HNPW 2023 - Accountability to Affected Populations (AAP): Empowering frontline staff to deliver accountable and locally driven humanitarian assistance

Seven years on from the Grand Bargain Commitments and the launch of the Participation Revolution, humanitarians must face the disappointing reality that there has been little meaningful change in the way that aid is designed or delivered. Slow progress toward meaningfully changing the way we work is, arguably, most acutely felt by the staff, volunteers, and local agencies on the frontlines of response. They are the people who daily engage, support, and often put their lives at risk to serve people in crisis. Yet, the voices and knowledge of frontline staff are largely overlooked and neglected in operational and organizational decision-making. Frontline staff themselves recognize the importance of participation, but as a sector, we lack practical guidance on how to embed meaningful participation into our ways of working – from our daily routines and staffing models to organizational culture and values.

In this session, we will draw on the learning from IRC's Empower to Enable project, which aims to foster accountable and client-centric humanitarian assistance by empowering frontline staff to enable the participation of crisis-affected people in the design and delivery of humanitarian assistance. With the help of a panel of stakeholders, we will take stock of the current evidence on the role of frontline staff and discuss practical and scalable solutions for empowering frontline staff to ensure participation from crisis-affected people.

The Empower to Enable report is available here.

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.

What is the checklist or must-to-do guide for frontline staff for accountability [Shamnaz Ahmed]

  •  Nicolas Seris: This is one of the deliverables of the toolkit that we'll develop in the second phase of this project - this could include checklists, guidance, and other practical solutions for humanitarian organizations to enable participation.

What are the best ways to create a culture of accountability (including safeguarding) among frontline staff in culturally sensitive areas such as the Middle East and North Africa - especially if we want to tackle PSEAH [Yorgo Younes]

  • Nicolas Seris: Accountability and client-centric organizational culture are key enablers to participation and empowering front-line staff to contribute – the learning report has a set of recommendations speaking to organizational culture and leadership that Sharon will present now.

There are difficult issues from the field that challenge humanitarian actors every day: how to balance the security of humanitarian staff with neutrality? How far to negotiate with non-state actors to ensure humanitarian access? [Isatou Sarr]

  • Nicolas Seris: The learning report didn't look at neutrality or negotiation with non-state actors, but access was mentioned as one barrier for front-line staff to enable crisis-affected people.

Some feedback we’ve had from recent ALNAP work with frontline staff is that it's sometimes hard for them to have a voice in organizational decision-making with more senior staff because of a lack of power or respect for their knowledge. This made it difficult to pass on and enable the voices of communities to have an impact on the programming. Is this internal power imbalance something that came up in your work as a barrier to *responding* to community inputs? Did you find useful ways of trying to overcome that challenge? [Jen Doherty ALNAP]

  • Nicolas Seris: Yes, this is something that came up strongly – it starts with recognizing the added value of our front-line staff and their engagement in decision-making. This is something that can be driven by leadership, integrated into business processes and reflected into JDs and performance management.
  • Jen Doherty ALNAP: Thanks for the interest! Here's a summary blog of the findings.

What strategies can be employed to empower frontline staff to provide locally-driven and accountable humanitarian assistance, even in situations where there is limited or no budgetary support? [Last Madzivanyika]

  • Nicolas Seris: Budget is indeed a barrier that came up as a barrier to enabling front-line staff to engage with communities – but some enablers don't require more budgets – e.g. decentralizing decision-making processes

Is there a standard curriculum for staff capacity-building? [Fathi Enneji]

  • Leah Brown: Thanks for your question. The IRC does currently have some materials that you can use for capacity building in terms of setting up and using Feedback Mechanisms. In addition, in the future of the Empower to Enable project, we are going to work on creating a Toolkit to empower frontline staff to increase the participation of affected people.

What strategies can be employed to empower local talent over expatriates in delivering accountable and locally driven humanitarian assistance, considering their superior contextual understanding and expertise as frontline staff? [Joseph Ngugi]

  • Sharon Reader: This links to organizational culture valuing the contextual and experiential knowledge of frontline staff. So building the role of frontline staff into program design and management, creating platforms where the voices of frontline staff are intentionally listened to and valued, and donors asking for frontline staff involvement in proposals and reporting could also help send this message. More suggestions in the learning report too.

For the successful implementation of humanitarian actions, organizations must favor exchanges with the community in order to discover their needs and priorities. However, among the members of the community, there are also people with disabilities, including the deaf, who speak in sign languages and who have specific needs. How can humanitarian organizations ensure that the entire local community, without discrimination based on disability, participates in discussions in order to define their real needs? [Emmanuel]

There is the issue of duty of care/recognition of front-line staff living deep within communities who become less motivated to engage in community engagements when their power to influence the country program decisions is limited. Staff at HQ capital are seen as more senior and important. [Michael Hyden]

  • Sharon Reader: Yes, we heard this from frontline staff – this is why it is so important to hand over as much autonomy and decision-making power to frontline staff and country teams so they can act rapidly and make changes based on crisis-affected people's input

What do you recommend for donors to be able to resource programs better in terms of participation? [Diana Palma]

  • Nicolas Seris: One of the recommendations is "Enable greater flexibility in programs to be able to adapt to changes in the context and the needs of crisis-affected communities. This may involve engaging with donors to negotiate more flexible budgets so they can adapt to changes and needs that emerge post-award."

There might not be research on 'front-line staff,' but there is a lot of research on localization and shifting power to local partners, which would be similar to 'front-line staff' - is the research looking at 'front-line' staff both in terms of local partner staff and INGO staff?

  • Nicolas Seris: We have defined front-line staff as "The humanitarian staff and volunteers who interact directly with clients in the delivery of humanitarian assistance from international and national organizations."

Sharon – in your report, did you also see any discourse regarding a more inclusive involvement of displaced/refugee/asylum-seeking frontline staff who carry extensive skills and experience but are unable to be employed? Often due to the policies of the country they are fleeing to, they are not allowed to work, or they take on informal roles with minimal or no pay. However, they are key to community engagement. [Georgia Venner]

  • Sharon Reader: Yes – the research by ODI in Bangladesh really highlights some of these issues. We did speak to IRC staff in Kenya, who talked about the importance of working with local refugee organizations – so handing over funding and control to these organizations rather than hiring them as staff helped to address some issues. But there are challenges.

Is IRC also looking at the step beyond participation and looking at approaches to community agency and decision-making?

  • Nicolas Seris: Yes, absolutely, empowering front-line staff is one of the pillars of a broader strategy for clients to shape our programming - we are also exploring participatory approaches and collaboration with communities to co-design humanitarian interventions.

What are some practical tools that local partners can use to measure the cost-effectiveness of participatory processes?

  • Sharon Reader: I am not actually aware of practical tools to measure the cost-effectiveness of participation. Is anyone else? IFRC is working on impact research but measuring cost-effectiveness is a challenge – but much needed to build the case for participation and leadership prioritization

I used to work for an organization in the southern part of my country in Southeast Asia, and the findings Sharon mentioned really reminded me of my own experiences during the time I served the organization. So, I was just wondering whether there is any platform or training or anything that trains people in aid, especially those involved in the decision-making process about these topics? [Thanpitcha]

  • Sharon Reader: On training on AAP, many organizations have their own training packages, although often these are not tailored to frontline staff and the activities they are involved in. CDAC (Communicating with Disaster Affected People) also provides training but, again, not specifically tailored to frontline staff. The next step for IRC will be to develop resources to support the implementation of the 3 changes I mentioned – so great to know if a standard training package on accountability and participation targeted at frontline staff would be useful? Perhaps this is something they could take forward in E2E project phase 2.
  • Thanpitcha: There were barriers/limitations for local staff to access more specialized training (some courses available only to foreign staff/ higher rank or you need to work for the org. long enough in order to have access.  However, as a frontliner, we should all work on the same page or at least have a common understanding of the same issues in order to carry out a program in the field. Those foreign staff will be relocated elsewhere one day…

What is your advice for frontline staff when they have to act urgently and decide quickly due to an unexpected incident, but they have no authority. 

  • Nicolas Seris: The report has 2 recommendations related to this:
    1. Create platforms and processes for managers to listen to frontline staff routinely and intentionally
    2. Decentralize decision-making to frontline staff and teams at the country level

How to reduce the conflict of interest of the frontline staff when they receive complaints regarding their program? [Margie Siregar]

  • Sharon Reader: Good question – this links to those soft skills of listening, empathy, and being humble. Positioning feedback mechanisms as a source of ideas for improvement. Also, stronger internal accountability by leadership demonstrating this approach by having internal staff feedback mechanisms where they publicly welcome feedback from staff and act on it.

Could IT technology help and be an enabler for frontline staff in their engagements/participation with communities, bringing data to the program designer to align the program to community needs? [Michael Hyden]

  • Sharon Reader: Yes definitely an enabler and can help smooth the process of using feedback for decisions. However, ideally, frontline staff should be able to be the ones deciding how to act on feedback. And the organization needs to be willing to act on feedback and make changes, of course :)

What are some concrete tools or approaches which can be used to empower and enable frontliners. Are there any best practices that could be shared?

  • Sharon Reader: Tell IRC what you need - they may be able to help develop these tools and resources as the next phase of the E2E project

One of the challenges that we face on daily basis is different responses have been given to complainants for the same issue. What would be your advice? [Ibrahim Ibrahim]

  • Sharon Reader: Develop a feedback question and answer sheet that has standard answers to common questions. Develop this with frontline staff and update regularly. There is a template for this from the Red Cross here

I am not sure if this has been answered, but I needed more clarity. How do you think INGOs can hand over power to crisis-affected people? 

  • Sharon Reader: This is a big question - it requires cultural, structural, and programmatic changes. Some useful resources on this here.



Event recording

Watch recording


Sarah Cechvala Sarah Cechvala Independent Community Engagement and Accountability Consultant
Adnan Gorani Grants and Partnership Manager, Justice Center Iraq
Sharon Reader Sharon Reader Independent AAP Consultant
Zahraa Abdulkhaliq Saleh Monitoring & Evaluation Officer, Baghdad Women Association (BWA)
Assem Saleh MEAL Coordinator, IRC Iraq
Nicolas Seris Nicolas Seris Senior Client Responsiveness Advisor, IRC


Leah Brown Client Responsiveness Project Manager, IRC
Manisha Thomas Manisha Thomas Senior Policy Advisor, PHAP