Meaningful Participation and Humanitarian Intervention: Whose Aid-Work Is It Anyway?

By: Nina Turnball

In the field of humanitarian intervention, ‘meaningful participation’ is the involvement of affected populations in the planning and execution of relief measures which are ultimately orchestrated by an external organisation, whether a charitable non-governmental organisation (NGO) or state-backed body. Typically, this encompasses discussions with affected groups, use of native resources and methods, and collaboration with local leaders from the moment a relief agency surveys a potential site for intervention through to the design and completion of any subsequent projects. The theoretical basis of this approach centres on cognitive dissonance theory which states that a key motivator of human conduct is the existence of consistency between one’s actions and beliefs. Translated practically to crisis relief, this suggests that the more involved a population is in relief efforts (their actions), the more likely they are to believe positively in their importance, and thus be committed to their long term success. From a non-theoretical perspective, this seems obvious; when an individual is involved in planning an action, they gain more of an interest in its success than when an instruction is impressed upon them by a foreign organisation. Moreover, the typical dynamic of first-world relief organisations intervening in third-world countries’ crises means that practically participatory attitudes create more sustainable solutions as they allow organisation to accommodate for local methods and resources. 

The proof of this lies in considering past examples of participatory interventions. A study on the participation of children in peace-building efforts during the ‘Peoples’ War’ in Nepal from 2000 to 2003 saw branches of Save the Children establish participatory groups for children as part of their programme design. While the practical role the children could play was limited, this practice produced numerous social benefits; as well as offering child-protection in safe spaces and developing the children’s skills, these programmes unearthed the importance of investing in community projects like gardens and water taps, as well as engaging children in the political side of peace-building. The importance of local involvement is reinforced in looking to Cambodia, a country plagued by decades of violence and warfare in the late 20th century, where in the early 2000s a plethora of village-led activities to destroy remaining landmines sprung up. Such spontaneous local actions highlights how international efforts of the same intention, which saw locals as a hindrance and refused extensive collaboration, failed to satisfy these populations or reconcile them to their methods. Therefore, interventions planned through participatory measures prove to be more successful and sustainable in the long term, as they have the support and concern of the individuals who are most invested in their success. 

Having understood the importance of participation to effective crisis management, it seems puzzling that very little enforceable policy around this principle exists. A primary body of governance for NGOs is the CHS Alliance, whose Core Humanitarian Standard offers recommendations for responsible NGO operation including that ‘communities and people affected by crisis know their rights and entitlements, have access to information and participate in decisions that affect them’. While many NGO governance accreditations, like the CHS, require a commitment to participation, this ‘commitment’ is unquantifiable and unenforced and thus many organisations do not achieve the participatory culture they desire to uphold. Why? This is often not from a position of ignorance or malice on the part of the NGO, but one of practicality; the highly voluntary nature of NGO work means it is hard to police, and it is possible to argue that preventing aid because it is not strictly participatory would be at the detriment of zones in crucial need of relief. Moreover, that most intervention is crisis-response, rather than long term development programmes, means that often the timeline for planning relief does not allow for local participation—a factor compounded by the danger of war or natural disasters, for example. 

While it is understandable, therefore, that participation can be difficult to implement, this half-hearted commitment to participation in the sector creates harmful issues in the long-term. As well as limiting the longevity of recovery plans, providing aid without involving affected populations perpetuates the toxic trope of ‘White Saviourism’, a concept connected to European colonisation which denotes that white populations have a ‘responsibility’ to aid and ‘civilise’ non-white societies. By limiting the agency of these populations to design their own means of relief, NGOs and state agencies reinforce an image that third-world countries are incapable and inferior to the western organisations which relieve them. In the past few decades this trope has become more prominent as digital campaigning on television and social media has continually made use of white celebrities in calls for charitable donations—with films made for charities like Comic Relief and Children in Need annually, the renowned Live Aid concert in 1985, and ever-increasing list of largely white celebrity ambassadors connected to organisations like Action Aid and Save the Children, one doesn’t need to look far to recognise the extent of this issue. 

Nevertheless, it is reassuring that a dialogue around this problematic campaigning has begun; earlier this year, MP David Lammy’s attack on white activist Stacey Dooley for images she published holding a Ugandan child whilst filming for Comic Relief kick-started a discussion which ended with Comic Relief founder Richard Curtis promising to never send celebrities abroad to film in the future. Moreover, social media has played a role in raising awareness of this issue with the rise of campaigns like ‘#NoWhiteSaviour’—a movement connected to a Ugandan advocacy campaign encouraging individuals to recognise how this kind of publicity around aid-work is harmful and misleading. 

With this kind of scrutiny beginning to emerge at a grassroots level, it is paramount that a similar analysis be established at an organisational level. While the obstacles to maintaining participatory methods in NGOs has been highlighted, the excuse of inconvenience does not justify the short-term solutions and white saviourism perpetuated by non-participatory interventions. Although a legally enforced standard will never come into being, this does not mean this sector cannot be policed; the most effective method to ensure standards of participation are kept high is to mandate a governing board, perhaps the CHS Alliance, to create and enforce better recommendations pertaining to this principle. Moreover, recognising the reality of humanitarian work, these standards should vary for long term development, and, alternatively, crisis relief programmes to reflect the viability of participation in each instance. 

Ultimately, however, this solution is solely opinion and, in the spirit of meaningful participation, requires survey and input of sector professionals to generate the most sustainable and effective solution. 






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