From Voices to Choices: Will people have more influence over aid?


Written by Amy Keith

Last week, we published our latest report – From Voices to Choices – which looks at:

  • why it’s important for crisis-affected people to have influence over aid,
  • what’s going on in the humanitarian sector that is preventing this, and
  • how major global trends might change this in the future.

Why do people need a say?

Humanitarians have long known how important it is that crisis-affected people participate in making aid decisions. People affected by crisis make decisions every day about effectively using available resources to meet their needs and overcome challenges faced. Aid is most effective when it supports people to do this, as opposed to dictating or assuming what is needed. Disregarding individual initiative or the unique local context can risk aid being less relevant in the short-term. It can inadvertently stoke tensions and support inequality. What’s more, it can undermine local capacities in the long-term.

What’s preventing change?

In recent decades, many humanitarians have done a significant amount of work to increase the participation of crisis-affected people and local actors. However both groups continue to report having very limited influence over aid. Why? Certainly, engaging diverse individuals and groups is a complex challenge under any circumstances, and especially in crises. However, the way humanitarian aid works has made meeting this challenge much more difficult. Sharing decision-making means sharing power. There are big aid actors for whom sharing power would mean less money, control and market share. There are good intentions to change, but not much incentive for those with power and control to give it up.

Beliefs and attitudes in the humanitarian sector or ‘worldview’also serve as key obstacles to change. The sector doesn’t tend to trust local actors as much as it trusts their international counterparts. Moreover it doesn’t give local actors as much support (or slack) to manage challenges. In addition, Western management practices and technical expertise are much more highly valued than lived experience of crisis and expertise in local contexts. This is despite the fact that good decisions require both technical and contextual understanding.

How is now different?

Humanitarian aid does not happen in a bubble. There are major global trends that are changing the “ecosystem” in which humanitarians operate. The trends we look at in this report include technology, urbanisation, climate change, conflict, and the rise of nationalism. The report also examines youth and education, migration and how people are more interconnected now than ever before. These trends are already disrupting humanitarian business-as-usual. Going forward, they will shift aid incentives and challenge the aid worldview in ways that (we hope) will give crisis-affected people and local actors more influence.

One of the key ways we project this will happen is by increasing the competitive advantage for local actors. Crisis response will become even more complex and needs vs. resource pressures will increase. Additionally technology will open new funding pathways and reduce the need for middle-men. Donors and aid recipient governments will also become less tolerant of humanitarians running their own show, outside of government response. These changes will have some serious negative impacts, but they will also give local actors – who already know the local context and systems – an edge. Shifting more power to local actors will help move aid decision-making closer to crisis-affected people. Consequently, it can improve their ability to influence decisions that affect them.

More choices

Growing global interconnectivity, supported by technology, transnational communities, urbanisation and the coming of age of today’s youth, will also provide more choices for people affected by crisis. Many people will be better able to organise their own responses and will have more options for obtaining assistance. They will be less likely to need to rely on who shows up. People will also have more opportunities to raise their own unfiltered voices, to reach and influence donors and wider publics. In addition, more people will have the information and tools to demand greater accountability from humanitarian actors.

This changing global context demands humanitarians who work with crisis-affected people and local actors as equal partners to co-produce strategies that meet evolving needs.

What the future holds

For many crisis-affected people, the future will bring fewer choices for managing greater risks and they will continue to require humanitarian support. Climate change, protracted conflict, inequality and harsher political contexts will produce new patterns of need and hardship. And technology and urbanisation will create risks alongside their benefits. Humanitarians will have to choose if they will change in ways that enable the most vulnerable people they serve to have more influence over aid. At IARAN, we believe the odds of this may improve if cracks in the aid worldview widen. And we believe these cracks will widen as global trends both enable more people to raise their own voices and incentivise humanitarians to work in genuine partnership with local actors.

IARAN is a collaborative hub of humanitarian professionals seeking to make the humanitarian sector more strategic. To find out more and to read the report “From Voices to Choices” please visit iaran.org/voices-to-choices

Amy Keith is IARAN’s Humanitarian Futures Analyst and lead author of ‘From Voices to Choices’.

Follow IARAN on Twitter: @InteragencyRAN

Follow Amy on Twitter: @Amylkeith