Community Based Humanitarian Response

In my last blog post I discussed the importance of getting the disaster affected community involved the humanitarian response. I wanted to follow up on that discussion with a more detailed post that would discuss the different levels of Community Based Humanitarian Response.

To do so, I will utilize one of the classical writings about citizen participation, namely Sherry R Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation.

Although Arnstein’s field of work was urban planning, then it relatively easy for us to take her ladder and adapt it to humanitarian response. Arnstein’s theories have of course been controversial from their initial publication in 1969, especially because she is very negative about the non-participation and tokenism levels of participation. A strong proponent of citizen power, she felt that the only acceptable level of community involvement was when citizens were in control.

But lets go through the 8 different rungs of the ladder that form the three levels of participation (non-participation, tokenism and citizen power). For each rung we will discuss how it would apply to humanitarian response.


Manipulation along with Therapy make up the non-participation level of the ladder. It is in this rung that affected communities are not being enabled to participate and any communication with the affected community focuses on telling them that appropriate response is being provided or simply that no crisis exists. We unfortunately still see these levels of denial by some governments, especially those that repress their citizens.

In order to have some form of involvement by the community, we may create Community Advisory Groups, but instead of listening to what they have to say, officials or responders will educate, persuade or advise the citizens, not the reverse.


In the therapy rung, governments and response organizations try to “educate” or “cure” the affected community by teaching them ways to change their own behavior instead of addressing the issues at hand. Citizen task forces may be created to address issues that are not crucial to the overall well-being of the affected community, but it at least keeps them busy and involved.

Luckily we don’t see this happen to often in humanitarian response, which is good, since this is probably the most dishonest of all the rungs. One may however wonder if some of the work-for-aid/food/money programs created by aid agencies in recent years may have fallen under this rung.


Informing the affected communities of their rights, responsibilities and options is an important first step in citizen participation. We have over the past decade seen an ever increasing focus being put on this aspect of humanitarian response. However, the emphasis is way too often put on one-way flow of information, from the responders to the affected communities. Without a channel for the affected communities to provide feedback, there is little room for “negotiation”. This leads to humanitarian organizations providing programs design for the benefit of the affected population, without giving them any chance to influence the program itself.

Although extremely powerful to improve awareness of the response, we must step beyond this one way communication to others that allow for a more appropriate feedback loop.


Inviting the affected communities to share their opinion, just like informing them is a legitimate step towards community participation. The most common way of doing this is to perform needs assessments and community surveys. By asking community leaders or households to share information about their situation and their need, an expectation is created within the community that their needs will be met.

The results are however aggregated and sometimes not even fully used to make operational decisions about the response, due to lack of information management capacity.

A great example I once heard from a colleague was of when he did a needs assessment in a hospital and was thrown out by the doctor in charge who shouted “You are the 7th organization that comes here and ask me what I need and none of you come and provide anything I ask for. Stop assessing the situation and start providing me with relief”.


In this rung, you see community leaders being bit more involved in the response. Those community leaders are asked for input in the operational planning and even sometimes get involved in local distribution of relief items to some degree. It is however important to note that their input is not always listened to and they are also not always informed of why decisions are being made the way they are being made.

Furthermore it is often the case that although in the initial planning phase those community leaders are involved, then often that involvement does not continue into the implementation phase. This is often because the time period between the planning phase and the implementation phase may be very short and also because external factors may lead to changes to the initial plans, without the community leaders being kept in the loop.


At this rung in the ladder, the power dynamic is being redistributed through negotiation between the affected communities and the response organizations. At this level, they agree to share planning and decision-making responsibility through joint mechanism for resolving impasses.

One could argue that the clusters were an attempt to create a mechanism for bringing together the different parties involved. Sadly however they in most cases only have participation from the response community and the government.

Partnerships are most effective when there is an organized power-base in the affected community. This power-base then has community leaders that accountable to them and respects the wishes of the community.

To enable partnerships, it is essential to involve local community organizations that represent this power-base and get them to actively represent their community within local response “clusters”. The response organizations must then be willing to accept the involvement of the community and issues should be addressed through some form of negotiation (give-and-take) instead of unilateral decisions.

Delegated Power

Negotiations between affected communities and response organization can also result in communities achieving dominant decision-making authority over a particular plan or program. This would be the case if the local response “clusters” had a clear majority of community representatives. At this level, the ladder has been scaled to the point where affected community holds the significant cards to assure accountability of the program to them. To resolve differences, response organizations need to start the bargaining process rather than respond to pressure from the other end.

Another model of delegated power is separate and parallel groups of affected community representatives and response organizations, with provision for affected communities to veto if differences of opinion cannot be resolved through negotiation.

At this level the humanitarian response is becoming much more driven by the community itself and the response organizations act more as providers of services and goods. It is hard for traditional humanitarian organizations to see response evolve to this level, but as communities become more self-resilient we might start to see a few local communities around the world where this level can be achieved.

Citizen Control

In this final rung, humanitarian response organizations and governments have given up all control of the response to the affected communities themselves. Instead of the humanitarian organizations making the plans or implementing the response, the communities themselves become fully responsible for all aspects. The role of the humanitarian response organization may simply become one of providing advise or handling back-end logistics.

Although this model may sound very utopian to humanitarian responders, then this is often the case in smaller disasters that don’t get the attention of the traditional response community. It is also often the case that communities resolve to once the initial relief phase is over and the humanitarian organizations move away.

Some argue that with increased mobile ownership and through the social networking revolution citizens already have the tools they need to start organizing their own response. It is however important to remember that over the last 150 years, relief organizations have learnt many lessons from their mistakes in responding to disasters. If communities are fully self-organized, they may run into some of the same mistakes due to lack of experience in this space. Mistakes in humanitarian response often mean the difference between life and death, so the key to citizen controlled humanitarian response, must be that we can at the same time ensure the knowledge of these lessons gets integrated into their response.


Although total citizen control may not be achievable soon, improvements in communication technology, especially in the mobile space, provides us, like other fields a great opportunity to improve the involvement of affected communities in our work. Right now we are climbing up this ladder, with some of us in the informative or consultative rung. Only a select few examples can be found of bringing participation up to the partnership level.

Humanitarian organizations must adapt to the changed world we live in and make their humanitarian response community driven. Through improved information sharing and increased community involvement, we can ensure that partnerships can be built on sound information that leads to effective decision making.

Published August 19th 2012 at DisasterExpert

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