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The consultation and participation of local people - a key parameter of quality?
Groupe URD

The participation and consultation of affected populations during the implementation of humanitarian programmes is of primary importance, but it is also a very sensitive issue. Who should be involved and why? How should it be done? What are the risks and opportunities involved? These are the kinds of questions which need to be analysed in advance to guarantee the quality, sustainability and appropriation of the aid provided.

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In recent decades, humanitarian aid has grown considerably but has also come up against an increasing number of challenges. One of the most important criticisms of the humanitarian system is that it is imposed by the West, that it uses a “top down” approach and that it does not listen. For different reasons, some good, some bad, power remains in the hands of NGOs from the North.

The question of the consultation and participation of beneficiaries in humanitarian operations has regularly been brought up in different forums and publications, but nothing compared to the level of interest that exists in the world of development. In fact, very little is known about the use of participatory practices in the humanitarian sector or their impact. Before the Global Study, there had been no attempts to identify “good practices” in this area.

For a long time, the role played by crisis-affected populations in ensuring their own survival was underestimated and not properly taken into account. Numerous evaluations appear to show that increased consultation and participation of the affected population are beneficial for humanitarian operations. In addition, the importance of participatory approaches is underlined in texts such as the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief or in the work done by the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP). In reality, however, participation is a complicated issue and there are very few concrete examples of participatory approaches being used in the humanitarian sector. _ On the one hand, the concept of participation has strong “development” connotations. On the other, its application in conflict, unstable or dangerous contexts is not always simple, realistic or even compatible with humanitarian principles.

From 2002 to 2004, ALNAP (the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action) commissioned Groupe URD to carry out an ambitious research project entitled, the Global Study on Consultation and Participation of Disaster-Affected Populations. This project aimed to identify existing experience and good and bad practice and sought to understand their determining factors, areas of application and limits. It also aimed to promote participatory approaches in humanitarian action, without losing sight of the numerous constraints and risks that exist. Six case studies were conducted covering a wide variety of contexts in order to understand the relations between contexts, types of crisis and aid practices.

With the recent publication of the Participation Handbook for humanitarian field workers [1], it seemed appropriate to return to certain fundamental points which continue to be overlooked today in practice.

[1] The Participation Handbook for humanitarian field workers can be downloaded in PDF format from http://www. urd.org or can be ordered in book format from Groupe URD (available in English, French and Spanish).