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Podcast: “I Think You’re On Mute”: Delivering humanitarian response differently

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The humanitarian sector’s push for localisation has resulted in an increasing presence of local and national staff in international organisations. This has many benefits for the sector, but it can also bring unintended consequences for local organisations. 

Our research shows, it’s not just what the humanitarian system is doing, but also how it conducts its operations that impacts on both short- and long-term outcomes. So what are some of the initiatives that are seeking to shake things up, get better results and change the status quo? 

In this episode of I Think You’re On Mute, your host Beth Eggleston explores how we can deliver humanitarian response differently through respectful recruitment practices and new initiatives that ensure affected communities are at the heart of humanitarian response, with guests Kate Sutton and Nanette Salvador-Antequisa. 

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Podcast host and guests 

Beth Eggleston 

Beth is the Director of the Humanitarian Advisory Group (HAG) and co-founded the organisation in 2012. She has worked in the humanitarian sector specialising in civil-military coordination and humanitarian reform for the last two decades and has field experience in Afghanistan, Liberia, Tonga, Costa Rica, Laos PDR, Timor-Leste, and Vietnam.  

 Kate Sutton 

Kate was a co-founder of Humanitarian Advisory Group and is now an advisor to HAG.  

She has spent more than 20 years in the humanitarian sector working in operational roles in Albania, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Timor Leste and now in Australia.  

 Nanette Salvador-Antequisa 

Nanette is the founder and Executive Director of ECOWEB, a network of NGOs involved in partnership-building and pooling of resources to support peace and development programs in the Philippines. She is also a member of the HAG Advisory Group, and the current chair of Alliance for Empowering Partnership. 

 Podcast research and links 

 Podcast transcript  

Beth Eggleston: Before we begin, I’d like to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians and their ancestors of the unceded lands and waters on which we live, work and depend. We recognise all First Nations Peoples around the world and celebrate their enduring connections to Country, and pay our respects to Elders, past, present, and emerging. 


There has been talk for some time about the international humanitarian system being broken, not fit for purpose, and failing to reach those who are most in need. Indeed, the statistics about who we are not reaching are eye watering, as is frustration around the lack of progress on reform and transformation of the system itself. Our research shows, it’s not just what the humanitarian system is doing, but also how it conducts its operations that impacts on both short- and longer-term outcomes. So what are some of the initiatives that are seeking to shake things up, get better results and change the status quo? How brave can we be and how ready are we for change? In this episode, we explore how we can deliver humanitarian response differently. This is, I Think You’re On Mute, a podcast exploring who’s talking and who’s listening in a humanitarian emergency and how we can improve humanitarian response for the better. I’m your host, Beth Eggleston. 


You will have heard the narrative about how it’s hard to shift power to local organisations because they “lack capacity”. But how does that capacity move around? Some of our latest research addresses this question. When an emergency hits and overwhelms the available resources, help arrives from elsewhere, starting with communities supporting each other, and continuing with the roles of local responders, national organisations and, when necessary, international agencies. As these different organisations interact, mobility between them has become increasingly common. The humanitarian sector’s push for localisation has resulted in an increasing presence of local and national staff in international organisations. This has many benefits for the sector, but can also bring unintended consequences for local organisations. A range of factors contribute to staff movement in the humanitarian sector. This includes positive opportunities for professional growth, as well as the consequences of innate inequalities in the system that continues to treat national and international staff differently. The nature of humanitarian work requires a certain level of staff mobility. However, current poor recruitment practices have the potential to undermine and erode local capacity. Many of us in the sector have heard the frustrations of staff poaching from organisation to organisation. Our research paper, Respectful Recruitment, explores recruitment in humanitarian organisations and proposes that a fresh approach is needed to encourage the sector to adopt respectful recruitment practices. Respectful Recruitment acknowledges ethical and fair processes as a starting point and encourages humanitarians to develop a better understanding of how the sector can more holistically support local organisations facing challenges from the loss of staff. It explores how a combination of collective and context specific solutions can enable the sector to make progress on these issues and better support local systems. This paper was written by Jesse McCommon, who you heard from in an earlier episode, and the fabulous Kate Sutton, who used to be my co-director. I’m so pleased to welcome Kate back to the podcast to chat about this research. She joined us from a café, so you might hear a little bit of background noise. Hello, Kate. Thank you so much for joining us today. How are you? 


Kate Sutton: Hi, Beth. Lovely to be here. I’m well, thanks. 


Beth Eggleston: Kate, many of our listeners will know you as you were a co-director at HAG, but would you be able to just introduce yourself briefly to our listeners? 


Kate Sutton: Yeah, absolutely. So, my name’s Kate Sutton. I was one of the co-founders, along with Beth of Humanitarian Advisory Group about ten years ago, 11 years ago, and now work as an advisor to Humanitarian Advisory Group. Yeah, alongside pursuing other interests as well, so yeah, it’s lovely to be back with the team. 


Beth Eggleston: Thank you, Kate. And I appreciate your time today because as I’ve just mentioned, you’re one of the co-authors of this really interesting report, Respectful Recruitment. So, I wanted to start, Kate, with the fact that you’ve worked in many different humanitarian contexts. Can you paint a bit of a picture for us around how you saw staff movements during that time and some of the impacts of that movement? 


Kate Sutton: Yeah, absolutely. So, as you know, Beth, I spent about ten years working in different country contexts and very often that was in the aftermath of an emergency situation. So, you’d have lots and lots of international organisations, UN organisations arriving in a particular country context. And that was always fascinating because you have all these organisations arriving and needing to recruit staff very, very quickly. So, the situation that you really have is this sort of desire to upscale your operations very, very fast. You need to get staff into your organisation fast, who can speak local language, who can engage with communities, who can help you run your programs, and so really, a lot of the first three to six months of setting up an operation in a new humanitarian context is about recruitment. I think the interesting aspect of that that we sort of began to recognise a number of years ago but are still really struggling to manage is the impact that has on the system. And I think the impact is really at three levels. So there is obviously, you know, positive and negative impact. So, there’s impact on the individual, there’s impact on the organisations, and there’s impact on the ecosystem itself. So, maybe just to touch briefly on those three: the individual level, it can be great, right? Like somebody gets a new job, they get new opportunities, they might get trained in areas that they previously haven’t been trained in, so it can be a really positive step for individuals being recruited into international organisations or large organisations. The downside, the impacts of that is very often they’re on shorter contracts, so they are no longer in permanent roles. They might be on a rolling three-month contract, six-month contract, so they don’t necessarily have that long term sustainability of role. At the level of the organisation, again, for the international organisations – great, they get a really good pool of staff. For the national organisations, and we can talk a little bit more about this as we go along, but, you know, it can have a really damaging impact. They have worked and trained other a staff base for maybe, you know, decades and suddenly their all staff leave, and they’re left in an emergency situation, trying to respond to emergency situation, trying to keep connections with communities, and all of their staff have left and they’re on this kind of continual recruitment, training drive, which can be very draining resource-wise. And just briefly, I think at the level of the ecosystem, and this I think is really important, you know, the impact can be that you end up with a really decimated civil society. So, the international organisations come in, recruit a lot of national staff into their international organisations, but those civil society organisations, women’s organisations that have been there for years and years and have those established relationships with communities, they have lost all of their staff and all of that operating base, and the civil society sort of begins to crumble as a result. And we kind of have to ask questions about what is the ecosystem that we are leaving behind in the wake of these humanitarian operations?     


Beth Eggleston: Thanks so much for painting that picture, Kate. I also was keen to understand from you, what were some of the challenges in researching this area of staff movement and respectful recruitment because it can be quite sensitive. How did you handle that? 


Kate Sutton: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think, you know, one of the challenges is that, you know, we all have a kind of ideas around how things should be solved or what’s going to work. And I think one of the challenges for this particular piece of research was this understanding that context was everything. Like what was going to be suggested in work in one context is not what was going to work in another context. So, we’d go in with these really strong ideas in some sense as around like, my goodness, wouldn’t it be amazing? I mean, know, my particular thing, as you know, is around paying compensation. So, if you recruit a staff member from an organisation, you pay compensation. And it was fascinating because in some context we would interview people and say, absolutely not, that would be undermining opportunities for national staff, and it would stop them being able to be recruited into positions, you know. And there were other contexts where they thought that could be a great idea. And so was this sort of process I think through the research and learning that it really has to be a context-driven set of solutions to be able to work out how to manage respectful recruitment in each context. 


Beth Eggleston: Yeah, Yes. So right context is everything. And finally, Kate, I guess I’m keen to understand from you what are the key changes that you would like to see international humanitarian organisations make to the way that they manage human resources? 


Kate Sutton: So, I think there are a number of different steps that can be taken, but I think they all need to happen locally, in context. And it all really starts with a conversation between all the actors that are going to engage in humanitarian response. So, you know, the recruitment frenzy doesn’t come out of nowhere. We generally know when the humanitarian response is kicking up that that’s going to happen. And so I think it’s important that all the actors are sitting around the table and discussing what respectful recruitment looks like in that context. Now, that can take a number of forms. It can be contract clauses which state that international organisations won’t poach staff from national organisations and engage in unethical treatment. It can include things like agreements on notice periods, so that two- or three-months’ notice will be given. And it can also include those ideas we were talking about earlier in terms of compensation, if you recruit a staff member. So, I think there’s a lot of different steps, but I think it’s about everyone getting around the table, agreeing on those steps and agreeing how they will hold each other accountable under those steps. And I think as a sort of overarching piece, maybe, Beth, is this sort of idea that the international community needs to have a little bit more long-term thinking. So rather than just worrying about, you know, how you get through the next three, six months with your programs and your operations, it’s about actually making a bit of a strategic plan about what sort of civil society you want to leave in that country context when you end up exiting the country in two or three years time and ensuring that your recruitment processes are building the capacity of national civil society, not undermining it. 


Beth Eggleston: Thank you so much. I think these are just fabulous, very practical steps agencies can take and ensure these are embedded in all of their policies and processes. And let’s hope this is something that agencies will really pick up and run with. So, thank you so much. 


Kate Sutton: Thanks so much, Beth. Lovely to join you. 


Beth Eggleston: We need to improve the way we operate as humanitarian organisations, but how does that impact on the way in which we deliver? Through our research, a reflection from a local actor in the Ukraine demonstrates why; they had seen several smaller organisations simply disappear because of the lack of personnel. Respectful recruitment is essential to walk the talk in relation to locally-led humanitarian response. We need to support local capacity and leadership to shift the power to local organisations who are there long after international organisations leave. 


(audio bite) This new ERC initiative, Enhancing Resilient Communities, is all about what is happening at the Barangay level. Is making sure that the captains of Barangay, they are part of the process in the planning, that humanitarian assistant takes into account all of these huge decentralisation of the Mandana-Garcia’s ruling and we expect to transform the Philippine case in something that you know in some way it will be the contribution of this country to the whole of the humanitarian community. 


Beth Eggleston: That was the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in the Philippines, Gustavo Gonzalez. He speaks into a new flagship initiative to drive necessary and transformative change, developing a regional country or area based coordination and response solutions. The initiative aims to respond differently with a focus that is centred around accountability to impacted communities, driven by local people’s needs and protection risks, and representative of the capacities of affected populations. The Flagship Initiative has recently kicked off in the Philippines as well as in Colombia, Niger and South Sudan. The goal is to develop innovative approaches that can be adapted and expanded in other countries and contexts. It’s said to be bold and revolutionary because it puts the power in the hands of crisis affected communities to shape their own relief efforts. It moves away from traditional humanitarian and coordination models and procedures. A post cluster world – what a revelation! As the Philippines is one of the pilot countries for the ERC Flagship Initiative, I’m thrilled to chat with Nanette Salvador-Antequisa, who is the founder of ECOWEB, a network of NGOs involved in partnership-building and pooling of resources to support peace and development programs. Hi Nanette, could you please introduce yourself a little bit for our listeners? 


Nanette Salvador-Antequisa: Thank you both for having me here. And yes, thank you also for this opportunity. I’m Nanette and the Executive Director of ECOWEB, and also a member of the HAG Advisory Group, and also the current chair of Alliance for Empowering Partnership and also some other networks here in the Philippines. 


Beth Eggleston: Thanks Nanette. We’re so pleased you’re able to join us because we’re really interested in this ERC Flagship Initiative, and to see if it really is the bold and revolutionary idea that’s going to bring radical change that many in the humanitarian sector have been calling for. So, my first question today for you is really so we can learn about how members of ECOWEB who’ve been working closely with have been involved in the Flagship Initiative and how it aims to support local leadership in humanitarian response? 


Nanette Salvador-Antequisa: Yeah for ECOWEB, we have been part in this ERC flagship initiative since its inception in the Philippines. We’re just happy that the Philippines is part of the four countries for this pilot. And so we are really hopeful that this can bring transformative change in the aid system that we have been advocating for so long, with local actors in the Philippines and also around the globe currently. From inception, our theme also on the ground is the board meeting and also engaging the ERC team like we started the scoping. And yes, we really like hope that this ERC initiative would really cover and capture the learning as well of the local actors as well as some of the communities in the humanitarian crises. The ERC is now promoting this concept called LDE: Listen, Discover and Enhance, which actually for us is kind of a concept that also resonates to the advocacy that we are doing and for the past years the survivor and community led response to crisis approach. And that first is we really need to listen more to the communities, discover that actually recognise that communities already have and local actors have the capacity and existing capacity, and that usually it’s overlooked in major crises by international agencies, and enhance the concept, that yes, we are also promoting in the in a concept of this process that we are promoting that this vibrant community led response and that we hope that the international actors would really like partner equitably and recognise that there are already similar capacities and that we just need to enhance those. Yes, so yeah, promising concept that the ERC is bringing that the present and we are actively engaging and we really hope that more local voices can be captured in this initiative. We hope that it can really initiate change and then it may frustrate local actors for what I have observed in the current implementation. Yet still a majority of those that have engaged our international actors, many of them also have nationalised or registered a national organisation. So that’s really like, yeah, this is a real challenge that we’re also facing, but we really hope that this international NGOs registering themselves as national organisation and are actually actively really engaging this initiative. We hope that still there would be like equitable and real meaningful partnership with the local actors and that the change that they hope to bring through will plan, for example, would really like provide more opportunities to the real actors on the ground and empower communities really to lead their own action. This is an ongoing discussion, and we agreed that they will feature more locally led action on the ground and to capture this experience, and that’s how we hope that we can really influence the concept of the process. 


Beth Eggleston: Fantastic. That’s so interesting and what you’ve been saying Nanette, it really resonates, that piece around learning from communities and putting them at the centre of humanitarian action. And I suppose my second question is really around the Philippines specifically, and I’d love to hear from you, what do you think of some of the characteristics about humanitarian response in the Philippines and your own experience of disasters? What kind of structural challenges will the initiative need to deliver on in order to overcome some of the challenges that you’ve outlined? 


Nanette Salvador-Antequisa: Yeah, you know, first in the Philippines, of course we are number one in the world risk index. Nonetheless, it shows actually how challenging for the Philippines every year in and year out, we are actually facing this assessment both natural and human-induced, we have major disasters that we have to face. Until now we are still responding to Typhoon Rai, super Typhoon Rai has this impact, and after many months of the Typhoon Rai, communities again have experienced localised disasters like Duke of Shirlei? because of being localised, there is not much attention and assistance. And many communities also have to face the protracted crises and we have this this conflict. And then there is the is actually this cluster based, in fact, communities that have to face multiple crises. So, this is really like a condition in our communities that actually that we see humanitarian if we would like to make our actions more, more and more impactful, then we really have to do nexus approach, not just like humanitarian, and because in the community we knew we wanted a community, it’s always like not only humanitarian and emergency response, but communities really like also to initiate resilience actions in the recovery and peace action in conflict affected areas. So yeah, that’s the nexus action of humanitarian development, peace in many of our communities. But of course, the system that also systemic most of the agencies are actually still lacking that concept of nexus that’s a very like a compartmentalised. So, we hope this would really like that promote the needs of the community and the people at the centre, making their needs, making the capacities also being recognised by the humanitarian actors. But of course, another aspect also that we have to the face is the policies, not the existing policies of the government. For us, the civil society organisations, we believe it’s the government that is the main duty bearer and thus in the action that we are doing, we should be engaging, not the government system, etc. But yeah, there is a lot of need for, for improvement of our policy, especially it is operationalised that’s really see the important role of the civil society in influencing the government system also to make it really like more effective and efficient. So, like for example, for us at ECOWEB, we go really in not only in implementing actions on the ground, supporting locally led, community led action, but we also enable communities and people affected to engage the government, empower them, and also for us to engage the government to influence policies. And that’s actually the need for really strengthening and sustaining the role of the local civil society, which has been weakened actually by this in the past by this international system, that actually not complementing that actually this localisation campaign and agenda all actors. So yeah, for us this way we are say if we really would like to become more effective, we have to see actually these structural blockages as well and that could be addressed more effectively if we strengthen local organisations. And we really hope that this ERC, which actually bring in this concept also of bringing different stakeholders together to effectively address the needs and impact of crisis in the community and making the people at the centre. And so there is this concept of the CSOs, the NGOs and the private sector, the international at the national and the local government to come together. And as but of course, like this is really a challenge because yeah, we are still piloting but we’re also already doing something that we are even partnering with the local government units already to pilot ourselves to see how locally led action could be done together, community level action to be done together. So, we have done that and demonstrate that and hope that they can actually capture those stories not only from ECOWEB, but many of the local organisations that are already doing something on the ground. But yes, so much challenges with all this crisis that we have to face and that we have we have to also inform results. There is this like protracted crisis in the Philippines and that sometimes many of them have become forgotten crises in the soul and now we have to prepare again for another new place, so that’s the condition in the Philippines. But yes, in all that the multifaceted and force locally led action, that’s what we really hope that the ERC can bring in this in the current initiative. I think another challenge that we are facing here, Beth, is this a funding availability for the ERC or we are told that yeah, that the funding that we are hoping to really support this initiative, it’s not yet there and that there is just hope that more donors will support for the implementation of the plan for this ERC on the ground. We need multi-year funding and flexible funding that is accessible to local actors to initiate a real community led and locally led action that would really address the real needs of the communities as identified by them and also enable people in communities to lead the process on the ground, for them to be part of the decision-making process. And it will not happen if the funding modality that will be provided is the same as usual that had been there in the humanitarian sector. 


Beth Eggleston: Yes, I think what you’ve been saying about the nexus and that, that piece around how we see systemic change, it’s just so important. So I’d also like to bring it to the personal a little bit, Nanette, I mean, you’ve experienced many disasters yourself in the Philippines, what are your personal hopes for this Flagship Initiative and what you’d like to see achieved? 


Nanette Salvador-Antequisa: You have been in this work for 30 years, so yes, I’ve been humanitarian and development and personally, yeah, when I hear this pilot initiative, I really got excited. Although I heard I heard a lot of the cynicism in the sector because we know that even though, like some are sceptic in that if there is really this hope that the UN system can change because it’s a huge system. Yeah, but of course, we know and we see the important role that the UN can actually bring in and that to change the humanitarian system. And also, of course, like in the Philippines, that we have that HCD and now actually we really see this is dominated by international actors, and so, with this new concept, we really hope that it can change. In fact, for example, the Philippine INGO Network before, they changed their name now, they now become like the Philippine Inclusive NGO network. So, this is the kind of changes that is happening at the moment. And then now we are actually, one of our major partner before international NGO that we really had given feedback to, that it’s not really equitable partnership that we are hoping or that community led approach that we are hoping through that engagement. So, with what’s not happening now, they are saying that they are now into this a strategic programmatic partnership model, that they would like to develop with us because we have committed already in the international grant bargain process, and they are also active in the ERC initiative. So yes, there is some glimpse of hope in changes in the system, but of course it really takes leadership in the OCHA, in the UN resident coordinator, and I’ve seen actually like a lot of promising statement. I participated, I was actually like invited to also like provide my like inputs in a panel discussion at the global level about the ERC. I tell them being there as a local actor and being heard by the global OCHA and the global UN agencies about my experience and insights, it’s a big deal for us, because it means also that they are really like open to listen for perspective and our hopes and we really hope that all those recommendations that we made. We actually like stress in 2021, we initiated this localisation dialog process together with OCHA in the Philippines, it was a long process and as I said, so many recommendations were already made by the communities affected crises by the local and national CSOs and NGOs in the in the sector. And we really hope that those specific recommendations will be taken into consideration by the ERC and on the process of its implementation seriously, and I think there is this specific action that they are doing right now. Also, like OCHA is really leading the process of making other UN agencies understand this new concept of ERC Flagship. But we know that this transformative change process that they are aiming, can only happen if all stakeholders will really do their piece in their role. And now, we have started already it will bring some transformative change in the aid system in the that yes, we are saying that the system that would really make the people at the centre of aid. But also ensuring that the role of the organic civil society organisations, local national organisations, should be strengthened in the process and not actually like weakened by the international agencies that also like, yeah, we know would like to sustain themselves. That’s why they nationalise because of this localisation agenda that are being responded to now positively by a number of donors. And yeah, so that’s it – a lot of hopes, Beth. But I really see the important role of all stakeholders to make it happen. And of course, the strong national and local civil society organisations because it is still very minimal the voice of locals in the ERC discussion. 


Beth Eggleston: Thank you so much, Nanette. We’re so looking forward to following the journey of the ERC Flagship Initiative in the Philippines and learning more from you over the next year or so about what actually gets implemented and how change is going to come about. So, thank you so much for your time today, it’s been such a pleasure to hear from you and to learn all that’s happening in this area in the Philippines. So thank you so much. 


Nanette Salvador-Antequisa: You’re welcome, Beth. And thank you very much as well. 


Beth Eggleston: With these initiatives, Australia’s new international development policy and the soon to be released Humanitarian Strategy, there’s much work happening to deliver differently and enhance the system that aims to alleviate suffering and save lives. Through respectful recruitment practices, the sector can better support local organisations to lead on the local humanitarian agenda and ensure affected communities are at the heart of humanitarian response. 


Beth Eggleston: This is the last episode for this season, thank you so much for joining me. Stay tuned for season three, though – there’ll be new insights with new voices. I’m Beth Eggleston and this is I Think You’re On Mute.  


This podcast is supported by the Australian Government through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The views expressed are the presenters’ alone and are not necessarily the views of the Australian Government. 


This podcast was produced and recorded by Room3, a production company that works with not for profits and social enterprises and supported by Green Letter Communications.