Empowering frontline staff to enable the participation of crisis-affected people

Reader, S. and Cechvala, S.
Publication language
Date published
01 Apr 2023
Research, reports and studies
Accountability and Participation, Capacity development, Engaging with affected populations, Organisational Learning and Change

Frontline staff indisputably play a critical role in enabling the participation of crisis-affected people in the design and delivery of humanitarian assistance (IRC, 2021; IFRC, 2021; UNICEF, 2020). They are frequently described as the ‘bridge’ between the organization and the communities they serve, helping to build understanding, trust, and safe access (IFRC & CDA, 2020; IRC, 2019; Degett, 2019). However, the extent to which frontline staff can fulfill this role depends on many factors, including their own skills, the time and resources they have access to, and the organizational processes, structures, and culture which support them – as well as external challenges of the context in which they work. This Learning Report offers insight into some of the factors that empower frontline staff to enable the participation of crisis-affected communities, as well as the barriers that limit their potential. Based on these findings, it offers three changes humanitarian organizations can make to better support their frontline staff to enable the participation of crisis-affected people.

Data for this report was gathered through a literature review, key informant interviews, focus group discussions, and remote in-country workshops with IRC staff and their local partners. In total, researchers reviewed 34 documents and spoke with 72 aid practitioners across different levels and organizations.

This research highlights that a clear and decisive first step in facilitating such change starts with how we see, listen to, and empower frontline staff. If we can understand the features of our operations, organizations, and overall system, that thwart their ability to build trust, gather insight, and better assess local needs it will inevitably guide us towards the changes we must make and enable frontline staff to fulfill their potential as arguably one of the most important resources in the humanitarian system. Critically, systematic change requires alterations across all the ways in which we work and at all levels: from the way frontline staff understand and are provided the resources and skills to ensure participation; to ensuring that our organizational processes embed key notions of participation, accountability, and frontline staff voice; and finally to shifting the structures of the humanitarian system from top-down, deterministic approaches, to ones that truly devolve power to local actors and people.