Section 7: Programming in Emergencies


Human rights-based approach (HRBA) in emergencies

ActionAid’s HRBA approach and the principles that guide long-term social change work also apply in disasters.

There are eight key principles that guide ActionAid’s disaster response:

  1. we put people living in poverty first and address immediate needs as basic rights in emergencies, enabling their active agency as rights activists

  2. we analyse and confront unequal power

  3. we advance women’s rights

  4. we work in partnership

  5. we are accountable and transparent

  6. we monitor, evaluate our impact, critically reflect and learn to improve our work

  7. we ensure links across levels – local, national, regional, international

  8. we build credible alternatives to the traditional top-down model of humanitarian response.

Why does ActionAid take an HRBA approach in emergencies?

  • ActionAid believes that poverty is a violation of human rights: poverty underlies, and is exacerbated by, people’s vulnerability and their inability to cope with shocks and hazards.

  • Disaster-affected people living in poverty have the right to assistance.

  • ActionAid believes that change will only happen and be sustainable if rights holders are aware, conscious and organised to challenge power and hold the state and other duty bearers accountable.

  • ActionAid believes that rights of disaster-affected people living in poverty and exclusion will be achieved if ActionAid, supporters and allies stand in solidarity with rights holders and their institutions.

  • Disasters have a disproportionately negative affect on women. ActionAid puts women’s needs and rights at the centre of our emergencies work and seeks to challenge the power dynamics that underlie and exacerbate women’s vulnerability.

  • ActionAid believes that rich and powerful institutions like the state and the market act to control productive resources and build wealth during/after disasters, and that this dynamic denies people living in poverty and exclusion their rights.

What does HRBA in emergencies mean in practice?

Providing relief in an emergency is not contrary to ActionAid’s HRBA. ActionAid sees immediate needs such as food, water and shelter as the basic rights of disaster-affected people. Addressing these immediate needs is an important component of any disaster response. However it is important that even in the initial service delivery phase, an HRBA approach is followed. This means people living in poverty have a say in what goods and services are provided, and that these are delivered in ways that respect their dignity.

Alongside providing immediate relief, ActionAid must at the same time be working to empower affected people living in poverty and exclusion, particularly women. For example, we should be supporting them to organise and mobilise with others, to have a voice and develop their ability to negotiate with the powerful in order to claim, secure and enjoy their human rights.

This can mean:

  • Ensuring that people have information and analytical ability to claim their rights and entitlements.

  • Undertaking political-economic analysis of discourse, ideas, laws, policies and practices – both existing and emerging – to determine whether women and other excluded people’s rights are ensured.

  • Empowering and strengthening capacity organisation of women and excluded people – and promoting their active agency and actions.

  • Building local community institutions, federating these and fostering alliances with other like-minded groups at local and national levels.

  • Policy-advocacy work in solidarity with others, to influence the policies and practices of national governments, international donors and private companies to ensure the rights of disaster-affected people living in poverty and exclusion are secured and protected in emergency situations.

Humanitarian workers can further disempower people – particularly women – by treating them as helpless victims who lack capacity and are unable to steer their own recovery. Good intentions, without examination of one’s own attitudes, behaviour and ways of working, are not sufficient to overcome the policies and practices of structural discrimination and exclusion, or to bring about fundamental change in the power relations which systematically violate people’s rights.

The ActionAid principles above have been translated into a set of minimum standards. The checklist below will help ‘assess’ if a programme is consistent with ActionAid’s human rights-based approach in emergencies – see Section 1 of this handbook.

Below is an outline of a process of implementing an HRBA approach in practice, which ActionAid has used in various disaster contexts. It is a guide, rather than a standard formula – HRBA is about a mindset and a principle. However, this gives an idea of how programmes can be designed with HRBA in mind. Note the steps do not necessarily have to be implemented in sequence: they can happen in parallel.

Changing basic conditions

  • addressing immediate needs (food, shelter, health etc.)

  • adopting participatory approaches to decision-making

  • building self-confidence through psychosocial support.

Critical self-awareness and collective community action

  • understanding the political context and marginalisation process

  • analysing and prioritising problems and possible solutions

  • mobilising collective actions and resources

  • community-led implementation, monitoring, review and evaluation.

Solidarity and alliance building

  • mobilise and strengthen community-based institutions

  • federate and build alliances.

Advocacy to assert rights

  • negotiate and assert rights.