7 practical steps for development practitioners to work for reform

A member of the Ecuador police search and rescue team updates the European Commission’s resilience and rapid response coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean on emergency operations. How can individual aid workers help build change in the humanitarian system at a grass-roots level? Photo by: A. De La Torre / ECHO / European Union / CC BY-NC-ND

Ahead of the World Humanitarian Summit next week, discussions are ramping up within the aid community about how to open up to smaller, local actors. High-level politicking may make wholesale change difficult, but experts tell Devex that there are ways of putting reforms into practice at the grass-roots level, where programs are unfolding every day.

As the eyes and the ears of their organizations, aid workers have the power to re-orientate and reorganize things from the ground. Devex spoke with three humanitarian professionals, including the author of a recent report, to suggest six practical steps aid workers can take to work toward reform.

Christina Bennett, co-author of the Overseas Development Institute’s report “Time to Let Go,” suggests one simple tweak: drop the words “development” and “humanitarian” and think in terms of short-, mid- and long-term instead. Madara Hettiarachchi, head of humanitarian programs Asia and Middle East at Christian Aid, believes that preparedness is the key to a more inclusive response. Saman A. Majed — general director of REACH, a local NGO in Iraq working with refugees in the area with partners such as UNHCR, Christian Aid and Oxfam — thinks that it is fundamental that the relationships between local and international organizations become sustainable and reciprocal.

1. Do your homework.

Before you parachute into a crisis or begin disaster relief, thoroughly study the political, religious, economic and social context. Even if your organization has a long-standing country office, consider that the context can change more rapidly during a crisis, and there is always something new to learn.

“[Depending on] the crisis and the needs, you have to prepare yourself very well, in all the aspects, you have to understand the root of the problem, the history of the problem, the effectiveness around political issues, cultural issues, [and] religious [issues] sometimes,” Majed said. Bennett added that your engagement with this analysis must not end once you are on the ground: “Don’t stop reading, don’t stop doing your research, don’t assume that if you understood it once you understand it going forward, because things are constantly changing.”

2. Think about strategic alliances before a disaster strikes.

Preparedness of partnerships should be solidified prior to a crisis and built over the course of several years, especially in crisis-prone areas. Local organizations stay put after a crisis, and they understand the local context better than anyone. Understanding their work and capacity in advance can maximize efficiency during a crisis, where there is no time to study the background.

The three practitioners suggested a shift in mindset toward a support role, backing up the work of the local NGO and asking what expertise you could offer to make their programs more meaningful. “There is something about the way that the international response system works that puts the international solutions above indigenous solutions in terms of their value and effectiveness,” Bennett said. But this can be overcome by studying the landscape on the ground and diversifying the channels through which you reach the locals. Hettiarachchi suggested this could be done by partnering with a local radio station, for example.

3. Do more than one needs assessment.

Bureaucratic processes and red tape can cause major delays in humanitarian relief. Some of this can be offset by investing in preparedness. But at the moment, “only the most enlightened donors and in the least sensitive situations would be able to say, ‘we would rather invest in something that prevents a humanitarian crisis, than responds to one,” Bennett said.

One area where this is most evident is in needs assessments. Many organizations often do just one survey, without repeating this process during implementation. But that latter step may help you and your organization make faster decisions about what works, and hence spend more efficiently.

4. Go “hyperlocal”.

The first priority for international organizations responding to a crisis is to help the communities affected by that crisis, and this must never be forgotten. Advocates for reform suggest going “hyperlocal” — or digging down to the districts and local communities. The local community and organizations are those who stay put after a crisis, so going hyperlocal is “not only a faster, efficient way of operating, it’s also a more relevant, appropriate and more sustainable way of operating,” Bennett said.  

A practical way to achieve this is to meet local community representatives as soon as you arrive to the crisis-prone area, offering your support. As Madara explained, “We make an assumption and move forward, but the communities don’t want to be sitting on the sidelines; they want to help rebuild their lives back together.” Getting the local communities to share information is key, according to Majed, who has been working in humanitarian response locally for 35 years.  

5. Try to learn the local language.

Often, local stakeholders find it difficult to build a trustworthy relationship with international NGOs in meetings they have trouble following because of language barriers. A practical solution to this can be to also attend local actors’ meetings and to try and learn the basics of the language.

“Even if you can come into a meeting and say in their language ‘Hello, how are you? I am so pleased to be here, how can we work together,’ you are showing a willingness to become part of [their community], or that you are a guest in their country,” said Bennett.

6. Involve your partner NGO at every level.

Cultural and regulatory barriers between international and local partners can inhibit a response. Although aid workers often cannot control regulatory decisions, there are ways to help break these barriers. For example, involve the partners from the design phase of any project.

Majed believes that getting involved in the program cycle can help create a trustworthy, transparent and interdependent relationship. He said that transparency and sharing information is the basis of a long lasting relationship. “Both [international and national agencies] should be transparent about finances and share data” in order to build trust, he said. “If there is no trust you cannot really understand each other.”

7. Don’t only think in numbers.

Data may be a practical way to approach monitoring and evaluation, but it can limit full engagement with the local community and partners. Hettiarachchi said, “The danger is that we often reduce people to numbers — x people displaced, x people affected — and sometimes the measuring of the suffering is just about the numbers.”

Majed added that “there needs to be a full engagement with the context.” Practitioners need “to know every detail about the requirements on the ground.” A practical and interesting way to achieve this could be to spend the first two days of your mission getting to know the cultural habits of the place you are visiting, eating with the locals, talking with the people affected, and really shifting all your focus toward them — and forgetting program design.

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About the author

  • Vivi

    Virginia Vigliar

    Virginia is a freelance journalist and editor based in Barcelona. She has worked in the development sector in Malawi and Kenya and Somalia before returning to Europe, where she gained experience in the United Kingdom, Norway and Spain. She is the managing editor of Words in the Bucket, an online platform discussing human rights, gender, development and environment issues.