Geneva, April 2020. An inherent power imbalance between the different actors involved in the humanitarian response is due to unequal access to resources and the varying agendas informing their decision-making (Pouligny, 2014, p. 18). The participation discourse in the humanitarian sector evolved in an attempt to redistribute power towards affected people by the crisis, encompassing a diverse group of first responders and recipients of humanitarian aid (Bennett, 2016, p. 16).
The first article released in April 2020 introduced the current state of knowledge in research on six factors that influence the redistribution of decision-making power to people affected by crisis. This article explores a real-world example of how decision-making power is redistributed. A research by Knox Clarke et al. (2018) stated that there are examples in which power was handed over, but these remain isolated and have not led to sector-wide change in the actors involved in decision-making (p. 156). Same Skies is one of these rare examples because they foster a systematic approach in which refugee communities hold the majority of decision-making power.
Same Skies is a non-profit organisation registered in Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and Switzerland. Same Skies strongly believes in the need to “drive leadership and innovation in refugee work to improve efficiency, effectiveness, quality and social outcomes. Same Skies’ innovation is best described through its perception of refugees, who are traditionally seen as vulnerable. We focus on their resilience instead” (Same Skies, 2019). This view is reflected in the approach entitled Refugee-Led Action, in which refugees take responsibility for their own initiatives and receive support from Same Skies. This means that from the planning phase to project implementation, responsibility and ownership for the project and the resulting initiative lies primarily with refugees. Same Skies supports and coordinates with the refugee-led project team remotely and through regular field visits.
Same Skies has opted to completely abstain from using the word ‘participation’ due to the diverse range of understandings of the term. They decided instead to develop their own approach entitled Refugee-Led Action. This reflects the core of their work and their specific understanding of participation, whereby refugees take responsibility for the humanitarian response and Same Skies provides support in the form of resources and expertise. By defining and labelling their approach differently, the organisation seeks to ensure a better understanding of their work among refugee communities, partners and other stakeholders. This provides the organisation with a shared focus for working and deciding on the course of the project alongside communities.
Additionally, from Same Skies’ perspective, participation should not involve humanitarian organisations allowing affected communities to actively or passively participate in their projects, but the other way around. Affected communities should allow humanitarian organisations to participate in their initiatives. This implies a very different mindset to that of many organisations operating in the humanitarian sector, placing decision-making power with refugee communities.
Julia Frei, International Director at Same Skies, stated that this change of mindset should occur in every staff member within an organisation, as well as in all members of the refugee community. Sonia Ben Ali, Director of URBAN REFUGEES, explains that only when the mindsets and behaviors of humanitarian organisations change and the organisation positions itself differently can a redistribution of decision-making power take place. On the other hand, the experience of Same Skies shows that over time, some refugee communities become accustomed to receiving aid and adapt to the problem-solver attitude among humanitarian organisations. Therefore, the community’s commitment to taking an active role is influenced by the response they received in previous years.
Finally, when the mindset of the organisation and refugee community changes, so, too, do the dynamics surrounding decision-making. Julia Frei explained that most decisions are made by the refugee communities involved in the initiative. Same Skies sees its role as supporting and in some cases facilitating an informed decision-making process by bringing in external opinions and experience. Julia Frei stated clearly that Same Skies always aims to enrich the refugee management team by offering long-term perspectives on sustainability and showing potential risks.
Linked to the change in mindset is that the traditional transactional relationship between humanitarian organisations and affected communities, also referred to as aid delivery, should be replaced by a collaborative partnership. If the relationship is of a transactional nature, very little decision-making power is transferred to affected communities. However, viewing the humanitarian response as a collaborative partnership enables the shift of decision-making power to affected communities as demonstrated by Same Skies.
The Partnership Brokers Association (PBA) (2017) show that collaborative relationships enable the redistribution of decision-making power. They explain that one key attribute of effective partnership is shared leadership responsibility and decision-making (p. 1). They researched ‘remote partnering’ in order to collaborate effectively over distance, which is in line with Same Skies’ approach of working remotely with refugee communities to foster ownership, autonomy and decision-making. Same Skies’ use of remote partnering in its Refugee-Led Action approach helps effectively transfer decision-making power to refugee communities.
Often, remote management, as opposed to remote partnering, is used in humanitarian action due to lack of access to a region or insecurity in specific locations (Partnership Brokers Association, 2018, p. 4). However, Same Skies uses remote partnering as part of its approach to avoid placing permanent staff on refugee initiatives; instead, staff mentor, coach and train remotely and engage in regular field visits. They also support the initiatives by developing technological skills for remote partnering, creating and maintaining websites and social media channels, and introducing fundraising tools to help initiatives achieve independence from external donors. Furthermore, Same Skies and the communities sign a partnership agreement to clarify each party’s expectations, roles and responsibilities. According to the PBA (2017), such an agreement leads to a better understanding between the partners and results in more effective partnership (p. 1). Same Skies actively uses “remote partnering” and “effective partnering” as introduced by the PBA, although it does not employ this precise terminology.
Moreover, Same Skies is slowly changing to a flat hierarchy, which reflects the organisation’s ideology of distributing power equally both within the organisation and with communities. This shift gives greater responsibility and freedom to the individuals within the organisation to fulfill the vision and mission of Same Skies.
Trust is one of the main drivers for developing effective collaboration with refugee communities. Julia Frei stated that trust must be earned by dedicating time and resources to the relationship. Moreover, this trust must be mutual; Same Skies should trust that the refugee community is committed to taking an active role in terms of time and resources, while the refugee community should likewise trust in Same Skies. Abdullah Sarwari, former management team member of Refugee Learning Center (RLC), agreed that trust is one of the main drivers of participatory decision-making, attributing the positive relationship between Same Skies and RLC to mutual trust. Important factors in building trust were transparency and well-developed two-way communication. Importantly, transparency and well-developed two-way communication facilitated trust and regular communication of expectations and informal feedback. He says that Same Skies eventually became a friend to RLC, resulting in continual partnership through team mentoring sessions at the end of their joint project.
Furthermore, Same Skies explained that lack of trust is detrimental to collaboration with the refugee community. In their case, developing a trusting relationship was limited mainly by high turnover of staff at Refugee Learning Nest (RLN). Furthermore, negative previous experiences of refugees at the same centre had led to mistrust towards Same Skies. Julia Frei explained that although the collaboration went well, at some point the lack of trust on a particular matter became an issue. This matter involved a misunderstanding between the centre and Same Skies that could not be resolved. The lack of trust led to the decision by RLN to discontinue the collaboration after their joint project ended successfully.
Sonia Ben Ali adds that their organisation sometimes does not have enough time to answer all the needs and requests of the community-based organisations (CBOs) they work with. Often, CBOs would like to extend their collaboration with URBAN REFUGEES but the organisation is constrained by time and funding. This makes the development of trust difficult. On the other hand, Davies (2017) from StARS Egypt states that humanitarian organisations cannot take for granted that people from affected communities have the time and will to participate in programmes. Hence, time and the dedication of resources with the right mindset has to come from both sides in order to build trusting relationships and collaborate effectively.
Although Same Skies’ support for local initiatives means that most decisions are made by refugee communities, there are times when the organisation intervenes. Julia Frei explained that the extent to which Same Skies wishes to be included in a decision-making process depends on how much of their own resources are given to the community. However, Same Skies is relatively independent as their money comes from private donors, providing greater flexibility than big donor funding that often comes with strict conditions on financial support for refugee communities to set up their centres. If the money is given by Same Skies, the organisation wishes to be involved in some of the decisions made by the refugee communities. The emphasis here is on informed decision-making. Abdullah Sarwari confirmed that Same Skies advised them in the decision-making process and that the management team usually consulted the community on major decisions. For the efficiency purposes, daily decisions were taken by the management team only.
According to Sonia Ben Ali, donor conditions are a significant limitation on the transfer of decision-making. Some donors have specific requirements which must be fulfilled, limiting the participatory approach taken by URBAN REFUGEES. One example is that URBAN REFUGEES designs curricula for training sessions with CBOs. However, one donor requirement is to provide training in financial management. This training must be included, whether or not the community is interested in learning it. They had to develop a way to fulfil the requirement without overruling community leaders.
Another limitation relates to instances when refugee communities must make decisions which may risk the well-being of the community or breach the do no harm principle. Julia Frei explained that it is challenging to facilitate a decision which appears to have a short-term benefit but may cause harm in the future for the whole refugee community. Abdullah Sarwari confirmed that Same Skies views its role as encouraging the management team to reflect first before rushing into a decision. However, he added that RLC experienced a gradual learning process through making mistakes. Since none of the refugees in the management team had ever set up a learning centre before, RLC started out in an experimental manner, identifying what worked and what did not.
Sonia Ben Ali mentioned that any matters relating to staff security are decided on by the organisation. There are certain aspects of decision-making that URBAN REFUGEES would not transfer to the CBOs but which are part of internal decision-making processes.
The importance of context is key, as co-designed solutions often differ from one refugee community to the other. Same Skies observed that working relationships may differ even in similar contexts – for example, RLC and RLN – depending on the individuals on the management team. For Same Skies, each community develops a different working relationship and every member of a refugee community has their own needs, interests and skills. This is supported by Davies from StARS Egypt, who noted that affected communities are not a homogenous group but include a variety of needs, interests and capacities. This diversity must be considered as a one-size-fits-all approach would never work in unique contexts.
In sum, as stated by Knox Clarke et al. (2018), the humanitarian sector may not yet be ready to fully change organisational cultures and mindsets in order to implement commitments (p. 164). A combination of top-down efforts, as in the Grand Bargain’s “participation revolution” (IASC, 2019), and bottom-up initiatives such as RLC and RLN in collaboration with humanitarian organisations is required. Decision-making is linked to power, and with power comes responsibility. This is why informed decision-making by communities and humanitarian organisations is so important. This article illustrated one case in which redistribution occurred, but the author is aware that redistribution of decision-making power is not always possible or even desirable depending on the context. Some organisations challenge traditional perceptions and ways of working in humanitarian action. It is important to learn from them, acknowledge the contexts in which they work and carry this knowledge into the work of other organisations and communities. In the same vein, URBAN REFUGEES, Same Skies, StARS Egypt and Alps resilience formed a network of like-minded organisations to exchange on their practices and reflections to improve the quality of their work.
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 in 2019. The information was gathered through interviews and a literature review. 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: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tags:decision-making power, humanitarian response, Same Skies, refugee-led action