Participation revolution?

Despite commitments in the Grand Bargain and elsewhere to include people who receive aid in making decisions that affect their lives, our research finds that people affected by humanitarian crises generally do not feel included in such decisions

04 Dec 2018
Man Sheep

Ground Truth Solutions has been asking questions about people’s sense of their ability to participate in or influence decisions that affect their lives over the past five years. We have systematically analysed feedback on this topic from over 10,000 individuals from crisis-affected countries in different parts of the world. Our findings show that people generally do not feel included in decisions that affect them. This is the case despite commitments in the Grand Bargain to ensure that “humanitarian response is relevant, timely, effective and efficient”, and to include people who receive aid in making decisions that affect their lives.

Further analysis of our data suggests that the failure to take affected people’s views into account is apparent across different sectors of humanitarian action, and that it affects men and women alike. On the positive side, the data shows that where people do feel their views are taken into account, they find aid fairer. Where people feel they are listened to, they also say they are treated with respect.

Do affected people feel their opinions are taken into account?

We regularly ask affected people how they see the quality of humanitarian aid. This includes a simple question relating to the most basic form of participation: do you feel that aid providers take your opinion into account when providing aid? We also ask whether people feel aware of the kind of aid available, whether they know how to make a suggestion or a complaint to aid providers, and whether they believe they will get a response.

Responses to these questions in multiple countries show that there are patterns as to what people commonly find works well and where they see the biggest need for improvement. The following heat map shows a ranking of questions in which the aspect of the humanitarian response people view most positively is ranked 1, the second most positive as 2, and so on.

Hvi Chart Heatmap

As the heat map illustrates, respondents are consistently negative with regards to whether aid providers take the opinions of affected people into account and whether they know how to make a suggestion or file a complaint. People are more ambivalent about two other indicators related to participation – whether they are likely to get a response if they make a complaint, and to what extent they are aware of the different forms of aid available to them. For the second question in particular, there is marked variation between different humanitarian contexts.

No clear participation champions among sectors

Our data shows no consistent links between the type of aid people say they received and feelings of participation. In six countries (Afghanistan, Haiti, Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia and Uganda), we asked participants what kind of aid they have received from a list including cash, education, food, health care, information, psychosocial support, shelter and water, sanitation and hygiene services (WASH). For five of these countries, we found that people who received WASH services were more likely than other respondents to say they felt aware of what aid was available to them. In four of the six countries, those recipients were also more likely to say that aid providers took their opinion into account. Recipients of cash transfers, meanwhile, were more likely than those receiving other types of aid to say that they felt informed about the kind of aid available to them in four out of the six countries.

Do age or gender have an impact?

All in all, the age and gender of respondents does not seem to have much influence on whether people feel their views are taken into account by aid providers. Men and women typically did not differ on this question in the various contexts where we collected data. But in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Dominica, we saw that men felt slightly more involved in the decision-making process than women. Similarly, no gender reported feeling more informed about the aid available to them than the other. Older respondents were more likely to say that aid providers took their opinions into account in Afghanistan and Lebanon, whereas younger respondents felt more positive about participation in Iraq. In the other countries, there were no strong links between age and feelings of participation.

Participatory aid seems fairer

There were eight countries where we both asked about participation and aid targeting (Afghanistan, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Haiti, Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, Uganda). In six out of these eight countries, people who said that aid providers took their opinion into account when providing aid were more likely to believe that aid reached the people who needed it most. This suggests that people who feel they have a say in how aid is delivered tend to believe that aid is distributed more fairly than those who do not.

Hvi Chart Participation Fairness

The chart above illustrates this relationship. It compares all respondents who disagreed or strongly disagreed with aid-providers involving them in the decision-making process to those who agreed or strongly agreed, with regards to whether they felt that aid was reaching the most vulnerable.

Additionally, people who felt that aid providers took their opinions into account when providing aid were more likely to say that they felt treated with respect by aid providers. This was the case in seven out of the eight countries listed above. The chart below illustrates this relationship.

Hvi Chart Participation Respect

We saw a similar link between feeling informed about available aid and perceptions of fairness: people who felt they were informed of aid were also more likely to say that aid reached those who need it most in eight out of nine countries where we asked both questions. This includes the eight countries listed above, plus Turkey. In eight out of ten countries, people who feel more informed about aid are also more likely to say that their most important needs are met.


Our analysis suggests that people’s sense of being able to participate is consistently low. Scores on this question are lower than on most other questions we ask. And this holds across all countries surveyed. Our analysis also highlights the value of improving people’s sense of participation. Higher scores on participation correlate with perceptions of effective targeting of aid and with feelings of being treated with respect by aid providers.

The findings highlight the importance of local context when examining the quality of aid from the perspective of those who are intended to benefit from it. With regards to whether people’s opinions are taken into account, we found no evidence of differences related to gender, age or sector. But there are certain contexts where nuances emerge. Take Iraq and Afghanistan, where women report feeling less involved in the aid effort than men: in these contexts, extra care must be taken to design interventions so all affected people may participate. The data also requires further unpacking and qualitative probing to understand the different expectations and norms that inform people’s responses.

Humanitarian assistance is about protecting the lives and dignity of people who have suffered great hardships. By ensuring that affected people are involved in decision-making about aid, both of these goals can be met, while at the same time respecting their agency.

About the method

The data used in this analysis was collected from the following countries: Afghanistan, Antigua and Barbuda, Austria, Dominica, Haiti, Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, Uganda and Turkey between 2016 and 2018. Each of the questions linked with participation was used as an outcome in linear lasso regressions that predicted attitudes to participation from age, gender and aid types received (as determined by self-reporting) on the one hand and responses to the other Likert-scale questions on the other. Lasso regressions use a penalized likelihood function that push small coefficients to 0 to guard against false positives. The size of this penality (λ) was determined by leave-one-out-cross validation. Out-of sample model fit was then determined by five-fold cross validations. Only results where the candidate model outperformed the null-model and when coefficients were consistently different from zero across all five folds are reported here.
The number of countries we have included in any given analysis is a function of how much data we have available for that particular question theme. Because we have most data relating to awareness of aid and whether people feel their opinions are taken into account with regards to aid provision, the bulk of the analysis was devoted to these two themes. Similarly, we have not asked about aid provision with regards to specific sectors for all the countries in the database. To ensure consistency in the analysis, we only compare countries where we have asked about specific sectors the same way.
A total of 11,088 people from 10 countries responded to the question on whether they are aware of the aid available to them. We have 7,412 responses from eight countries to the question on whether aid providers take affected people’s opinions into account. For the other two question themes we have less data, 3,778 responses from four countries for trust in complaints mechanisms, and 1,369 responses from two countries for awareness of complaints mechanism. In the remaining countries we asked about awareness of complaints mechanisms in a different way which was not directly comparable to the questions included in this analysis.

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Photo source: International Committee of the Red Cross