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Frontline: The benefits of consulting with beneficiaries

25 Aug 2011 Voices

From the frontline in Haiti, Andrew Chaggar discusses the problems that can arise when beneficiaries are not consulted in the regeneration process.

Copyright Peta de Aztlan

From the frontline in Haiti, Andrew Chaggar discusses the problems that can arise when beneficiaries are not consulted in the regeneration process.

I recently read a very engaging article on the Rolling Stone website entitled How the World Failed Haiti. While this in-depth piece covers a lot of ground there is a critical sentence that really stands out for me. The author notes that in all the talk of reconstructing a new Haiti from the rubble “no one really found out what the Haitian people's concept of build[ing] back better actually was."  

A lack of consultation with the very people being helped may seem surprising, but it is neither a new nor unusual issue.  Concerns about a lack of beneficiary involvement have been raised in many past disasters as well in Haiti. In fact the issue is so common that the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP) conducted a global study on consultation and participation.

While the study acknowledges wide variations in practice, with some NGOs and agencies doing better than others, its findings make frequent references to issues such as “a limited culture of participation and consultation” and that “many [humanitarians] make no effort to consult or keep affected populations informed”. A more recent ALNAP document on Haiti also noted that “[the lack of] Haitian participation in decision making processes [is] a major concern and obstacle”.

Such failures to effectively engage with beneficiaries are problematic on a number of levels.

Firstly, a lack of participation by beneficiaries leads to far less effective solutions to the problems they face. For example after the 2004 tsunami many beneficiaries weren’t consulted on replacement housing and consequently many new homes failed to consider people’s livelihoods.  Fishermen were left without space to store equipment and new houses were left empty as people sought out their own solutions. The question is simple: If you don’t know what your beneficiaries want or need how you can effectively help them obtain it?

"Treating survivors as helpless 'victims' to be saved is a direct way to create dependency."

Further, while beneficiary participation can lead to enhanced outcomes it’s opposite, exclusion, can lead to negative ones. As a tsunami survivor I personally know how devastating disasters can be as they wrench away all feeling of control. If assistance provided in the aftermath further increases the sense of helplessness then this can be extremely damaging. Treating survivors as helpless “victims” to be saved is a direct way to create dependency.

On another level there is also the issue of beneficiary capacity building. Some would argue, myself included, that disasters and humanitarian programming offer opportunities for development rather than simply just providing relief. By giving beneficiaries a real stake in programming decisions, skills and knowledge can be transferred as well as resources.

Regardless of the exact reasons why, almost all humanitarian policy makers agree that improved participation and consultation can only be beneficial.  So why, if this is issue is so widely recognised and understood, does it keep recurring in disaster after disaster?

A recurring problem

Part of the reason is the nature of disaster zones themselves. Given that one of the main premises of humanitarian relief is to save lives, an emergency mindset that values speed of delivery and a top-down, chain of command over all else often emerges. This rapid action, top-down approach fundamentally contradicts with lengthier consultations and “messier” participatory methods that aim to collate and synthesise different opinions and solutions.

Another often cited reason for failing to engage with beneficiaries relates to NGO accountability. While NGOs acknowledge their responsibilities to a wide range of stakeholders, including both donors and beneficiaries, they frequently face competing pressures in terms of priorities. If NGOs feel donor pressure to deliver results quickly then it is likely that the less powerful voice of beneficiaries will go unheard.

NGOs are obviously very reliant on funding to operate and perhaps this is the most obvious route to tackling the participation problem. If donors were to judge results in terms of beneficiary involvement rather than speed of implementation then accountability pressures would naturally become more balanced.

What’s more, because participatory processes lead to more sustainable results donors would also get more value for their money. The houses left empty after the 2004 Asian tsunami were a very poor investment. In contrast those designed in conjunction with survivors may have taken longer to complete but are inhabited by thriving fishermen today.

Ultimately then, is it too much to imagine the priorities of donors and survivors being one and the same?


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