The Importance of Trust in Humanitarian Action

An ICRC delegate while interviewing people in need in Venezuela  An ICRC delegate while interviewing people in need in Venezuela © ICRC

28-03 november 2019 weekly digest, by Federica Pira

 1)    International Committee of the Red Cross

 Trust is fundamental to humanitarian work. Indeed, humanitarian organizations would not succeed, or even exist, without the trust of everyone involved in humanitarian missions. Every year the ICRC visits hundreds of detention centers, provides humanitarian relief across the lines of dozens of armed conflicts and has confidential dialogues with government authorities, armed forces and armed groups.

 Despite these efforts, humanitarian action is currently facing serious challenges in building trust. The reason for this recent dent in humanitarian reliance can be connected to different major problems: firstly, the general perception that humanitarian neutrality and impartiality can too easily be manipulated and fall into enemy hands; secondly, the new wave of skepticism about internationalism or “globalism”, which is leading millions of western citizens to ask whether aid money spent abroad is good value when there is pressing poverty at home; thirdly, the scandals around the sexual and financial behavior of a few humanitarian workers that - inevitably - have sullied the reputation of the wider profession; finally, the preference of aid-receiving societies to “localize” aid and see humanitarian budgets go more directly to local organizations and national authorities.

 Aware of the above, in December 2019, the International Conference of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Geneva will dedicate a whole day to discussing “Trust in Humanitarian Action”. The Conference will explore two main areas where trust is required in humanitarian action: the operational level,  as it is essential that humanitarian personnel is trusted by weapons carriers on all sides, by political authorities at all levels and by people affected by armed conflict; and the accountability dimension, as trust around financial integrity and staff behavior rightly demands certain guarantees that ICRC has the necessary safeguarding and compliance systems in place to protect people and money.


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2)    OXFAM

 “Humanitarian work is also about building trust”, says Iffat Tahmid Fatema, a humanitarian worker from OXFAM in Bangladesh. “You have to be sensitive to local culture and traditions and you need to be a good observer, so you can try to understand how people think”, she says.

 Iffat was pursuing her Master’s Degree in Bio Technology at the Asian University for Women in Chittaong, when she realized she had always wanted to work with real people, face-to-face. Now she teaches health and hygiene to Rohingya refugees living in the camp of Cox’s Bazar, to help them keep well and to prevent outbreaks of disease.

 “In this job, patience is a virtue. When it's extremely hot, or raining heavily, or you’re tired, you might not feel like spending another long day in the camps. But then you think of the refugees and how you are working for them - that motivates you to keep going”. Iffat explains that humanitarian personnel and volunteers can only do what they do as long as they are trusted. When people meet a humanitarian worker, they must be able to trust that this person has humanitarian integrity and so embodies the purely humanitarian objectives based in law, principles and professionalism.

  To work with refugees, you need good communication skills and initiative” she explains. “You have to be able to talk to different groups of people in different ways, from children to older people and Imams […] Sometimes the refugees can be uncomfortable with someone who is not like them, so it helps that I can speak a similar language”.

 However, to be successful, humanitarian organizations and personnel need to keep and protect this trust. In light of the above, OXFAM has launched the “Building trust through accountability” project, an essential instrument designed to electronically capture and manage feedback from communities with whom Oxfam works. As explained by Elrha on its Project Blog, “receiving feedback from communities that organizations like Oxfam work with, is an essential pillar of ensuring that the work is responsive and accountable in humanitarian crises.” 


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 Trust is particularly important in cases of sexual (and/or domestic) violence, where victims usually refrain from telling their stories and crimes are thus drastically under-reported. This happens especially in those conservative communities, where women do not exercise the same rights as men and where stigma and fear of repercussion still play a big role in preventing justice and accountability.

 As reported by CARE, an international NGO that focuses on gender equality and women’s empowerment in humanitarian disasters and developing countries, building trust and understanding people’s needs is fundamental to achieve some positive results. “When you meet people who have had such a terrible experience, there’s a very natural desire to tell them how sorry you are about what they had to go through. But we were reminded by our CARE colleagues before we visited, not to ask people about the past. They are traumatized and it can be very upsetting and dangerous to trigger these terrible memories. So we only talked to people about the present and future, despite the desire to apologize for letting the world do this to them”. 

 CARE provides women and girls’ safe spaces in camps and the local community, where they can come and meet each other, share their problems and share solutions. “We regularly discuss needs and priorities with people, in order to develop solutions together”, they explain.We have outreach teams going door to door to ensure this includes everyone – women, men, younger and older people, those who are disabled. We also have well-developed complaints mechanisms. […] Sometimes it is about gender-based violence, and we will respond to that appropriately depending on the nature of the case”.

 Another important message that CARE wants to circulate is that “humanitarian assistance is free of charge”. This is the first step to get people’s trust. “We inform people that they do not have to provide sex, money or other favors in exchange for land, goods, food or services”. 


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