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iACT’S Community-led Approach to Humanitarian Action

Editorial Note: This blog is the first in a series delving into iACT’s community-led approach and exploring the how, why, and broader impact of shifting power in humanitarian action.


a group of four men and one woman sitting under trees having a discussion.
Sitting in community and listening to our friends and team members in eastern Chad in 2014. (Photo: iACT)

In 2013, four years after officially registering as a non-governmental organization, iACT created its two key programs in partnership with the Darfuri refugee community in eastern Chad: Refugees United Soccer Academy in refugee camp Djabal and Little Ripples early childhood education program in refugee camp Goz Amer. These programs were a result of years of building relationships and hearing from the community that what they desired most was programming for their children. Refugees United Soccer Academy and Little Ripples, led by members of the community, continue to operate more than 10 years later. 

Two men standing arm in arm under an open air garage.
iACT founder Gabriel Stauring and Al Fateh "Oumda" Younous Haroun, who has been a refugee for 20 years, and serves as a board member and program coordinator at iACT.

Believe it or not, in our founding, iACT did not set out to be a humanitarian organization, nor did we set out to focus on early childhood education or sports. We began as an advocacy organization focused on amplifying the experiences, voices, and desires of Darfuri refugees. What we heard consistently as we listened and built relationships was the desire for programming and opportunity. And so, a new mission emerged.


We never saw ourselves as experts in this process. Rather, we knew the experts were the Darfuri people themselves, so we were there to be a partner and a resource. Our days in the refugee camps were spent visiting families, sitting in homes, listening to leaders and caregivers, and playing soccer with youth. We returned, always, year after year. 


The process by which we designed and implemented these two key programs in lockstep with the community became a roadmap for our organization as to how to support community-led programs within a humanitarian context. 


“The important thing is that whenever you want to help the community…you can listen to the people that you want to help…not only that, but listening is empowering the refugees themselves to become good community leaders, for they study and get to know the fundamental needs of the refugees. Real change comes through approaching and listening to the beneficiaries. Humanitarian organizations, to do better, they have to implement the methods of iACT to provide services that have fruitful results.” Al Fateh “Oumda” Younous Haroun, Board Member, Program Coordinator in Chad

Four women sit in a circle in deep discussion
Little Ripples teachers in eastern Chad discussing an aspect of their teacher training. (Photo: iACT)

WHAT IS iACT’S COMMUNITY-LED APPROACH? 

A community-led approach for iACT is a process whereby members of the affected community conceive of, design, implement, evaluate, and scale programs and initiatives in their community. It is an approach built on trust and mutuality. It recognizes the entrenched power imbalances within the global humanitarian system. It’s an approach that makes intentional changes in our individual and interpersonal behaviors and organizational processes to shift power and ownership to the people directly affected by war and conflict. 


Our process begins with listening and building relationships. 

We do not arrive at a new crisis or community believing we have the answers. We go, we listen, and if in the end some form of soccer or early childhood education program makes sense for the expressed needs and aspirations, we begin to brainstorm together with the affected community what that might look like and how we can create it together.


We prioritize relationships first, above all else, and find joy in the act of working together. 

We see each person in their full humanity, and our relationships are as important to us as the end goal of creating a program. This focus on people and relationships first is what we believe leads to sustainable programs and solutions.


We offer resources and the space and time to design and implement programs.

iACT creates the time, space, and opportunity for members of the community to come together in an intentional collaborative process. Through participatory and experience-based training, knowledge and skills are mutually shared and gained by iACT and members of the community. We offer evidenced-based curriculum frameworks, health and wellness tools, and leadership resources. Members of the community offer material goods, spaces, culture and traditions, knowledge, ideas, action plans, and networks. Through this mutual sharing, a program is created. 


Once program creation is complete, programs are implemented, with members of the community responsible for the day-to-day management and accountable to the children and families in their community. 


Over time, if desired, community members expand programs within their area and/or to others in the region. iACT continues to provide ongoing resources as needed, including funding and technical training.


Practical and essential elements of our community-led humanitarian action

  • Mutual Trust and Respect: Humanitarian action begins with building mutual trust and with an understanding that a community can lead when its ideas, abilities, and humanity are respected and resourced.


  • Listening and Hearing: We believe in coming to the table with an attitude of learning and care; and taking the time to quiet our voices and truly listen with an open mind to others and without an agenda. 


  • Knowledge Sharing: An equitable partnership will foster continual and consistent sharing of knowledge between parties, which will in turn strengthen and improve programs and processes. 


  • Shared Vision: It is important to create a shared understanding of the program, processes, and intended outcomes and impact, right from the beginning, while at the same time keeping in mind that these can change and shift over time. 


  • Time and adaptability: Working in true partnership with communities means that our Western-centric donor timelines must be challenged. We recognize that it takes time to listen, time to build relationships, time to formulate trust and a shared vision, and time to implement programs at the community’s desired pace. We also know that so much can change and shift at any time in any given context.



A large group of women and men walking together down a dirt path and smiling and waving
iACT team members in Chad coming together for a Little Ripples symposium. (Photo: iACT)

OUR HOPE FOR A COMMUNITY-LED APPROACH

Our hope is that in introducing our community-led approach, and in highlighting what we have learned and what we are working towards, we might inspire others to make a shift toward resourcing refugee and community-led humanitarian action.


There is a responsibility for us, as international actors, to quiet our voice, slow down, and truly listen and get to know people. This is the humanitarian action we need to prioritize. - Sara-Christine Dallain, Executive Director 

The reality is that supporting refugee- and community-led programming is a journey and a process: one we ourselves are still in. Each of our programs is in a different stage of becoming fully community-led, the definition of which is determined by each community.


Our aim is to be able to demonstrate an evidenced-based process of directly resourcing refugee and conflict-affected people to design, lead, and scale humanitarian programs in their communities. The ultimate goal is for the humanitarian system to reduce the need for large international organizations and staff, and to shift actors from being top-down aid providers to being equitable partners with affected communities.

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