"We must listen and act, not impose"

28 March 2018
"We must listen and act, not impose"
CC BY-NC-ND / ICRC / Christophe Da Silva

The ICRC President's speech for the launch of a new discussion paper on community engagement and accountability to affected people.

On a recent visit to Syria, I spoke with some teachers about how the conflict had impacted their community and the difficulties they now faced. The ICRC had been working in the area providing humanitarian relief items. The teachers were upfront and knew exactly what had to change, and said, "Thank you, but we don't need your food. What we actually need is for the schools to reopen."

And just recently I met with the local authorities of a city on the frontlines about the needs of their community. Of the 25 councilors around the table just one was a woman. Was this truly community representation?

For me these two small examples raise some of the tensions and critical questions around today's topic – who are we listening to, and how do we respond when the needs do not neatly match with our programs, or even fall outside of our mandate.

There is no question for me that we must change the way we, the ICRC and the humanitarian sector, engage with people affected by armed conflict and violence.

We must shift away from a perception of the "passive beneficiary" to affected people becoming agents of change in their own lives. When we recognize people's inherent agency, they change us, the ICRC, and the humanitarian response.

The ICRC is by its very nature an organization built on proximity – to people and communities affected by conflict. Rather than impose solutions, we must work to better understand what is needed, and critically how we will respond. We must listen and act, not impose.

This is not a new issue: despite many global and institutional commitments and research, there has been minimal progress. Last year, surveys from Afghanistan, Lebanon and Haiti showed that overall affected people feel they have little say in the assistance that reaches them. While, broadly speaking, those surveyed felt relatively safe and respected by aid providers, they consistently gave low rankings to the relevance and fairness of aid.

  • In Afghanistan nearly half of the respondents said that they didn't know anything, or only very little, about the aid available to them.
  • In Haiti over 70% of the respondents said they didn't know how to make suggestions or complaints to aid providers; and 90% reported that they didn't feel that their opinions were taken into account.

Over recent months, the ICRC has been preparing its Institutional Strategy for the coming three years. Through this strategy we have identified clearly that community engagement and accountability to affected people must guide our work. In many ways this seems obvious – it is natural that a neutral, frontline humanitarian organization must put people at its centre.

But this is a topic that is easier spoken about than implemented. The big challenge that lies before us is to bring these words to life.

To really understand what people need is not straightforward. People's needs are complicated. They are simultaneously short and long term. They are simultaneously individual and systemic. The dynamics of the contexts where the ICRC operates are not linear. We work both in areas close to the frontline, where people are forced to flee their homes; yet just kilometres away there may be areas where people are trying to rebuild their lives. Some people need shelter, food, blankets, others need the taps to be turned on, and electricity and medical services. We need to understand the realities of what is happening on the ground and to be flexible enough to shift when the demands change, or when the assumptions about what is needed does not reflect the real needs.

The report we are launching today makes a good contribution to diagnosing the issues and I recognize the good work, energy and passion that has gone into its development. Its findings and recommendations for donors and humanitarian organizations provide a way to continue the conversation to be ambition into reality. It is clear that:

  • Affected people and local organizations should be involved in humanitarian action;
  • Decision-making should more often be a process which is shared;
  • Building trust with communities must be a central pillar of our operations; and
  • Digital technologies offer us infinite ways to reach and have a two way conversation with people.

As I was reflecting on this topic, key questions were raised which illustrate the dilemmas we experience:

  • What does a new form of engagement look like on the ground?
  • What is the best methodology in places where security considerations are high and access is extremely limited? How do we decide which individuals or community representatives we should engage with?
  • In recognizing that the contexts in which we work are often highly politicized, how do we assess and filter the manipulation of needs?
  • When people do give us information about the problems they face, how do we translate these into programs? And what if the issues do not align with our programs? Do we change our mandate to fit the needs?
  • Do we wait for donors to enforce their interpretation of accountability as a driver to change, or do we proactively agree the method and approach?
  • How do we convince the governments of war-affected countries that we will understand people's needs better than they will?
  • How can we make two-way communication meaningful and not tokenistic? And how do we guard against digital manipulation?

If I can be provocative for a moment. I see a potential danger that "Accountability to Affected People" becomes a dogma, implemented as a new standard operating procedure rather than opening up our work and helping us to become more agile and flexible. While it would be no one's intention for this to happen, the worst case would be that "AAP" becomes a bureaucratic system where boxes are ticked but nothing really changes. The humanitarian system has been traditionally been very good at creating cumbersome bureaucracies.

Instead I suggest we be upfront, transparent about the tensions, like the ones I have just mentioned. These are difficult questions and will require carefully response and consideration. But I believe it's worth it if we are to have real impact and to ensure the promise of accountability becomes a reality.

The ICRC has started on this journey and we are questioning and adapting our response.

For example, in one frontline area where ICRC works, it was too dangerous for children needing to walking long distances to attend school. The community asked for a bus to minimize the risk. Our team initially proposed a micro-economic program so the community could organize their own bus system. Sounds like best practice on paper! But it was not what the community wanted – they explained it was the responsibility of the authorities to provide this service. So our team instead convened talks with the transport authorities, the army, and community members to reach a solution. As a result, the bus service resumed and still functions today. In this example we don't see ICRC operating a bus or creating a micro-credit program, but instead the ICRC listened, and brought its key skill as a neutral intermediary to find a sustainable solution for all parties.

These are some of the questions that we are tackling and which I encourage you to address today. I don't believe we can be uncritical in our approach; nor can we expect that there will be a one single solution to implementation. The context will be critical, as will our ability to embrace flexibility and agility. People will always find a way to help themselves. Our role, today, is to support them.

Launch of the ICRC and Harvard Humanitarian Initiative discussion paper: Engaging with people affected by armed conflicts and other situations of violence. 28 March 2018, Geneva