AAP Principle 4. Participation
Leaders of humanitarian organizations will enable affected populations to play an active role in the decision-making processes that affect them through the establishment of clear guidelines and practices to engage them appropriately and ensure that the most marginalized and affected are represented and have influence.
Ensuring the participation of affected people is the most inefficient part of AAP in Bangladesh, as well as in other emergencies. Community committees, including sectorial committees, are being established with efforts underway to improve community participation and establish more representative governance mechanisms within the humanitarian response, to facilitate feedback and response to community concerns.
Part of the humanitarian narrative behind “participation” has been that the only way to engage communities is to force them into a representative system. Given the incredible success this system has shown in developed countries (see the election of Donald Trump in the USA; Brexit in the UK and the rise of populist-racist Salvini in Italy) it seems a no brainer we should “export this system abroad (yes I am sarcastic).
The Majhi system, for example, was set up in Bangladesh to represent the community in the camps in Cox’s Bazar. Based on community leaders nominated by the Bangladeshi army to speak on behalf of the refugees, the system is riddled with corruption, male centric, and is not always trusted.
And here is where the humanitarian community uses a fantastic narrative to absolve itself from its fallacy. The Humanitarian Policy Group here translates this beautifully:
“However, the relationship between refugees and leadership groups was characterized by a lack of trust, and leadership groups were not always considered legitimate by individual refugees. Community leadership among Rohingya refugees is fragmented and seems increasingly marked by competition and conflict between civil society groups. As a result, engaging with Rohingya refugees and ensuring that their perspectives are represented in higher level policy dialogues is challenging.”
OOh yes, you got this right: so, we impose a “leadership system”, which is of course bargained with the government, because the UN are in Bangladesh only under the invitation of the government, and when the system does not work, it is fault of the very people we imposed this system on. Crystal clear!
Amazingly enough, but in a very polite and “let’s not offend anyone” way, the researchers of this paper give us a hint that maybe this system was meant to fail from the beginning:
“The top-down nature of community leadership, whether through the formal Majhi system or through more grass roots groups that may not always be representative of the wider community, may explain or have contributed to a general sense of disengagement or a lack of participation by individual refugees we interviewed.”
MAY? yeah no shit Sherlock!
Let’s be honest here. Overall, communities have little to no involvement in the organization of the response, in Bangladesh or elsewhere. Participation ends up being implemented only as feedback systems, and feedback mechanisms are often seen as a way to confirm whether or not a service is working well or not, not if the service is actually needed. No representative of an affected community has been invited to attend a cluster meeting and no Joint Response Plan has been drafted that takes into account the priorities and needs of the affected population from their point of view.
South Sudan is the only country where the Humanitarian Need Overview document and the Humanitarian Response Plan both include opinions and feedback from communities. However, despite its 3rd year of implementation, donors are still not convinced that such a system is needed and the HCT still does not systematically use this feedback in developing the overall humanitarian strategy. In order to engage effectively with affected communities, humanitarian organizations need to talk to them directly and accept that they may not be able to control the conversation and its outcomes.
Participation remains as of today a buzz word that NGOs and UN agencies add to their project proposal, but it’s clear that what communities are invited to participate in, is still very much decided by us, and what form participation takes, aside from feedback mechanisms, is still unclear.