Empowering Communities for Improving Delivery of Short and Long-term Humanitarian Aid

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Monday, January 29, 2018 to Friday, February 2, 2018
Conversation type: 

Following natural disasters or humanitarian crises, aid organization and well-meaning volunteers rush to the help of hurting communities. The large influx of people trying to deliver aid in a struggling region poses coordination and logistical challenges that make it difficult to effectively deliver aid in a comprehensive way. Furthermore, rural communities who bear the hardships of humanitarian crisis the most, often go overlooked or are physically located in areas that make aid delivery challenging. This conversation discusses obstacles to effective aid delivery and seeks to explore the ways NGOs have gone about improving the delivery of short and long-term aid.

Thank you to our featured resource practitioners who led this conversation:

  • Rachel Smith, GlobalGiving
  • Rosie La Puma, The Advocates for Human Rights
  • Jason Cuomo, Operation USA
  • Jeannie Fox, Hamline University
  • Huy Pham, Center for Victims of Torture 
  • Wendy Weber, Macalester College
  • Jessica Morris, UNICEF USA

Obstacles encountered and overcome

One of the biggest challenges to overcome in the delivery of humanitarian aid is in the immediate response phase. Lack of coordination and information sharing between aid organizations make it difficult to maximize limited resources to appropriately address the needs of a community. Non-uniformity between organizations often leads to conflicting goals and incompatible protocols. Uncoordinated efforts create the assumption that ‘someone else is covering’ a particular need, which results in entire problems being overlooked. Typically those most overlooked are rural communities, which are usually the people who are hit the hardest by disasters and need aid the most. While the initial aid may get delivered, the independent and segregated attitude of aid organizations further perpetuates the problems of coordination and communication, essential tools for effectively and comprehensively addressing humanitarian crises.

Humanitarian Crises are often a product of war, ethnic cleansing and genocide that have been exacerbated by natural disasters and other socio-political and environmental factors. These pose even further challenges and require state and/or military cooperation. Particularly in conflict regions, personal safety and security is the primary concern. Access to displaced population pose transportation challenges, and coordinating efforts with the military is helpful for airlifts. These climates require experience and expertise best suited to large NGOs and the UN. Huy Pham notes that ill-prepared organizations can often end up doing more harm than good. Going it alone, especially with little to no local knowledge or experience can further exacerbate the issue.

As an attempt to facilitate greater coordination in humanitarian aid delivery, the UN devised the Cluster Approach.  While the system has been met with substantial criticism, it has been helpful to improve coordination, minimize overlaps and promote complementarity across sectoral responses.

Community engagement and effective aid

Effective aid delivery requires community engagement. Working alongside local communities to determine what aid is most needed is the most effective way to ensure that particular needs do go overlooked. As humanitarian aid moves out of the immediate response phase and into recovery and rebuilding phases, community involvement and community-led initiatives are essential for long-term viability and sustainability. Rachel Smith discussed how large network organizations are able to build relationships in communities before disasters hit. By taking the time to be proactive, trust with the community was already established and a response was able to be mobilized quickly when such events did occur. This allowed the organization to be effectively responsive to immediate and long-term needs within the community. Huy Pham brought up extreme global climate events that create climate refugees. Linking community engagement with climate change can be seen as a “risk minimizer” that help mitigate conflicts, promote stability, and reduce the burden of human migration into large cities. This bottom-up approach is essential for addressing humanitarian issues in a comprehensive and effective way.

Lack of humanitarian aid and its connection to human rights

Access to humanitarian aid is a human right. As Huy Pham highlights, a universal right is the right to survival. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that every person has the right to a standard of living that is adequate for their health and well-being. Humanitarian emergencies are often created by humans, as seen with the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya from Myanmar, and usually encompass a slew of other human rights issues.

Public opinion tends to view humanitarian aid as a privilege, not a right. When seeing aid workers in the news, most people think that the job is done. The general public doesn’t see the problems of aid delivery affect minority or rural populations. Lack of knowledge about how humanitarian aid works and its challenges can perpetuate the human rights violations that occur when it’s not delivered well. A few participants gave examples of interactive exhibits that try to educate the public and build empathy by demonstrating what it is like to live through a humanitarian emergency.

Examples of tactic implementation

Using interactive art to raise awareness about human rights issues between Palestine and Israel

Creating a mock disaster experience to educate communities and build empathy

Using the Human-Center Design to encourage community involvement and community-led initiatives after a natural disaster

Using a bottoms-up approach to effectively deliver humanitarian aid

Resources shared by participants

  • The Economist: “The Story of Puerto Rico’s Power Grid is the Story of Puerto Rico”
  • Renewable Energy World: “Can Puerto Rico Really Depend on Microgrids and Renewables for Power?” As Puerto Rico sets out to rebuild its electric system knocked out by Hurricane Maria in September, can it become a model for renewable energy?
  • The Sphere Project Handbook: The most widely known and recognized set of common principles and universal minimum standards for humanitarian response.
  • NBC News: “Disaster Do-Gooders can Actually Hinder Help”
  • World Health Organization: “WHO Leadership Statement on the Ebola Response and WHO Reforms.” The Ebola outbreak that started in December 2013 became a public health, humanitarian and socioeconomic crisis with a devastating impact on families, communities and affected countries. It also served as a reminder that the world, including WHO, is ill-prepared for a large and sustained disease outbreak.
  • Human Rights Watch: “Nepotism and Neglect: The Failing Response to Arsenic in the Drinking Water of Bangladesh’s Rural Poor”
  • Eurasia Group: “Top Risks for 2018”. This is Eurasia Group's annual forecast of the political risks that are most likely to play out over the course of the year.
  • UNHCR Cluster Approach: A cluster is a group of agencies that gather to work together towards common objectives within a particular sector of emergency response. The cluster approach, instituted in 2006 as part of the UN Humanitarian Reform process, is an important step on the road to more effective humanitarian coordination
  • Relief Web: “Exploring Coordination in Humanitarian Clusters”. This study attempts to identify the factors that contribute to effective coordination. In doing so, it concentrates on the IASC ‘Clusters’, a formal humanitarian coordination forum for ‘sectors’ of the response at the country level.
  • Slate: “Does International Aid Keep Haiti Poor?”
  • Irin News: “A Disaster within a Disaster: Cyclone Fears in Fragile Rohingya Camps.” Authorities in Bangladesh are scrambling to prepare for the looming monsoon season, but they’re running out of time and space
  • Irin News: “Mapped: How Monsoon Rains Could Submerge Rohingya Refugee Camps.” Tens of thousands of vulnerable people living in rickety homes in Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee camps will be threatened by landslides and floods as the monsoon season nears, according to officials in the densely packed settlements.
  • GlobalGiving: “From the Ground: Accountability Lab’s Nepal Earthquake Relief Efforts.” For earthquake relief in Nepal, connection is key. Displaced Nepali citizens found themselves unable to connect with organizations to provide essential needs, like food, water, and medical aid. Accountability Lab is dedicated to making this connection possible.
  • Online Conversation: “Cultural Resistance: The Power of Music and Visual Art as Protest”
  • Humanity House: The Humanity House is a museum that lets you experience what it’s like to live through a disaster or conflict and explores related themes in temporary exhibitions. The Humanity House also provides a platform, a place of encounter for people, organisations and agencies that deal with humanitarian themes. Moreover, education programmes explain global problems to children and young adults. 
  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • The Conversation: “How Women Bring About Peace and Change in Liberia”
  • Design Kit: “What is Human-Centered Design?”
  • American Refugee Committee: Kuja Kuja is a real-time feedback system that tracks customers’ levels of satisfaction with products and services, records their ideas for how those services might be improved, and makes that data freely available for everyone to see and use. So after accessing water at a water point or getting health care at a clinic, refugees can share their experience and have real input in making the system better.
  • International Institute for Sustainable Development: “Promoting Climate-Resilient Peacebuilding in Fragile States.” Drawing on desk-based research, practitioner surveys and interviews, and workshop discussions, this paper seeks to provide some initial guidance on how climate-resilient peacebuilding may be achieved.


Conversation Leaders

rachel_smith's picture
Rachel Smith
rlapuma's picture
Rosie La Puma
The Advocates for Human Rights
JasonCuomo's picture
Jason Cuomo
Operation USA
Jeannie's picture
Jeannie Fox
Hamline University
hpham's picture
Huy Pham
The Center for Victims of Torture
Wendy Weber's picture
Wendy Weber
Macalester College
jmorris's picture
Jessica Morris
Discussion topic Replies Last postsort ascending
Hot topic Obstacles Encountered and Overcome 15
by hpham
Tue, 02/06/2018 - 9:17am
Normal topic Community Engagement and Effective Aid 13
by hpham
Fri, 02/02/2018 - 10:44am
Normal topic Lack of Humanitarian Aid and its connection to Human Rights 5
by Wendy Weber
Wed, 01/31/2018 - 7:04pm
Normal topic Examples & Open Discussion 11
by JasonCuomo
Fri, 02/02/2018 - 9:49am