Community Engagement — Problems Less Discussed by Marc DuBois

By Althea-Maria Rivas|January 23, 2020|News & Research|3 comments

Expanding the Rules of Engagement

In sector jargon, the concept of “community engagement” (CE) refers to a process of interaction and exchange between an aid agency and a community.  To my ear, that sounds more like gathering intelligence, or conducting market research. Closer to a modern day ‘getting to know the natives’ [for their own benefit – of course!] than to getting to know the neighbors?  Another way of thinking about CE: Why does human communing need so many conferences, experts and guidelines?

Well, maybe CE is not so simple as human communing.  A quick look at “engagement” reveals a colourful term, which suggests plenty about CE.  Meanings of “engagement” from the OED (online):

Meanings How meanings might relate to CE
An agreement to marry somebody Engagement as a ‘legal or moral
obligation’
An arrangement to do something For example, a procedure or
contract to meet and find out more about a community?
Actual fighting between two
militaries or armed forces
This suggests conflict in CE, the
‘violence’ of inequitable power
relationships, armed with the
authority of clipboards
Being involved or in a relationship with somebody or something in an attempt to understand them/it The community as a target of
understanding, a fundamentally
unidirectional process
An arrangement or agreement to
employ somebody
Such as employing a community to gain information necessary to
access, funding, etc.?

A collision between communities

Reading sector literature one quickly spots the tendency to refer to an agency’s engagement with a community, rather than a community’s engagement with an agency.  Equally telling, the failure to see our CE as engagement by a community, meaning seeing ourselves as a community, and a rather exotic one at that.  The humanitarian/foreign aid and crisis response sector AKA “the international community”.  AKA? Perhaps ASAA is more accurate – Also Self-Aggrandized As.

Therein lies an excess of typically invisible and not so invisible (see DRC Ebola response) collisions.  Of specific relevance here, and largely undiscussed, would be the extent to which this engagement marks a collision between a predominantly Western culture whose fundamental building block is the individual, and non-Western cultures which remain to varying degrees fundamentally grounded in the community or collective.[1]  Is the sector paying attention to the consequences of exporting the West’s historic shift from ‘we’ to the centrality of ‘I’?

Thankfully, some humanitarian organizations have already begun thinking about this problem.  In a recent article published by The New Humanitarian (FKA IRIN) that discusses research by Mercy Corps:

South Sudan is a collective society, but currently the way much aid is delivered mirrors how Western donors think and is often modelled on their own societies. Organisations tend to work with individuals or households, but in the South Sudan context, everything is communal. Aid actors need to shift our Western notions of individual and household vulnerability to consider our response from a collective perspective.

Mercy Corps’ research concludes “that when humanitarian actors fail to understand these existing local coping strategies, they risk inadvertently undermining them.”[2]  That said, the exportation of the ‘I’ culture of ‘radical’ individualism goes far beyond humanitarian intervention.  It may be as inevitable as globalization or global warming, so let us avoid being overly romantic and focus on mitigation.

Spelling it out: humanitarian action places the individual or household in competition with other crisis-affected individuals and households.  It forces a competition, an individualized misery contest, to qualify for or attract the attentions and deliveries of the aid giver.  The way we deliver aid (not the aid itself) places in harm’s way a community’s social capital, their network of relationships that depends upon trust and reciprocity and which becomes critical at times of crisis. This social capital, rather than being nurtured or developed in the humanitarian response, is displaced by the expectation that the international community can and will solve their problems through individualized sets of technological and material interventions. The community contract (let alone the development of a social contract with the state) is thus eroded. Off the top of my head, I tend to agree with Mercy Corps’ conclusion that the nurturing rather than undermining of these social relationships is vital to peace-building and stability in the future.

The cultural insensitivity of an aid response based on individuals

The impact of exporting/imposing a particular individuality can be seen in how the paradigm of individual human rights (and individual choice) has governed aid choices even in places where communities and a sense of communal or family duty remain dominant; where they remain necessary to life and to identity.  Think of how an agency might dissuade or even scold the mother of a malnourished child when it becomes obvious that she is sharing the therapeutic food packets among her several hungry children (contrary to instructions to use it to feed only the acutely malnourished child who qualified for treatment).  We can also see it in the lens created by our systemic reverence for the humanitarian principle of impartiality, which essentially declares the individual (or household) to be the fundamental metric for the distribution of assistance.

Communities have to be quite powerful to refuse this power imbalance.  In the response to Typhoon Haiyan, some communities in the Philippines pushed against agency plans to distribute aid to individual families, insisting that this would not be well-perceived in the community and that the community would ensure the welfare of all.  In other words, our ‘impartiality-based’ aid would cause harmful tensions and violate communal norms.  The Filipino example illustrates CE’s inadvertent globalization of a ‘universal’ individual-centered humanity that has the power to erase, devalue or, worse, declare as a pathology, that which constitutes community, tribe, collective, etc.

Ethics as a way forward?

As a process, CE rightfully comes highly proclaimed, helping humanitarians do things right. It is also the right thing to do.  The principle of humanity means all people belong to a common family with a common inalienable dignity, and this dignity requires even-footed engagement rather charity. On this latter ethical principle, communities must be more insistent. Humanitarians have long evaded meaningful CE because they operationalized it as a laudable option, not as a prerequisite to being humanitarian. The result is CE’s being persistently outweighed in the ‘heat of action’ by other pressing needs, such as a rapid deployment.  Even where an agency declares CE as the right thing to do, its de facto translation seems more aspirational than normative. Is poor or absent CE ever deemed an ethical violation? An abuse of power? Was somebody fired? We unnecessarily glorify humanity, impartiality or CE.

The way forward lies in our comprehending the complexity of such principles in practice. For instance, humanity acknowledges the equality of human beings with intelligence, rights and agency; and yet also brings an unthinking globalization of a ‘universal’ humanity that can erase or devalue diversity and reinforce hierarchies.  This paradox then inheres to CE itself: CE might contribute to the success of a very particular sort of humanitarian intervention, one that devalues communities qua communities and imposes a regime of assistance based on individuals or individual households.

The problem is not CE. The problem is not the principle of humanity. The problem is deploying CE while blind to its potential shortcomings, impositions and negative consequences. CE, so seldom simple human communing and so often unidirectional or hierarchical, is designed to generate empowerment, people-centered and contextually adapted aid, and ‘beneficiary’ buy in.  These luminous goals need to be championed; and research needs to explore how negative consequences might be identified and mitigated.  Addressing CE rather than simply calling for it is the way to address power imbalance between two communities, one a billionaires club of agencies and the other being in crisis; one on a mission and the other at the sharp end of a mission that engages with them as a target.  Sounds too much like meaning #3.


[1] It would be inaccurate to frame this generalization as a binary – it is more about positioning along a spectrum.  I do not think it an exaggeration, and it is certainly receiving a great deal of attention these days, to suggest that the escalating individualism of the West is deeply intertwined with many of the political and social problems in the West. As David Brooks opines in a NYT Op-Ed: “I think we all realize that the hatred, fragmentation and disconnection in our society is not just a political problem. It stems from some moral and spiritual crisis. We don’t treat one another well. And the truth is that 60 years of a hyper-individualistic … culture have weakened the bonds between people. They’ve dissolved the shared moral cultures that used to restrain capitalism and the meritocracy. Over the past few decades the individual, the self, has been at the center.” In other words, individualism may prove to be the sort of invasive species you will regret importing to a new environment.

[2] Mercy Corps, The Currency of Connections, p.4. On this point, Mercy Corps is citing to “Famine in Somalia: Competing Imperatives, Collective Failures, 2011-12” Daniel Maxwell and Nisar Majid. Hurst Publications (which I did not consult).

Orginal Blog posted on the Humanicontrian wrtten by By Marc DuBois

About the Author

Marc DuBois is an independent humanitarian consultant/analyst. He previously worked 15 years with MSF, including serving as the director MSF-UK/IE. He is also a Senior Fellow with SOAS.

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