Meet the needs of the population

How can external providers of assistance insure that aid meets the needs of the population?

1. Make time to listen. Given the large number of people affected and the tremendous damage wrought by Typhoon Haiyan many humanitarians don’t think they have the time to listen to those who are in need of immediate assistance. But how can those who mean to do good be sure they are truly meeting the needs of people – unless they take a little bit of time to find out what people really need, how they are already addressing their needs, what their priorities are and what they are most concerned about right now?

People on the receiving end of all types of aid efforts ask that aid providers listen to them more to “show respect for our ideas, resources, and opinions,” and to be sure that the assistance meets local needs and builds on local resources and capacities, however weakened they may be. While those affected by disasters such as Haiyan certainly want more information and better communication, they don’t want to have aid agencies to be more extractive in how they gather information. They want to be part of the decision making process of aid efforts. This goes beyond two-way communication and requires rethinking many of our assumptions and processes to find ways to truly collaborate and support those who are affected by and dealing with the aftermath of this horrible storm.

2. Slow down. Once the aid efforts shift from life-saving to recovery and reconstruction, agencies should slow down and take more time to understand people’s capabilities, priorities, preferences, and ideas.  As a community member in a tsunami-affected village in Sri Lanka said: “Take time to use the local system. Temporary shelters are important and need to be provided fast. Permanent housing needs more time to set up properly. Do it right, and don’t rush.” People do appreciate rapid emergency response and life-saving action in the immediate aftermath of a disaster when lives can still be saved and when people are struggling to get their bearings. But when construction, re-construction and other “recovery projects” begin with a rush – that’s when we have heard calls to “slow down”. People associate haste in planning and implementation with wasteful and often inappropriate programming.

Throughout all stages and types of programs, local people want donors and aid agencies to be open to listening AND discussing with local people:

  1. the local context and realities;
  2. external and internal agendas;
  3. expectations;
  4. assumptions and definitions behind approaches;
  5. process or criteria for selecting what types of assistance will be provided and who should benefit from it;
  6. constraints and limitations;
  7. plans and opportunities;
  8. exit strategies.

3. Be accountable to those affected by the disaster, not just to donors. Local people often question why they do not get to see the proposals and reports aid agencies produce, why many donors do not check whether the reports are true, and why no one seems to check on whether the assistance provided has made a positive difference in recipients’ lives. It is important for aid agencies to have processes and mechanisms to receive and provide feedback to communities and to be accountable for their actions—and particularly for any harm that has been done.  This requires foresight, resources, skills and time—and is critical to improving the effectiveness of humanitarian aid.


Adapted by Jasmine Walovitch, Communications Associate, CDA from CDA’s response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake: Lessons learned from Past Experience for International Agencies in Haiti in light of international response to the typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

This is part three in a three part guidance note series on Effective Disaster Response from Haiti to Haiyan. This particular post includes Key Lessons from the book Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid.