Early learnings from community-led humanitarian innovation partnerships, through an anti-racist lens

By Seema Kapoor and Hepi Rahmawati

*This article was originally published on the Humanitarian Practice Network blog, on 9 May 2022.

Five years after the Grand Bargain highlighted the importance of innovation and promised to include people affected by crises in decisions about the aid they receive, the localisation agenda remains a hopeful promise still waiting to be fulfilled.

The COVID-19 pandemic, growing visibility of anti-racism movements and the localisation and decolonisation agenda have challenged the humanitarian and development sectors to reflect on how they contribute to perpetuating power gaps, inequity, and structural racism.

A recent British Red Cross survey (PDF) found 86% of local actors believed responses to Covid-19 were more locally led than earlier humanitarian responses. However, nearly half said there was an unequal relationship between their organisation and international actors. Less than half felt they retained control over when, how and where international resources were engaged.

The experiences of Yakkum Emergency Unit (YEU) in partnering with Western organisations and donors include burdensome administrative requirements imposed by funders; demands for compliance mechanisms that are not always culturally appropriate; undervaluing of local skills, knowledge, and experience, and a focus on one-way “capacity building” rather than mutual learning.

This reflects broader experiences in the sector. Historically, the standards and norms that govern the humanitarian system have been set primarily by organisations headquartered in Europe and North America, and by white international staff, and while racism is perhaps no longer obvious, it is deeply embedded in the sector’s structures, power dynamics and everyday practices.

Community-led innovation as a promising pathway

Covid-19 has not only exposed power inequalities in the system, it has highlighted the reliability, effectiveness and sustainability of community-led work. But while there are many ongoing positive conversations about structural racism in the sector and how to move forward, in practice, little has changed (PDF).

We are part of the Community-Led Innovation Partnership (CLIP), a collaboration of six organisations — some of which run initiatives in-situ, such as YEU (referred to as “operational partners”), and others that play a coordination and supporting role, such as Elrha (referred to as “coordinating partners”). Collectively, we aim to put communities affected by crisis at the heart of disaster resilience and response efforts across three initiatives in Guatemala, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

We believe community-led humanitarian innovation offers a pathway for the sector to shift power and mindsets on community-led change, and more genuinely and intentionally practise anti-racism and localisation.

Our approach seeks to ensure new solutions are developed for disaster resilience and response that are contextually appropriate and locally owned, and so more likely to be impactful and sustainable.

Our joint support includes, but is not limited to, the resourcing of time and space for reflective inquiry and learning, access to appropriate finance to develop solutions and the provision of non-financial support based on needs. This support may include technical guidance, business case development, ecosystem development or facilitating partnerships and networking opportunities.

Shifting the paradigm

Within the CLIP, we are aiming to forge a partnership based on shared values and mutual respect, while examining how community-led innovation can offer concrete steps to shift the paradigm towards localisation.

As such, we are exploring the ways in which structural racism manifests in the sector, and we are learning how to recognise and transfer different forms of power, supporting leadership by national, sub-national and community organisations.

The following reflections represent our shared experience of the ways in which we’re trying to work differently within the CLIP partnership, in comparison to our previous experience of similar work.

Amie, CLIP Program Manager, presents at a workshop for local innovators. PHOTO: YAKKUM Emergency Unit

Prioritising relationships

Trust and mutual respect are essential to a truly equitable partnership. The CLIP partnership is a ‘partnership of partnerships’ that builds on an extensive network of relationships, with some partners acting as ‘brokers of trust’ in support of new relationships.

For example, YEU are a long-standing member of the Asia Disaster Reduction and Response Network (ADRRN), and ADRRN have built up a strong relationship with Elrha over several years. Working with and through ADRRN, as a familiar partner, gave YEU the confidence to join and actively participate in the wider partnership.

In establishing the partnership, we gave high priority to building on pre-existing relationships where possible. This helped us to quickly establish high levels of trust and openness among the partners, which proved critical as Covid-19 created new challenges and limited opportunities to meet in person.

Building on existing partnerships and networks has also had additional benefits. At the outset of the programme, YEU were looking to better understand possible approaches to community-led innovation, and ADRRN were able to facilitate information exchanges with another member of their network which was undertaking similar work outside the CLIP partnership.

Prioritising local ownership, knowledge and expertise

In the design of this programme we have strived to prioritise local ownership, knowledge and expertise. As much as possible, the operational partners have designed and controlled their own budgets and led on the design of their programmes.

The initial proposal for this partnership was developed primarily by Elrha and the Start Network, in discussion with the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and with input from ADRRN. As such, we cannot claim that it was locally led. But while this initial agreement sketched out the broad outlines of the partnership, FCDO also agreed to a six-month inception phase during which we were able to develop the details of the proposal.

This provided the space for YEU and our other operational partners to propose their own individual approaches and strategies. Furthermore, operational partners were given the option to develop their budget using their own familiar template, based on their proposal and needs, rather than enforcing an arbitrary budget developed without their insight.

This has sometimes resulted in tensions. For example, the coordinating team pushed for earlier focus on problems and places, while operational partners recognised that communities were facing multiple inter-related crises which required more consideration. Our shared principle of prioritising input from communities meant we ended up taking the time needed to design and validate plans with the communities involved. This slowed progress but the result so far has been greater contextual sensitivity and increased trust through ongoing discussions.

Our prioritisation and trust in local knowledge is core to our partnership and part of an intentional change in mindset that acknowledges and responds to the systematic undervaluing of local knowledge and expertise that has long been normalised.

Creating shared meaning and context

‘Community-led innovation partnership’ is a phrase full of buzzwords. We all approached this partnership with different perspectives and ideas of what community and community-led meant, and how these values should be applied to this programme. We also recognised that humanitarian innovation is primarily rooted in Western concepts and values.

Early on, we concluded a new approach required an interrogation of each of these terms; we needed to challenge our individual perspectives and opinions on what these words mean and create shared understanding across the partnership. If necessary, we would reimagine these concepts to fit a new way of working.

With this in mind, we have worked with a partnership broker to explore the principles and ways of working that would guide our partnership. We have given dedicated space to explore and document what it means to be ‘community-led’. And we have commissioned a research partner to interrogate the concept of ‘humanitarian innovation’, exploring a wider range of possible perspectives, including what values are prioritised and how we can make innovation more inclusive and equitable.

The CLIP continues to interrogate its ‘business as usual’ practices. We continue to question assumptions about how humanitarian innovation should be implemented — instead asking, identifying and validating how we can be led by the needs and subsequent decisions of our local partners and the communities they serve.

Recognising and balancing power

While we might collectively imagine the CLIP as a flat hierarchy with ‘doing’ organisations and ‘coordinating’ organisations, the structural reality is different. In terms of funding flows and FCDO’s protocols, the CLIP partnership is organised across three ‘tiers’. Elrha is tier 1 (the award holder), ADRRN and the Start Network are tier 2 and CDP, YEU and ASECSA are tier 3.

We approach the CLIP as a partnership, and yet we are faced with this structural imbalance, and from Elrha’s perspective we are cautious about how that plays out in our individual interactions. This awareness has increased our emphasis on shared principles for decision making and creating opportunities for honest feedback, open sharing of problems and concerns, and joint reflection and conversation.

We are trying to build two-way accountability mechanisms and spaces, and exploring ways to share challenges, risks and successes. For example, due diligence and safeguarding assessments have not been framed as barriers to eligibility, but as opportunities for reflection and self-assessment, with additional support provided to address identified gaps. We take a long-term viewpoint, aiming to build skills, systems and processes that will help organisations grow.

Successful partnership necessitates that all partners feel safe and comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas and asking for assistance. But in the experience of YEU, this is not always the case. Within the CLIP we aim to pay close attention to the tone of relationships, including often-intangible aspects such as the way we interact and the impressions people take with them. This focus on respectful and authentic communication from the outset has bred mutual respect, a feeling of shared risk, and helped remove some of the felt power imbalances.

Co-designing frameworks and ways of working

In designing a global and country monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEAL) framework for the programme we considered all partners’ goals and priorities. This led to us developing a central framework with tools that are adaptable to each context, ensuring usefulness in generating learning for both local and coordinating partners and the donor.

For learning and donor reporting, we co-created narrative reporting templates for all partners to use. The questions primarily focus on achievements and challenges, but also ask for feedback on our approach, the team, communication, technical support, reporting and more. In a bid to offer multiple feedback opportunities, we encourage partners who are uncomfortable writing feedback to discuss their views with a team member of their choice.

The coordinating team ultimately seek to play a more supportive role, helping to create the shape of the programme without controlling or strictly monitoring the detail of implementation. For example, as learning is prioritised, so each operational partner must incorporate resources for MEAL, but they have autonomy over how their own MEAL work is setup. The emphasis is on better understanding the challenges faced by YEU and other operational partners in order to collectively learn and improve, rather than monitoring performance according to firm targets.

Lastly, burdensome administrative requirements from donors can make it challenging for local innovators to access grant money. The coordinating partners are working with local partners to create simple, accountable, administrative requirements and applications that help change that. Across the partnership local innovators can submit ideas in their own language and access support in their own language, with translation of key documents into English for learning and reporting purposes.

Conclusion

Community-led innovation requires a commitment to a mindset that places anti-racist practices and communities affected by crisis at the heart of humanitarian response. We believe international humanitarian actors should begin any programme by asking local partners what support they need to increase their programmes’ effectiveness, now and in the future, and return to this question regularly.

While humanitarian actors cannot change the sector overnight, we can begin shifting our mindsets and daily actions at a programme level, learning how to better support and promote communities to lead, acknowledging and prioritising diversity and local knowledge and skills, and providing space to adapt programmes to local context needs.

For the CLIP, being community-led and anti-racist is not a linear process but an ongoing practice at the root of our daily actions and decisions. Led by community-defined principles and values, we strive to prioritise a shared learning journey with our local partners and communities.

Seema Kapoor is a former Innovation Manager with Elrha’s Humanitarian Innovation Fund.

Hepi Rahmawati is a Programme Manager with Yakkum Emergency Unit in Indonesia.

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