appropriately and ensure that the most marginalised and worst affected are represented and have influence” (CHS Alliance, 2015, p. 39).

[2] Examples of such commitments are the 2012 OECD report “Towards Better Humanitarian Donorship”, commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals which are part of the 2030 UN (goal 16) and the Grand Bargain commitments including the Participation Revolution) during the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016.


Journal articles:
  • Barnett, M. (2016). The humanitarian act: how humanitarian? International Social Science Journal, 65(215–216), 13–24.
  • Degett, A. (2019). Why attention to details matter in the participation revolution. (W. Fenton, C.-A. Hofmann, & M. Foley, Eds.), Humanitarian Exchange, (74), 35–38.
  • Anderson, M. B., Brown, D., & Jean, I. (2012). Time to listen. Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid. CDA Collaborative Learning Projects. Cambridge, Massachusetts: CDA Collaborative Learning Projects.
  • Austin, L., Brown, D., Knox-Clarke, P., & Wall, I. (2018). How Change happens in the Humanitarian Sector (Humanitarian Accountability Report). Geneva: CHS Alliance.
  • CHS Alliance. (2015). CHS Guidance Note and Indicators. Geneva: CHS Alliance, The Sphere Project, Groupe URD.
  • Knox Clarke, P., Stroddard, A., & Tuchel, L. (2018). The State of the Humanitarian System. (M. Foley, Ed.). London: ALNAP/ODI.
  • OECD (2012). Towards Better Humanitarian Donorship: 12 Lessons from DAC Peer Reviews. OECD Publishing. Retrieved June 20, 2019 from from
  • Pouligny, B. (2014). Supporting Local Ownership in Humanitarian Action. Humanitarian Policy Paper Series (Vol. 3). Berlin, Washington D.C.: Global Public Policy Institute, 34 Center for Transatlantic Relations. Retrieved June 20, 2019 from 84937904661&partnerID=40&md5=cb1a1f82c07caed20ab56ba25c4dfed0
Working papers:
  • Bennett, C. (2016). Time to let go. Remaking humanitarian action for the modern era. (M. Foley, Ed.). London: Overseas Development Institute.
  • IASC 1 (2019). The Grand Bargain. Retrieved June 20, 2019 from

Tags:, ,

Our impact

  • 3700

    refugees have better access to education and livelihood opportunities

  • 40

    countries in which our partner NGOs are implementing solutions

  • 490

    refugee children benefit from mathematics, english, art and sports classes

  • 700

    women can now support their families

  • 650

    refugees have access to critical healthcare and safety information

Get Involved

We’ve accomplished so much, but the growing urgency of refugee issues in cities means we have a lot more to do and we can’t do it alone. Support the refugee communities that need it most.

As Seen in

They sponsor us