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To repair trust, we have to listen and then act

‘The one commodity that humanitarians have always relied on and perhaps taken for granted.’

A Red Cross volunteer working on water resources in Mozambique. Corrie Butler/IFRC
A Red Cross volunteer working on water resources in Mozambique.

There is a troubling gap between the way humanitarian actors see themselves and the way they are perceived by the people they set out to help. We must close this divide if we are to rise to the challenge of humanitarian action in the 21st century. 

“They never listen, so I don’t trust them.” This stark appraisal of aid workers was given by one young woman caught up in the 2016 Europe migration crisis. 

For humanitarians, such observations should be deeply concerning – but they are worse than that. Feedback like this – and other examples we have collected – speaks to a breakdown of the one commodity humanitarians have always relied on, and perhaps taken for granted: trust. 

Trust is needed to ask personal questions to people when they are at their most vulnerable. Trust to let strangers treat your desperately ill loved ones. Trust to let them protect and educate your children when you, as parents, are trying to reconstitute your lives among the rubble of what used to be your home.

“They never listen, so I don’t trust them.”

When people don’t trust us, then our ability to help them – to do what we are supposed to do – is eroded. And, for people affected by crises, the result can be deadly if it means they forgo lifesaving services.

The good news is that a recent study from Ground Truth Solutions, surveying 7,000 people across seven countries, found that 70 percent of people trust that aid workers will act in their best interest. People seem to believe in our good intentions – i.e. humanitarians are, in theory, good people.

But what the data also shows is that people don’t believe in our ability to be fair, or to actually help them and have an impact. A shocking 75 percent of disaster-affected people say aid does not meet their most pressing needs. And a staggering 57 percent of people said that aid is not provided equitably. Ultimately, our actions speak louder than our words. And this should bring us to question our very existence as humanitarians.

Feedback the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has gathered around the world corroborates what Ground Truth Solutions’ survey found.

One year into the Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the vast majority of people surveyed as part of the Red Cross community feedback system still express mistrust in health systems and the overall response, and they say they are suspicious of vaccines. This shows how the international community is still struggling to adapt its work to ensure more community ownership of the response. 

One of the most effective ways of building trust is to make sure that communities have the ability to engage with us, and then to guarantee that we will act based on what they tell us. Too often, in the rush to support as many people as quickly as we can, we fail to involve people in what we do, or to understand their perceptions and the complexity of their realities.

In contrast, when we do listen and adapt to what people tell us, the impact on our work is significant.

In the Ebola response in DRC, people complained that they couldn’t see the remains of their loved ones in the opaque body bags used for safe and dignified burials performed by Red Cross volunteers. Therefore, many believed that health workers were lying to them about the whereabouts of their family members, or worse that outside organisations were trafficking their organs. The IFRC and partners first heard these concerns through a community feedback system that enabled the operation to listen and rapidly analyse concerns. Based on this, the IFRC was able to shift to transparent body bags, which assuaged community fear, increased trust, and most importantly saved lives.

To build trust, we need to be representative of the communities we serve.

To build trust, we need to be representative of the communities we serve. Our greatest strength as the International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement is that our volunteers often come from the communities they are helping. Our volunteers speak the same language, understand unique cultural norms, and are present before, during, and after a crisis.

To build trust, we have to listen, and we have to act.We need to do better. We need to make sure that people are able to participate in the decisions that affect them. From the World Humanitarian Summit to the Grand Bargain, for years there has been a strong call for better accountability to affected people to improve the quality and effectiveness of humanitarian assistance.

Recent research conducted by CDA Collaborative for IFRC, demonstrated how we should leverage our competitive advantage in ensuring that programmes and operations are always informed by local perspective and knowledge. 

At the global Statutory Meetings of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement currently taking place in Geneva, we will take a step forward by adopting a new and ambitious set of commitments that will place community engagement and accountability at the centre of all that we do.

And this is what we will do: by scaling up community feedback systems in major operations and making them part of our standard operating procedures; by prioritising the use of local knowledge, skills, capacities in our programmes; and by integrating mechanisms to facilitate safe, accessible, and equitable participation of communities.

As we put people’s feedback at the heart of our operations, and hopefully start shifting the power imbalances that continue to exist, not only will we gain the trust of the people we serve, but we will ensure that our work is relevant and impactful. 

We will need time, funding, and space to test and adapt the way we work.

But, as we attempt to move from rhetoric to action, we need to remember the power of individuals. Everyone in our movement, from volunteers to staff, will need to play their part in how we listen and act on what people tell us. Change is also in the hands of senior leadership within the humanitarian sector, including among donor countries. We all need to be willing to push boundaries in order to fundamentally shift the way we work and rebuild a precious humanitarian commodity: trust. 

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