The role of community-led innovation in decolonising aid

At the 2021 Humanitarian Leadership Conference, Elrha joined representatives of organisations and networks in the ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’ to discuss ways to challenge inequity in the aid sector. Here are some key takeaways…

Localisation and decolonisation are not new conversations in the humanitarian sector but, against a backdrop of global protests over racism and inequity, the call for change is getting louder.

In the last six months alone, localisation and decolonisation of the humanitarian sector have been discussed in the World Humanitarian Action Forum’s Aid Re-imagined Global Summit and at OCHA’s launch events for the Global Humanitarian Overview 2021.

The out-going UN emergency relief coordinator, Mark Lowcock, recently told the world’s media that one of the humanitarian system’s biggest failings is that “agencies do not pay enough attention to what people caught up in crises say they want”.

But what needs to happen?

We recently co-organised and participated in a panel event at the 2021 Humanitarian Leadership Conference on how community-led innovation can challenge inequity and contribute to the decolonisation of humanitarian aid.

The panel, which was moderated by Hannah Reichardt, of Start Network, in the UK, comprised:

  • Hepi Rahmawati of Yakkum Emergency Unit , in Indonesia
  • Mayfourth Luneta, of the Center for Disaster Preparedness, in the Philippines
  • Hugo Icuperen, of the Start Network Hub in Guatemala, hosted by Asociación de Servicios Comunitarios de Salud (ASECSA),
  • Nishant Das from Somalia Response Innovation Lab, in Somalia
  • Seema Kapoor of Elrha, in the UK

Here are some key takeaways from their chat…

Key takeaway #1

Solutions built by communities are more contextually appropriate, and more likely to be impactful and sustainable.

Communities have their notions of innovating, said Mayfourth Luneta, of the Center for Disaster Preparedness, in the Philippines. They are usually practical, immediate responses to crisis and are culturally appropriate.

She suggested looking to the ways Filipino communities have supported those in need during COVID-19-related lockdowns and movement restrictions, as well as during a recent mining disaster.

In both instances, to ensure those in need of assistance weren’t left stranded, those in the community who had food, shared what they had with those in need.

“It’s simple, community-led action,” she said. “It’s not complicated. The people in the community know each other and have helped sustain each other. Those with more share, and those with less are helped.”

Key takeaway #2

Communities should be protagonists of their own story and development.

Hugo Icuperen, of the Start Network Hub in Guatemala, suggested communities affected by crises must be full and active participants in innovation — “the subjects, not the objects”.

“It means consultation, dialogue, consensus and mutual agreement”, he said.

He also demanded respect for communities’ capacity to understand problems and how to solve them. Referencing the Community-led Innovation Partnership, he recommended an approach that includes:

  • Presenting innovation programmes to formal and ancestral local authorities
  • Promoting programmes in a creative and informative way
  • Analysing local problems by local organisations and leaders
  • Generating innovative project ideas and creating an environment of healthy local competition
  • A local project selection committee being formed to select the projects to be implemented
  • Offering assurance that innovation projects will be implemented by a team that speaks the local language and knows the community
  • Reporting back on the positive results of the innovative project

Key takeaway #3

There’s still room for international collaboration in a community-led innovation approach

Innovation attracts open-minded people, who are more likely to collaborate, says Nishant Das from Somalia Response Innovation Lab, in Somalia.

“Communities know their context best, but may not have the tools,” he said, citing a collaborative approach taken in one Somalia community where people were having to travel hours to reach a health care supplier.

“The community said if we had a boat, we could do that trip in 30 minutes. So, the INGO, once it understood the needs determined by the community, gave them resources to access the boat that cut that trip down to half an hour.

“It’s a community-led solution and a great example of partnership. They knew the needs and solution but weren’t fully able to implement it alone.”

He also cited collaboration between international and local actors during the recent pandemic, when communities took creative approaches to share World Health Organization messaging on Covid-19 preventative measures.

“Trusted messages were in the hands of a trusted messenger”, he said. “It was more powerful and resonated with people because they trusted the source.”

Key takeaway #4

INGOs and donors must start genuinely listening to communities affected by crisis.

Communities understand their own complexities and challenges. They are either part of the communities affected by crises or embedded in them.

Hepi Rahmawati of Yakkum Emergency Unit, in Indonesia, said a community-led approach for organisations should consider how communities, including its most marginalised members, can be involved in a project from its inception through to its implementation, and eventual monitoring and evaluation.

“Listen to communities,” she said. “They can tell us what assistance has been given, what gaps haven’t been addressed and what innovation they see as useful. This should not be a top-down process.

“In community-led innovation, organisations must have conversations with the affected community and, importantly, must have a flexible approach.

“We need to reach out to the marginalised not just the ones easy to reach. Not just those active community members in the village but those who have never been consulted before. What are the solutions they have in mind, and how can we support them?

“If we have a fixed template then our approach is not community-led. Consulting is not just a formality.”

Rahmawati shared a community-led solution created in response to feedback that some vulnerable people cannot access early warning systems for natural disasters, and experience issues with evacuation because they cannot do so independently.

“They [the affected community] came up with a solution, so that apps could be further developed, so they’re not just about the warning delivery but where’s a safe evacuation point? Which neighbours can help them?” she said.

“This wasn’t something we had thought about [before]. We need to shift our perspectives.”

Key takeaway #5

Organisations must critically examine their systems and processes.

How INGOs’ national offices interact with local NGOs matters, said Icuperen.

“From our experience, a national office [linked to an INGO] does not guarantee being closer to communities.

“When there is a national office, competition with local NGOs should be healthy and respectful. It’s important to do joint and coordinated work.

“We have common goals to overcome poverty, for example, and these common goals should be permanent meeting points on this path.”

INGOs’ feedback mechanisms for communities are important, but they’re not always successful, said Das.

“In some situations, some communities just give answers they think INGOs want to hear,” he said.

“[Making changes to these mechanisms will] shift mindsets, moving local actors from beneficiaries to partners or even customers. It also helps change partnership dynamics, so they are no longer transactional, but where everyone shapes the narrative and drives priorities forward.”

Meanwhile, Rahmawati called on INGOs and donors to reimagine their due diligence processes so that they are more inclusive and better support community-level engagement.

“See due diligence not as whether a local partner is ‘eligible’, but what investment is needed for them to partner,” she said. “See it as a medium to build trust. It’s okay to have some weaknesses.”

Key takeaway #6

Humanitarian actors should start being the change they want to see in the sector.

Decolonising the sector will not happen overnight, but we can take immediate control of the power we yield as individuals and how we learn from each other, said Seema Kapoor, of Elrha.

“I can’t control the whole sector, but I can challenge my decisions,” she said. “How I approach project management, how I shift the power I do control… it may sound idealistic, but what can we do as part of this sector?”

Reflecting on the discussion in closing, moderator Hannah Reichardt, of Start Network, was struck by the importance of dignity at all points of the innovation process.

“It’s about sustainability, but also dignity,” she said. “The role communities play in their own lives.

“I have heard calls for action for the international community to do more, to listen, to see communities as active not passive, to invest in building relationships with them, valuing those relationships as critical and doing more to adopt adaptive programmes.”

A link to a recording of the discussion will be published here soon.

We are Elrha. We are a global charity that finds solutions to complex humanitarian problems through research and innovation.

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