Why humanitarian response needs inclusivity and how to do it

30 April 2022

Living in a disaster-prone region demands a thorough and inclusive humanitarian response and preparedness for everyone, including the elderly and those with disabilities. In 2021 we facilitated participatory research, where people with disabilities, the elderly, representatives of disability and elderly inclusion organisations, local activists and humanitarian action organisations could come together and share their personal challenges, needs and wishes for improved humanitarian response. Here we will take you through what we learnt. 

Our primary objective of the research was to provide a safe space for the voices and perspectives of people with disabilities and the elderly in Mozambique. We encouraged them to become researchers of their own lives and how living in a disaster-prone region affects them. We guided a participatory approach, using tailored and practical tools to uncover needs and to co-create opportunities for inclusive humanitarian action.

All activities were designed to make sure people with disabilities and the elderly felt comfortable and able to share their perspective. We wanted to facilitate a space to co-create solutions to the main challenges they faced in emergency situations.

From the research, we outlined 12 main insights and core needs, 4 design criteria and 7 strategic interventions. The aim of these outcomes is to explain how best to carry out inclusive preparedness. The insights are based on the lived experiences of those in the Sofala province in Mozambique. We recommend combining and adapting these insights to address other regions in Mozambique, or other countries of similar context.

Here we will outline our design criteria, but if you would like to learn more you can find stories, personas, emergency journeys and more detail in the project report. If you would like to learn more about applying a participatory research approach you can read our other blog post here.



Design criteria provides specific guidance on the big questions that are at the heart of the problem and that require a solution. They also give a measuring stick with which to assess solutions when you search for them, or have to invent them.

Across the different types of disabilities, gender and age groups we have identified four criteria that should be considered when designing and evaluating inclusive humanitarian interventions for people with disabilities and the elderly. They are broad enough to be applied in diverse situations and moments of the humanitarian cycle.

Design Criteria 1: Spark and Enable Agency

There is a shared belief that if one is not active and productive, they are a burden. For the elderly, it is painful to think of not being able to work. For people with disabilities, that is a reality they are having to accept as it is hard for most of them to carry out manual work (e.g. cultivating the fields, chopping wood, and even fetching water). They refer to themselves as defected or sick, probably echoing how people refer to them.

On one hand, there is a big wish to be active, to work and be productive, contributing to the family income and performing house tasks. On the other hand, people with disabilities and the elderly don’t see a way of doing it. In most cases, they believe they can’t change their realities and hope to receive aid and support from governmental and nongovernmental agencies.

  • Recognise and address stigma (from the community and the close network of support) as well as self-perception and outlook on the future that people with disabilities and the elderly face. Especially when aiming to propose sustainable solutions which place these populations and their networks at the center of the interventions (e.g. having people with disabilities and the elderly also being part of the implementation of the solution).
  • Be transparent in how decisions are made and include representatives of people with disabilities and the elderly in different administrative levels and in decision making moments. This can support in bringing these populations closer to the networks of support in a more active role.
  • Create opportunities for these populations to contribute to society, access means of production and fulfill roles in their communities. It is important to outline a clear value for them (and their families who will likely be a supporter or barrier for their participation) such as seeds, food, supplies for the house and learning opportunities.

Design Criteria 2: Cater for Personal Communication Needs

Communication is a big barrier to this population. Most information is given and received orally. This is due to several aspects. For instance, cultural aspects which value storytelling and direct conversation. As well as low levels of literacy, especially among women. Additionally, there are the communication barriers that those with specific impairments face (i.e. visual and hearing). Communication for those with a hearing impairment can be particularly challenging since most cannot read or write, cannot understand sign language and could only read lips in their traditional language.

The use of traditional languages (which are mainly in its oral form) is high, especially among women and elderly people. Examples of languages spoken are Ndau, Sena, from the specific regions of Sofala province, but also people coming from other regions would speak a different language such as Xitswa, from the south of the country. In such cases the official Portuguese language was either not understood or used in a very simple manner, not enough to share about feelings and traumas, or to understand information about weather changes and preparation procedures to an emergency.

During the interaction with participants it was key to consider translators, buddy systems, offering different alternatives to express themselves and extra time to make sure everyone had the same understanding and space to share. Using simple images, pictures and storytelling can also support communication.

  • Cater to communication needs. This is important at all stages of the humanitarian process, from ways of receiving information about imminent emergencies, understanding how to prepare properly and how to seek for further information; to receiving information about aid distribution and how the process works. Additionally, from a sustainable inclusion and community resilience point of view, it is important to cater for personal communication needs for instance, to inform about community events, to offer psychosocial support, to include people with disabilities in decision making and representation in the different administrative levels.
  • Keep gender in mind. Special attention on communication should be given to women who tend to suffer the impact of low literacy levels and lack of opportunities to learn and understand Portuguese. As well as people with hearing impairment, especially the ones that can’t read, write or sign and are therefore isolated from society.

Design Criteria 3: Build and Strengthen Community

Family and neighbors are very important as a support network for those with disabilities and the elderly. Not only for immediate care and support in the daily activities, but also as the main source of social interaction and sense of belonging. Most of the participants in the research did not have regular or contact at all with people outside the family and direct neighbor circle. In some cases the religious community and “their activists” also played an important role in their lives.

It was the first time that many of them were with other people in a relatable situation (e.g. groups of elderly people, groups with the same and different types of impairment). People they could share their challenges with and learn different ways of coping. They also reported being surprised and happy to be among people without disabilities and carrying out the same activities.

For the elderly, their grandchildren or young people around them (sons or daughters of other relatives, the neighbors or friends) play a big role in their support.

  • Make use of the local existing structures to reach and engage people with disabilities. Involving the family, neighbors, youth and religious groups in any intervention can strengthen the support network they already have. Creating opportunities for them to meet and exchange with new people (with and without disabilities) can enlarge their networks, world view and sense of belonging.

Design Criteria 4: Locally Based Interventions

Getting around is difficult due to different aspects. Impairment plays a big role and, in most cases, there is a need for a companion to reach any place. At the same time the context also brings extra challenges for mobility, especially in the rural areas. During the research sessions several challenges to reach the venue were reported including lack of inclusive transportation means, the cost of transportation, as well as accidents on the road.

It is important to take this into consideration when developing any solution. The solution needs to be locally based. This is not only important to reach the population and include people with disabilities and the elderly in coming up with solutions, but also to avoid putting them at risk.

  • Strengthen or create local groups. Examples of ways that this principle can be implemented into solutions are: strengthening or creating local groups, thinking about community-based implementation, such as home visits, buddy-systems and neighborhood circles.


The above design criteria serve as a starting point for more inclusive humanitarian response. For the elderly and those with disabilities, preparedness for an emergency is essential. The United Nations defines preparedness as the “knowledge and capacities developed by governments, response and recovery organizations, communities and individuals to effectively anticipate, respond to and recover from the impacts of likely, imminent or current disasters.”

Our preparedness opportunity roadmap combines everything we learnt from the participatory research: 12 main insights, 7 strategic interventions and the above design criteria. This roadmap aims to emphasise the particular challenges and opportunities of the elderly and those with disabilities in the Sofala region.

We hope the above insights can serve as a starting point to anyone who wishes to make humanitarian response more inclusive, and as inspiration to those who wish to carry out their own participatory research to ensure the voices of all those affected by emergency situations are heard.

Next steps will be to prioritise, further develop and test the interventions with humanitarian and inclusion organisations in Sofala province. Please get in touch with our teams  if you would like to join forces and collaborate in the development of a more inclusive preparedness in this or other regions. Were you or are you engaged in similar humanitarian interventions?  We would be curious to know and exchange lessons learned.