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It is time to be genuine with our do-no-harm approach

By Ophelie Namiech, Mindset-PCS

May 12, 2020

As humanitarian practitioners, we hear a lot about do-no-harm. Many of us have had to fill up that ‘do-no-harm’ box in calls for proposal countless times. We have learned, sometimes at our own expenses, that activities should not exacerbate nor create tensions or inequalities.

Yet, too many activities still disrupt the social, economic, cultural, and natural environment of the communities where we work. Sometimes, we are even too busy with our own experience, assumptions, and responsibilities to realize that our presence does undermine community relations and structures.

Community engagement has been recognized as a core best practice and mitigation strategy to do no/or less harm.

Hence, most programs do engage communities, for instance through so-called “Focus Group Discussions”. However, this level of engagement does not always lead to meaningful community leadership and genuine localization in practice, and it is time to change our approach. 

Community ‘engagement’ is too often conducted to meet external (donor) requirements rather than create genuine channels for community decision-making. We come, sit, collect the information we need and leave.

Additionally, community engagement and its ‘traditional’ methods are still very much top-down. We still think too much in terms of ‘design programs for’ communities rather than ‘design with’ or ‘design by’ communities. This restrictive approach is one of the reasons why communities have become disenchanted with the ‘overwhelming humanitarian presence’ (watch here to the testimony of our national partner in South Sudan on the community fatigue towards needs assessments[1]).

Finally, community engagement methods can also be too complex and theoretical to genuinely bring in communities. And as such, we take the risk of losing the very people we are meant to work with.

The international humanitarian and development community has come to realize the imperative of finding faster, more affordable, more effective, and more sustainable ways to support and work with communities affected by crisis and displacement. [2]

So, how can we make community engagement a genuine, meaningful and impact-oriented endeavor?

First, we need to change our overall mindset.

When designing programs, we too often focus on ‘what’s missing’, i.e. the needs, the vulnerabilities, the gaps in a community. This approach ultimately influences the way we think and act. Looking exclusively or excessively at the needs may lead us to overlook what actually works, i.e. the existing positive coping mechanisms, assets, opportunities, and strengths in a community. The global health pandemic of COVID-19 perfectly illustrates that point.  At a time when many humanitarian practitioners could not access the most at-risk communities, local organizations and networks were able to develop innovative, safe and culturally accepted solutions to COVID-19. For instance, women groups worldwide were the first to locally produce and sell protective masks.

Second, we need to do better (much better) in preparing and designing community engagement strategies.

We must start by identifying and questioning our assumptions and examine how our identity, experience and beliefs do influence how and what communities share with us, and ultimately affect the programs’ outcomes. Here, we recommend using exercises such as the Liberatory design cards from the National Equity Project to help us be aware of, and effectively navigate, our perceptions and cultural biases.

Moreover, we must stop showing up unprepared in communities, and plan, ahead of time, our engagement strategy as carefully and comprehensively as possible. This includes brainstorming within our team and with national partners on how to best:

  1. Access community members. We can use, for instance, the mapping context and mapping access tools to help us create an engagement plan.

  2. Understand the participants and context, and identify ways that will help us create connections and trust. We should prepare the content and format of messages we want to share and think of meaningful and relevant ways to do so using words, images or symbols.

  3. Prepare the participation itself by analyzing potential risks and opportunities. For instance, we can map, ahead of time, the experience of the engagement from the participant’s perspective.

  4. Explore the possible positive and negative effects of the participation. We should reflect on who can benefit from the engagement and what participants can get out of it.

Third, we must prioritize creative and horizontal exchanges during the engagement (and leave our notebooks for a moment!).

We should prioritize participatory methods that move away from the ‘traditional’ yet often counterproductive top down ‘focus-group discussion-only’ format which tends to create unbalanced relationships between interviewers and interviewees and exhausts communities. Human-centered methods, borrowed from UX design, offer creative (and fun!) tools for meaningful community engagement and trust- and rapport-building.

They may include activities such as, for instance, card sorting, collage, drawing (excellent to understand safety perceptions), resource flows (great tool to examine gender-based power relations within a household or a community), and experience mapping (excellent resource to understand the different needs and strengths of specific at-risks groups).

Such tools can easily be integrated into programmatic activities such as women or youth groups, training courses, and community outreach activities - and can therefore help prevent community fatigue towards repetitive 'needs assessments'.

Finally, affected communities as well as national partners should not only be engaged throughout all program phases, but should also lead decisions and processes that concern them. We recommend incorporating and maximizing community-based mechanisms that can ensure community leadership and decision-making such as: feedback, complaints and accountability mechanisms through community focal points; and a program committee composed of representatives from community representatives, local and national institutions to monitor and continuously improve the program.

In 2020, 168 million of people are in need of humanitarian assistance and protection worldwide. This represents 1 in about 45 people, and is the highest figure in decades. On current trends, projections show that more than 200 million people could be in need of assistance by 2022. [3] 

Given the evolving and complex nature of global emergencies, our approach, as humanitarian practitioners, must be redefined.

It is time we realize that investing in existing local capacities, assets and solutions is the only way to genuinely and meaningfully reduce risks and vulnerabilities globally and achieve true resilience.


This article is based on the author’s presentation in the Olam Toolbox: A webinar series on do-no-harm.


[1] Testimony of Charles Wani, Executive Director of Sustainable Children Aid (SCA), Community-Based Organization operating in South Sudan, Uganda and Kenya.

[2] UNOCHA, The new way of working, 2017.

Picture credit: Ben Dagani for AJEEC-NISPED


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