Participation Revolution gains ground

Nick van Praag • 23 January 2019

The Participation Revolution is a lofty way to describe the Grand Bargain’s call to provide people affected by crisis and disasters with a seat at the decision-makers’ table. The revolutionary label suggests a kind of “out with the old” revolt against the established order and, with it, a swift transition to more people-driven humanitarian action. Yet, if we have learned anything from other efforts at transformative change it is that they require convincing evidence of their promise plus the right mix of incentives to drive action.

For the Participation Revolution, two recent papers are leading us in the right direction.

Lessons learned from good practice

The first is a study from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) that pulls together lessons learned from the Nepal Inter-agency Common Feedback Project set up after the earthquake in 2015. It maps out the challenges and highlights strategies to overcome them, underlining the logic of humanitarian country teams working together and holding themselves jointly to account. “Done well,” DFID humanitarian advisor Andy Wheatley says, “accountability to affected people offers the potential to better measure and understand programme outcomes and help determine whether collectively we are effectively providing the assistance and protection crisis-affected people need.”

There is nothing automatic about more listening leading to better outcomes, says Wheatley. Insight garnered from affected people must be actively championed if follow-up action is to happen and - equally important - given legitimacy, through inclusion in strategy documents like Humanitarian Response Plans. The DFID study, which will be published next month, also underlines the primacy of patience. It takes a long time to embed good participatory practice.

Metrics of success

The second advance is a paper on success indicators released in December by the Grand Bargain working group on the Participation Revolution. It explains clearly what good practice looks like and proposes indicators to measure progress towards greater participation. The paper sets out a framework that explicitly recognises that while the two parties to the Grand Bargain – donors and aid agencies - have shared commitments, their roles are different and require role-specific indicators at both the global and the country level.

Take the Participation Revolution’s core commitment to improve collective approaches to participation. The global indicators proposed in the paper include the percentage of Humanitarian Response Plans in which decision-making is demonstrably informed by the views of affected people as well as the proportion of such plans with mechanisms to process feedback and complaints. This then ties into impact indicators at the country team and aid agency level, such as the percentage of people satisfied by the response and the proportion who consider that they have timely access to the information they need, with feedback broken down by sex, age, and specific vulnerabilities.

For donors, meanwhile, indicators relate to whether they fund the costs of collecting feedback and the extent to which they allow their grantees to make programme course corrections based on what they learn from their clients.

It may sound like indicator overkill, but we have seen that unless participation is built into the way humanitarian action is designed, monitored, and evaluated, humanitarian country teams and the sectoral clusters are unlikely to follow through on their high-level commitments.

The Facilitation Group, made up of Grand Bargain sherpas, is now examining suggestions from working groups dealing with all 10 chapters of the bargain – not just the Participation Revolution – before a meeting of principals in May that is supposed to approve a comprehensive set of indicators. If these link to the direct experience and perceptions of affected people, the reform programme that is the Grand Bargain will get a major boost.

These latest calls to arms don’t yet add up to the “in with the new” phase of the revolution, but they do suggest that time on the barricades may eventually be rewarded.

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