Partnering with communities in humanitarian crises

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Kigame Refugee Camp

Photo credit: Laura Eldon/Oxfam

People always need to be at the centre of humanitarian response. They are not. That is not good enough.

Imagine a breastfeeding mother who lives in a camp with three children and a partner. Unsurprisingly, the mother might have undiagnosed anxiety. The children may be out of school, and the partner searching for work. They would have little income and need to rely on the services in the camp. Although the camps provide ‘temporary shelter,’ families in this situation might not know that these children are likely to spend their entire childhood in this camp. Who should assume responsibility for this family? The only thing that is clear is that multiple sectors are in play. What is more, the nexus between sectors needs to be coordinated. Therefore, strategic partnerships between the UN’s humanitarian cluster system, local communities, and the private sector are very much needed.

Working towards long-term sustainable development in emergency settings sounds paradoxical to some, even impossible. To me, it seems like the most logical way to ensure that we put people back at the centre of humanitarian emergency responses. This year, the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is planning operations to support an estimated 102.6 million people of concern, including refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs), asylum-seekers, stateless persons, returnees, and others (UNHCR, 2022). The crisis unfolding in Ukraine means this number will even exceed planned figures. With this record number of people needing support, there is an urgent need to form cross-sectoral partnerships to support all facets of these people’s lives.

Humanitarian crises are, in fact, not over quickly. On the contrary, there are plenty of opportunities to work towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in these settings. Displaced persons live in temporary shelters for, on average, 16 years (Harrouk, 2021), essentially the entire childhood of a baby born in a camp. This is two years longer than the deadline set in 2015 to reach the SDGs by 2030 and back then it seemed like plenty of time to achieve these goals. By painting this picture of ‘short-term crises’, international organizations are wasting opportunities to take a holistic approach to people’s livelihoods and delaying this potential to thrive until after the emergency. The road to building back after a crisis is not linear. Sometimes there are bumps in the road that threaten progress, and only resilient communities can deal with these issues. This resiliency comes from communities being involved in the decisions that affect them, which means moving beyond the siloed humanitarian cluster approach.

So, what needs to happen? My experience has shown me that people working in health, water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), and mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) sectors are, at least verbally, interested in cross-sectoral partnerships. However, this intention is not enough; the partnerships need to execute their intended aims. This execution has been lacking for several reasons, including the competing mandates of organizations, governments and agencies, a lack of capacity and knowledge of other sectors, and competition for priority, attention, and funding. In the long-term, mental health issues impact one’s ability to pursue an education, find a job, and contribute to higher chronic conditions and mortality rates. In other words, people will not be dying because of mental health issues at the onset of a crisis. What is needed is to break down the siloes between the UN OCHA’s cluster system and translate research into practice, ultimately using partnering to put people back at the center of humanitarian crises.

What is meant by ‘execution’? To make a real impact in people’s lives, UN organizations and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), such as UNHCR, UNICEF, WHO, IOM, WFP, IFRC, Save the Children, Médecins Sans Frontières, and others have to move beyond intentions and written commitments and actually carry them out. These agencies need to partner with local communities and the private sector. This means creating a space for communities to voice their concerns and be involved in decisions that affect them. Mental health disorders affect people’s ability to practice WASH behaviors, such as handwashing with soap. Bringing together the WASH and MHPSS means that these two issues can be targeted together, potentially improving the quality of life for recipients and the population’s overall health by halting disease transmission.

How can these sectors execute this shared vision? By creating communities of practice to share successes and, perhaps more importantly, failures. The sectors can also develop joint assessments and multidisciplinary teams that distribute hygiene kits to those people that need them.

There is growing public recognition that humanitarian needs can no longer be addressed effectively only by traditional humanitarian organizations. UNHCR estimates that a whopping USD 8.994 billion is needed to meet needs in 2022 but continued and increasing funding gaps mean that this target will probably never be reached. I can only assume that the quality of life in these camps decreases with thinly spread funding. So, agencies need to be more innovative about who they partner with to provide high-quality goods and services effectively and efficiently: Perhaps even benefiting from prepositioned agreements with local businesses.

Actively encourage and create spaces for partnerships that involve local communities, UN organizations, the private sector, national and international NGOs, and governments. 

It is my privilege to work with Impact17 to promote and support multi-sector partnerships that deliver the Sustainable Development Goals and improve humanitarian preparedness and response. We share perspectives on partnering and calls to action, create, broker, and evaluate partnerships and partnering strategies, and work with our partners to train and develop tools that support partnering. We are actively working towards this call to action by mapping multi-stakeholder multi-sectoral partnerships, looking at who is working with whom, on what, where, and how.

We invite you to join us and to share experiences in our session, Humanitarian Impact from a community perspective, at the UN’s Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week (HNPW) in Geneva, 10 May 2022 (11:00-12:30). Help us tackle how to effectively evaluate the impact of humanitarian partnerships from the perspective of local communities and how donors and humanitarian actors can make evaluations of partnerships from community perspectives a core business consideration.

Given the urgency, the time for a paradigm shift is NOW

Emily Ghassemi
Emily Ghassemi
Partnership Researcher at | + posts

Emily is driven and dedicated to supporting communities impacted by infectious diseases. She believes that the only way to truly support communities is to break down the humanitarian and development siloes and create multisector partnerships, for a people-centered response.

Emily holds a Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Global Public Health from Leiden University and a Master of Science (MSc) in Control of Infectious Diseases from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She also has experience in researching WASH and health partnerships and of integrating WASH and mental health support in emergencies.

Emily is researching health partnerships in humanitarian crises, looking at the nexus between SDGs 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 10.

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