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Accounting for community capacity in response and recovery

Many previous approaches used by external agencies to engage local people have been met with criticism.

In the video, we see evidence of the potential challenges faced by response agencies trying to meet the needs of many with limited resources and time. Engaging with a wide range of community groups might appear time consuming or, indeed, a waste of time – but it is time well spent.

It’s widely acknowledged that involving local people, civil society organisations and local NGOs in assessment and humanitarian interventions means that aid can be targeted appropriately to those most in need, expectations of the wider population can be managed, and trust can be established or developed in the response agency. Many previous approaches used by external agencies have been met with criticism.

Participation in large-scale responses has often been more exploitative than emancipatory, being used as a means to obtain cheap labour, reduce costs and acquire information.
(Davis 2007: 23)

Taking the time to understand local culture, priorities and capacities to recover, and working with communities to provide support, is not as simple as it seems and requires a shift in the modus operandi of many agencies.

The figure below shows the phases in a humanitarian intervention project and the historical type and degree of engagement with local people. Whilst engagement tends to be high during the assessment (diagnosis) and monitoring phases, it commonly takes the form of local people answering agency questions rather than an equitable ‘discussion’. While technology (social media) and participatory initiatives may increase the amount of information that affected people are able to provide, it’s not always clear to what degree this information influences decision making and the interventions implemented.

During the different project phases the degree of engagement by local people changes. In the diagnosis phase engagement is typically quite high, and consists of mainly providing data. Engagement decreases as we enter the design and preparation phase; here engagement with locals is very rare. Engagement may increase in the implementation phase; it is frequent in the form of in-kind contributions or labour. It decreases throughout the monitoring phase and becomes rare. In the final phase, the evaluation phase, engagement with locals is extremely rare, although the current trend is to encourage more involvement at this phase of the project. Adapted from Grünewald and de Geoffrey (2008: 8).

Over the last five or so years, there has been a drive to improve the nature of the involvement of affected communities in the design and implementation of humanitarian response. Referred to as localisation, the aim is not only to increase the amount of engagement across the humanitarian intervention cycle, but also to ensure that the majority of humanitarian decision making occurs at a local level (Brown, Donini and Knox Clarke 2014). Localisation seeks to ensure, ‘the primacy of the needs of populations affected by crisis rather than the needs of desk-bound humanitarians to feel they are still making a difference’ (Du Bois 2018: 10).

The approach aims to move power and resources for crisis response to local governments and organisations and empowered beneficiaries themselves, who are best placed to determine the type, source and duration of aid (McGoldrick 2016).

The UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182 (UN 1991) defines that the state has responsibility for its citizens, and the principle of subsidiarity means that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralised competent authority (Bennett, Foley and Pantuliano 2016: 80). In the context of localisation, this could be a local NGO or community-based organisation. This approach shifts the role of the external humanitarian agency from lead and provider to facilitator and supporter.

It’s easy to assume that local capacity is overwhelmed during a crisis, which may be true in some circumstances. In others, well-informed and well-meaning local agencies are working to support local people. External agencies often focus on the needs of the affected population rather than what they can add and how they should support local actors (Barbelet 2018).


Barbelet, V. (2018) As Local as Possible, as International as Necessary: Understanding Capacity and Complementarity in Humanitarian Action [online] available from [28 Apr 2020]

Bennett, C. Foley, M., and Pantuliano, S. (2016) Time to Let Go: Remaking Humanitarian Action for the Modern Era. [online] London: ODI. available from [28 April 2020]

Brown, D., Donini, A., and Knox Clarke, P. (2014) Engagement of crisis-affected people in humanitarian action. [online] Background Paper of ALNAP’s 29th Annual Meeting. held 11-12 March 2014 at Addis Ababa. London: ALNAP/ODI. available from [28 April 2020]

Davis, A. (2007) Concerning Accountability in Humanitarian Action. HPN Network Paper 58. [online] London: ODI/HPG. available from [28 April 2020]

Du Bois, M. (2018) The New Humanitarian Basics. HPG Working Paper. [online] London: ODI. available from [28 April 2020]

Grünewald, F., and de Geoffrey, V. (2008) Principle 7 of the good humanitarian donorship initiative [online] available from [28 April 2020]

McGoldrick, C. (2016) Humanitarianism at a Breaking Point? New Roles for Local and International Actors. [online] August 19. available from [28 April 2020]

United Nations (1991) General Assembly Resolution 46-182 [online] available from [28 April 2020]

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Humanitarian Action, Response and Relief

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