Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the Coventry University's online course, Disaster Interventions and the Need for Evaluation, Accountability and Learning. Join the course to learn more.

What do we mean by ‘community’ and the implications of this for effective accountability?

What do we mean by ‘community’ in a humanitarian context?

The phrase ‘community’ is often used as a general description of the affected population in a specific geographical area, but the reality is that understanding those who are most affected by shocks and crises is a complex and time-consuming process.

In an emergency, with the pressure to provide immediate support and potentially life-saving assistance, it requires relevant tools and effective, efficient and empathetic practitioners.

Community engagement in emergencies requires some degree of contact with local leadership and other sources of local power, who often act as an entry point to the wider community, but potentially also influence access and information. Migrant and transitional communities, among others, may have been marginalised before humanitarian crises, and these groups can potentially be hard to identify and reach through traditional communication channels.

Local NGOs often have experienced staff, able to negotiate the complex process of understanding local power dynamics. But in emergencies with a substantial influx of international and national staff, potentially unfamiliar with local contexts, culture and language there is an inevitable period of adjustment. The high turnover of staff, often seen in the early stages of many emergencies, together with the long time it takes to pull together comprehensive assessment data means that patterns of local vulnerability and need may have changed by the time implementation begins at scale.

This highlights the importance of measures, such as sampled household surveys, alongside having communication and engagement strategies in place and designing complaints mechanisms, tailored to the local context to ensure that potential errors and other sources of later conflict or tension are identified and addressed as soon as possible.

Urban contexts

The Haiti earthquake and other urban disasters have prompted the humanitarian sector to reflect on its understanding of community in urban settings. British Red Cross in its SURE urban resilience programme in Nepal identified a number of considerations for urban humanitarian planning, particularly avoiding a direct translation of rural concepts of community to urban settings, and recognition that a geographical definition of community on its own is limiting and can distort or miss power relationships and support networks which are not defined by boundaries (SURE 2017).

The way people respond in crises often depends on their own priorities, networks and coping mechanisms. Building on learning from the 2015 earthquake, the British Red Cross programme noted that people did not always organise themselves around formal local disaster management structures, but instead engaged with their own informal and formal networks based around family, temple, business and schools (SURE 2017:7).

Gender, protection and inclusion

We will look at the accountability of humanitarian action in relation to gender, inclusion and protection in more detail in the third short course, but there has been a long-standing recognition that crises affect people differently and that protection needs vary by group.

Since the late 1980s, there has been an increasing focus on the needs and priorities of women and girls, with many agencies developing guidelines and policies. Questions remain over how far these have been successfully mainstreamed in to organisational practice and culture at all levels.

Subsequently, there has been recognition of the needs of the elderly, disabled, people with diverse gender profiles and young children, with agencies like HelpAge and Save the Children prominent in highlighting inclusion issues (CHS Alliance 2018).

The experience of women in times of crises is invariably different to that of men, and the power relationship between men and women can be substantially influenced, positively or negatively, by the quality and focus of humanitarian interventions. The same is true for marginalised social and ethnic groups.

Children, people with disabilities and the elderly are also vulnerable for a variety of reasons in times of crisis and their respective needs must be clearly understood. In all cases, there is a need to avoid defining individuals and groups solely by their needs, but to understand and build upon their pre-existing capacities and to respond to their priorities.

Your task

Do you have another understanding of ‘community’ from your own experiences?

What would you identify as the main challenges to ensuring effective humanitarian accountability at this level?


CHS Alliance (2018) Humanitarian Accountability Report. Geneva: CHS Alliance

SURE (2017) Strengthening Urban Resilience and Engagement Programme. Nepal: British Red Cross

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Disaster Management and Accountability

Coventry University