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Humanitarian Aid on the move # 12, special issue: Environment

Integrating the environment into the running of a humanitarian organisation: the experience of Action contre la Faim
Thibault Laconde

For the majority of humanitarians, the idea of systematically taking into account the environmental impacts of their programmes and of running their organisations is new, and they are unsure about how to proceed and even about the legitimacy of such an approach. Action contre la Faim began to adopt an environmental approach in 2009. This article outlines the main lessons learned and is aimed at other organisations who would like to take the leap themselves.

 Growing awareness and the implementation of the approach

How does this approach come together? Broadly speaking, there are three main stages: growing awareness accompanied by an initial assessment; a phase of projects destined to correct the main problems; and the final stage of transition to a process of continuous improvement.

The starting point for an environmental approach is growing awareness in the organisation, often due to an external factor: an incident, a regulation, pressure from a stakeholder, lack of coherence with what is communicated or advocated or simply a major gap in relation to other comparable organisations…
In order to avoid running out of steam too quickly, this increased awareness should be formalized, for example in the form of a charter or commitments, endorsed by management and widely communicated to partners. Indeed, it is not important if these declarations are subsequently questioned, the more the initial ideas are shared and debated, the greater the chances that the process will be successful. In particular, it is essential to understand the links between the organisation’s mandate and values and the need to manage its environmental impact.

This increased awareness should be accompanied or immediately followed by an assessment of the organisation’s performance. This assessment performs two essential roles:

  • Firstly, it helps to understand which of the organisation’s activities contribute most to its impact on the environment and thus to ensure that the approach genuinely responds to needs. At ACF, and in other organizations who do this work, the results have shown that the environmental impact of programmes is negligible compared to that of their preparation phases and the support services required to implement them. Without an initial assessment it may have been assumed that the opposite was true.
  • Secondly, the initial assessment provides a reference point against which to measure progress, and consequently the return on investment.

The choice of the method used for the initial assessment should not be taken lightly. It is preferable to choose an existing methodology rather than a homemade one, as there is a risk that this would reflect the cultural biases of the organisation too much. Regardless of the practical and ethical problems involved, a quantitative method [1] should be chosen: figures make it possible to cover very different situations, a central problem in humanitarian action being the difficulty of comparing two different missions or the headquarters and the field. This choice should also be realistic: while being as broad as possible, the initial assessment should be in keeping with the organisation’s means and ambitions, and should be able to be reproduced.

[1] For example, an ecological footprint assessment, a lifecycle assessment of goods and services produced by the organisation or an assessment of greenhouse gas emissions.