1. Introduction

Far more than a set of tools, participation is first and foremost a state of mind, according to which members of affected populations are at the heart of humanitarian action, as social actors, with insights on their situation, and with competencies, energy and ideas of their own.‘ (ALNAP, 2003, p. 20).

Participation in humanitarian action is understood as the engagement of affected populations in one or more phases of the project cycle: assessment, design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. Participation can be facilitated through the use of participatory tools such as surveys, individual interviews, focus groups, Venn diagrams, transect walks, proportional piling and seasonal activity calendars. Regardless of the tools used or forms that participation takes, ensuring the meaningful participation of disaster-affected communities-including women, men, boys and girls-in emergency response is a fundamental aspect of our humanitarian accountability (refer to Chapter 32 Quality and accountability).



Passive participation: The affected population is informed of what is going to happen or what has occurred. While this is a fundamental right of the people concerned, it is not always respected.

Participation through the supply of information: The affected population provides information in response to questions, but it has no influence over the process because survey results are not shared and their accuracy is not verified.

Participation by consultation: The affected population is asked for its perspective on a given subject, but it has no decision-making powers and no guarantee that its views will be considered.

Participation through material incentives: The affected population supplies some of the materials and/or labour needed to operationalise an intervention, in exchange for a payment in cash or kind from the aid organisation.

Participation through the supply of materials, cash or labour: The affected population supplies some of the materials, cash and/or labour needed to operationalise an intervention. This includes cost-recovery mechanisms.

Interactive participation: The affected population participates in the analysis of needs and in programme conception, and has decision-making powers.

Local initiatives: The affected population takes the initiative, acting independently of external organisations or institutions. Although it may call on external bodies to support its initiatives, the project is conceived and run by the community; it is the aid organisation that participates in the population’s projects.

Source: ALNAP, 2003.

Acute emergencies, especially rapid-onset disasters, place organisations under extreme time pressure to act. However, a commitment to participation demands that aid organisations balance the imperative to act and the need to involve people in decisions affecting their lives (The good enough guide, Tool 3). At the very least, consultation can be achieved in all but the most extreme cases.

There is no formula for participation in humanitarian action that works in every context. Just as each emergency is different, each will require a different participatory approach. Some of the factors that will affect the participation of affected populations in humanitarian action include what other organisations are doing, available human resources, security and protection, and culture and social organisation (ALNAP, 2003). For example, different cultures respond differently in the wake of emergencies, affecting their participation in aid interventions. Following the 2004 South East Asian tsunami, Muslim women widowed by the tsunami in Sri Lanka and Indonesia went into mourning for a period of time and were not available to participate in emergency relief in the same way that other affected members of the population were. These cultural differences need to be taken into account by aid organisations to prevent the exclusion of such groups in the participatory process.

Heightened security risks for the staff of aid organisations, as well as the affected communities, are often an inevitable reality of emergencies. Conflict emergencies, in particular, require extreme caution when engaging local populations in participation. Information that may seem benign to an outsider may have local sensitivities and could potentially stir hostilities (ALNAP, 2003)

It is important to recognise that participation or involvement with NGOs can change power structures and can be particularly complex in conflict settings. Refer also to Chapter 9.2 Conflict sensitivity.

  • Participation as a moral duty: Participation demonstrates respect for members of affected populations, by recognising their right to have a say in choices that impact on their lives
  • Participation to improve programme quality: Participation increases the interventions suitability to the local context, affected population’s ownership over the intervention and the likeliness that they will sustain/maintain the intervention in the longer run. For example, when affected communities are asked where they want the new community hand pump to be installed, it is more likely to be positioned in a place that is safe for women, accessible to the greatest number of people and there is willingness by users to maintain the well.
  • Participation to increase security: Increased trust between parties can translate into better access to important security information and increased safety of staff.
  • Participation to gain access: Partnerships with affected populations may help achieve access to areas or groups that would normally not be accessible to foreign organisations.
  • Participation to support and increase local capacity: Strengthening the capacity of local organisations better prepares communities for future crises.
  • Participation to give a voice to traditionally marginalised groups and individuals: Engagement with marginalised groups positively impacts them and their families by equipping them with increased knowledge about their rights.

    Source: Adapted from ALNAP, 2003.