HNPW 2023 - Accountability to Affected Populations (AAP): Leveraging social sciences for community engagement in humanitarian action

The social sciences have long had a solid connection to humanitarian action. A recent project has aimed to strengthen this further in how humanitarian actors engage communities in their work. In collaboration with more than 70 humanitarian partners across humanitarian practice and academia, the Social Science for Community Engagement in Humanitarian Action (SS4CE in HA) project has been aiming to facilitate community engagement of affected and at-risk communities throughout the humanitarian program cycle.

This session will be the first in which the outputs from the projects will be showcased, exploring those that focus on concepts related to decolonization, social justice, and localization. Panelists will be discussing how social sciences and community engagement in humanitarian action can be implemented towards more ethical, inclusive, decolonized, social justice, and effective practices, as well as how to approach resourcing for systematically integrating social science for community engagement.


Q&A responses

During the event, participants posed many interesting questions, and the panelists responded in writing to many of the ones we did not have time to discuss during the event. You will find their responses below.

Is there an evidence base of particular social science disciplines' efficacy in community engagement? What are effective and adaptable approaches? [Malia Robinson]

Is there an academic database for these topics? [Felipe Diaz]

Would integrating anthropological capabilities into humanitarian action give better outcomes? [Isatou Sarr]

  • Sahar Hegazi: In principle, it could improve the outcome. However, it will depend on the political and security context and to what extent it would be possible to do. For example, in the context of Syria, it won't be possible.

Don't you think that it is worth conducting social sciences research at least every two years to better understand the impact of religion, culture, and the mixture of different people who come to share the same environment? Or empower those who have written articles or books related to the topic to get them published? [Godfrey Sangu]

  •  Yes, absolutely. And depending on the nature of the crisis and context, perhaps much more frequently than this. One approach which can be adopted is to conduct rapid qualitative assessments at frequent intervals to ensure practitioners have updated and targeted information regarding community concerns and experiences. For additional information on this social science methodology and how it has been applied during complex emergencies, please see here and also here for a description of an iterative approach to rapid qualitative data collection, most useful for rapidly changing contexts and crises of extended duration.

Quelles sont ces principales sciences qu'il faut prendre en compte pour l'engagement communautaires dans l'action humanitaire ? [Oswal Ndacayisaba]

  • Cette question est abordée dans les produits SS4CE (Social Science for Community Engagement) préparés par les organisateurs du panel (qui seront disponibles dans les prochaines semaines, veuillez partager votre e-mail dans le chat si vous souhaitez être ajouté à la liste SS4CE) . À l'avance, veuillez consulter l'extrait de texte pertinent de l'une de ces ressources ci-dessous :

    “...sociology and anthropology were the social science disciplines listed to have been used most frequently in [community engagement] in [humanitarian action] followed by psychology and communication sciences. Political science is seen as beneficial mostly by social science researchers. Law and journalism are seen as beneficial by humanitarian practitioners and programme managers. Law and economics were more listed as relevant to disaster work and political science as relevant for conflicts.”

Would establishing a communication and community engagement platform for communications and community engagement enhance inclusiveness and improve rapport between actors and donor recipients? [Isatou Sarr]

  • Ginger Johnson: We believe so, yes. If you look at the minimum standards for community engagement just discussed and compare this with anthropological capabilities (e.g. if defining as key competencies for contextually relevant research, attention to individual/community needs, being able to and responsive to triangulation of data from multiple respondents, inclusivity and diversity of information sources as key, trust-building, ‘ethical alertness’ and responsible engagement, etc. ) then these are very complementary areas of work.

How does participation fit into engagement? I've seen it used interchangeably with community engagement and also as one component of it. Then, the question is, what is good enough participation with affected people? Is there a minimum standard for participation?

  • Ginger Johnson: We have minimum standards for community engagement as discussed in the introductory session ( This particular document defines participation as a component of community-based approaches. If you look at participation as a methodology in itself (which social sciences often does, e.g. Participatory Action Research or PAR) then this can be seen as one tool to use for enacting a community engagement strategy.

Any thoughts on two-way communication between aid agencies and crisis-affected populations regarding the latter’s needs and the quality, timeliness, and relevance of the aid being provided? [Isatou Sarr]

  • Ginger Johnson: The language often used for this is ‘closing the loop’ and is a key component to accountability to affected populations (AAP). We believe this requires a strong mechanism for collecting community feedback and one which is linked to an M&E framework to ensure that information received is actioned (e.g. recommendation provide, focal points assigned to action those recommendations, actions trackers established to track what is happening, where and when, etc).
  • If you would like more information on establishing a community feedback mechanism, the IFRC and Collective Serivce has several tools and resources for this, e.g.

Thank you for these very interesting insights. Is SS4CE tackling Community Engagement at large, or are you also able to use this to involve different population groups, including those traditionally marginalized? [Isabelle de Muyser

  • Rania Elessawi: Thank you, Isabelle, for the question. SS4CE is focused on CE in specific humanitarian and public health emergencies. Fundamentally within the standards, inclusion is one of the core standards, as well as building on local capacity - these specifically focus on ensuring actions to ensure that traditionally marginalized people are engaged in all processes. The SS4CE has built on this to acknowledge diverse knowledge systems and that these need to acknowledge and define engagement with communities rather than imposing globally established knowledge, and there is ethics around vulnerability and how/who defines it.

At what point do we move beyond merely meeting the minimum standards for community engagement, and instead aim for a higher level of meaningful and impactful engagement? Shouldn't we be focusing on defining and striving towards a certain threshold or benchmark for community engagement, rather than just meeting the bare minimum requirements? [Ngugi]

  • Rania Elessawi: Actually, the standards to not aim to establish a "bare minimum" – they capture progressive community engagement processes, the challenge in the operationalization is truly around weak accountability mechanisms. The standards, however, do reflect more systemic demands and resources of actors to be transparent and defined during implementation. And we share the same concerns around commitments and resources that should be matched with the outcomes they expect.

What do you think on how social sciences overcome neopositivism and neocolonialism approaches (science as a power), recognizing indigenous and community knowledge, even relevant when we talk on community engagement? [José Alberto Henao]

  • Ashley Howard: A good framework can be found in - Chilisa, B 2012 / 2019 Indigenous Research Methodologies
  • Fernanda Falero: Also Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing methodologies, 1999

Could you explain how restricted sections of the community, like women, effectively participate in community engagement in countries like Syria and other Arab countries?

  • Sahar Hegazi: There are only restrictions on women in a few limited areas that are under ISIS control. For rest of rest of Syria, women can participate in CE activities.

Is UNICEF the only agency applying SS4CE in its work? Or is this (or could become) a more collective approach?

  • Ginger Johnson: In short, no UNICEF is not the only agency applying this work, and we do think this can/should be a collective approach (noting the interagency nature of this panel as just one example). That being said, there are currently a sea of acronyms to often refer to quite similar approaches within this space and this can sometimes hinder an integrated approach. Not to take anything away from these different approaches as there are some differences (and application to specific types of emergency responses which are important to consider), but there are also some key commonalities, and I do think it is the commonalities that should be highlighted. What are some of the commonalities of organizational approaches for community engagement? An interagency commissioned document was recently completed which addresses this: 

    1. Acknowledging and trying to address the asymmetry of power that currently defines the relationship between humanitarian agencies and affected people.

    2. Working collaboratively with communities to affect positive changes, promote participation and community action.

    3. Acknowledging the questions and concerns of individuals, providing answers and opportunities for dialogue.

    4. Assessing behavioural and social drivers, and adapting approaches to enable and encourage behaviour change accordingly.

    5. Translating science, data and evidence-based information into audience-tailored, timely, relevant and actionable lifesaving messages.

    6. Increasing opportunities for communities to engage in the design of response interventions, ensuring they meet communities’ needs.

    7. Enhancing decision-making, by providing evidence from social listening, perception studies, social science research dialogue and other means for receiving feedback from communities with and feedback from communities.

    8. Advocating for communities’ priorities and concerns in decision-making forums they cannot access on their own.

  • Carolyn Davis: Great list. I would include providing information that crisis-affected people want (in languages and formats they prefer and channels they trust). In #6, I also would add opportunities for communities to engage in evaluation and throughout the project cycle.

Did the name change improve the quality of the response?

  • Sahar Hegazi: As mentioned, the change of the name allowed us to tap into different points of coordination with sectors that classically see RCCE as only health response related. Also, the change of name helped in repositioning the interventions aside from being health-related.

Sorry for an acronym soup question, but am I right in understanding that the idea is that SBC 4 CE is to replace RCCE and also CEA and AAP, or is it one part of AAP? [Alex Ross]

The current structure of the humanitarian system (top-down and supply-driven with a focus on fast action and short-term project and funding cycles) does not provide incentives for engaging with crisis-affected people. Mainstreaming meaningful and active (as opposed to rhetorical and passive) approaches to participation requires a substantial change to the current ways of working in the humanitarian system. Having a participation strategy should theoretically mean being participatory at every stage of the operation. But it is difficult to find humanitarian operations which are participatory at every stage, unless there is a real paradigm shift: It’s not the population that participates in the agency’s project but the agency which participates in the population’s project engaging with the population throughout the project cycle, especially at the design and monitoring phases, can be like opening a “Pandora’s box” and turning the humanitarian sector’s priorities upside down. [Isatou Sarr]

  • Gefra Fulane: Indeed. And there's certainly a lot to think about from different levels of the humanitarian community. This session showed the need to have a space to think about some of these key concerns and unlocked these sensitive issues. One thing we do at the IFRC is to rely heavily on our local networks of volunteers, who are members of the community, and ensure that they and their own National Societies own the direction of the response. The regional and global levels take only an auxiliary role in supporting them and build their capacity. But much more needs to be done, not just by one agency but by the whole community.

Approaches to engagement are also determined by how various stakeholders understand the relationship between giver and receiver. Is this relationship inherently disempowering, or could it promote equality? [Isatou Sarr]

  • Sahar Hegazi: It can promote equality if we don't dictate plans and activities and we try to plan, and co-create solutions with communities. This is something we are trying to do now in Syria

What does 190 Data Survey stand for? Is it a household level assesment? KI? Or FGs ? [Joseph Amougou]

  • Gefra Fulane: Hi Joseph, this was data from a perception survey. No KII or FGDs were collected. For more information, please check the full report shared in the chat by our colleague Carla Guananga.
  • Ginger Johnson: You can find the IFRC - Haiti's perception survey and the results here. We also developed a regional survey (Americas) and a COVID-19 perception survey for Ecuador.

Can you give a concrete example of an RCCE activity that was informed/improved by the data gathered? [Aljoscha Mayer]

  • Gefra Fulane: Thank you for your question. The study was recently consolidated. The team is at the stage of action on data. 1) by training teams to address some of the community concerns and questions, 2) by developing actions informed by survey results, and 3) then by preparing materials to work with the communities and those involved in the cholera response.
  • Sahar Hegazi: Recently, when we did the community assessment for earthquake response, we found several females referring to fear of using bathrooms, and the main factor was lack of light and no locks on doors and hence feeling insecure. Through co-created solutions, UNICEF supported charger battery lamps that can work at night given the limited electricity supply in Syria, and all bathrooms in the shelters were adjusted to include locks...etc. Meanwhile, we continued to do other activities to provide psychosocial support to females.

Will this approach change the way we conduct research, collect data and select tools we are using to follow the scientific research methodology used in the ocial and behavioral sciences?

  • Sahar Hegazi: We need to continue refining tools from one emergency to another and within the same time span of response to refine the tools and document lessons learned.

In psychology, more specifically in social psychology, there are theoretical frameworks about mob engagement and crowd mentality. Social identity and other constructs could be highly informative to this approach – how will these constructs be integrated in humanitarian work?

  • Rania Elessawi: Psychology is one of the top 3 social science disciplines that was identified as most significant and beneficial to CE. Other disciplines included history, political science, geography, economics... there are proposed actions for when to integrate the knowledge that can be generated throughout a humanitarian programme cycle - that is always contingent on priorities, resources within organizations

I think that much work has to be done yet to convince donors and ensure we can implement the interventions in a more agile way, otherwise, how do we put that in practice? Do you have any success stories about how we can influence donors on this? [Sophie Mareschal]

  • Fernanda Falero: Yes it is a difficult process to engage donors in more system-building funding for these technical areas. There is an internal issue as well, organizations compete for funds, and want to fund their programs or initiatives. donors end up financing small projects related to social sciences and community engagement as there is no overarching proposal. The work in these areas is fragmented, so funding will be fragmented as well. We can influence donors if we agree as well in common work vs. fragmented. It will also help to have donors requesting this coherence and systemic approach to the sector.

The standards and indicators for community engagement in UNICEF's report are interesting. As they are developed for both development and humanitarian work, how are they linked to  OCHA's definition of CE (information sharing, complaints and feedback mechanism, participation in decision-making)?

  • Rania Elessawi: Yes if you review the Minimum standards, it addresses how it aligns with current normative frameworks, including AAP in which these three components (that you mentioned) are within. But the minimum standards expand and call for more systemic integration of community engagement, including programming, implementation, and resourcing.

Where do you locate AAP so far as MEAL and CEA are concerned? Is it part of both or only one? [Joel Njonga]

  • Fernanda Falero: I would say that AAP has its objectives to achieve, CE will contribute to achieve those objectives. you can monitor and evaluate the CE strategies you implement to achieve those specific objectives of AAP.

There are programmes in the academic/humanitarian learning streams that are teaching decolonizing, intercultural practices, and transdisciplinary approaches for community engagement. However, the concepts do not transition easily into the working humanitarian sector.

  • Rania Elessawi: This is true of one of the challenges in how academic/humanitarian learning streams also consider application of community engagement. There are very institution-specific challenges in which value towards research, publication is emphasized in which communities are more subjects rather than collaborators or owners of the research conducted. The engagement within academic institutions and networks also is not an area of strength for humanitarian organizations to effect change within, as most of those partnerships are usually evidence-driven and reinforce some these extractive relationships for information from communities, and not easily linked to actions

Did you invite any community people or group to this discussion or any community-based organization from any humanitarian context? [Kabir]

  • Roméo Nganha Medjeugna: In Haiti, after the data analysis and recommendations. Workshops are organized with stakeholders, vulnerable people, CBOs, and NGOs to disseminate the findings.

Also to add to the power imbalances, CE and social science experts (in my experience and observations) are not given power or “space” in crisis responses, or their findings/research are not shared within the humanitarian space they are working is as it is often more “critical” to the response,  but with hopes to make it better. As mentioned by the panelists, not only do we need to explain our research in detail to communities, our humanitarian partners need to help us advocate for research so communities are more willing to participate to collect vital data. How can we better advocate to high-level leaders and operating NGOs in the sector/cluster resposne to ensure they are giving a platform for social science and other sectors do not shy away from working with us? [Georgia Venner]

  • Roméo Nganha Medjeugna: There are many means that we can ensure that high levels leaders and operating NGO are giving a platform for social science. One of the ways is to have some workshops and training sessions on the importance of social sciences, how to analyze data, and the importance of these data in policy making. In addition, we can share with others what has been done before and how useful it is. For example, the cholera perception survey findings were shared with humanitarian actors through email, coordination meetings on RCCE, coordination meetings on cholera responses with the Haitian Red Cross, community-based organizations, and stakeholders...


Event recording

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Rania Elessawi SBC Partnerships Specialist, UNICEF
Fernanda Falero Social Science, SBC Specialist, UNICEF
Gefra Fulane Gefra Fulane Coordinator, Research and Capacity Strengthening, IFRC
Sahar Hegazi Sahar Hegazi Chief Social Behavior Change, Syria Country Office, UNICEF
Ginger Johnson Ginger Johnson Research Specialist, SBC, Collective Service
Roméo Nganha Medjeugna Roméo Nganha Medjeugna Community Engagement and Accountability Delegate, Haiti, IFRC


Manisha Thomas Manisha Thomas Senior Policy Advisor, PHAP