Unequal power relationships are at the root of the structural causes of poverty. In turn, poverty makes people more vulnerable to disasters – not least because they are often forced to the margins of productive lands and frequently live in areas prone to drought, flooding and other hazards.
People living in poverty usually lack access to, and control over, the resources they need to survive. And they’re often excluded from the important decisions which have an impact on their lives. Women are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence, especially during conflict situations, which may increase their vulnerability further.
We know that during disasters, vulnerable groups – including women, children, the elderly, ethnic minorities and marginalised communities, people with disabilities and people living with HIV/AIDs – are likely to suffer the most. That’s why we take sides with the poorest and most excluded – supporting people to address the structural reasons for their continued poverty and vulnerability.
Our rights-based approach in emergencies recognises that people living in poverty are vulnerable to a constant series of shocks and risks, and that there is a need to retain a minimum quality of life. This minimum quality of life, originally defined by the UN, is;
Freedom from Fear, Freedom from Want and Freedom to take action on one’s own behalf
That’s why we take a holistic approach to disasters, combining emergency response with programmes and policy work to help people increase their resilience to disasters. We work at local, national and international levels, bringing the voices of those affected by disasters to the attention of the people responsible for protecting, promoting and fulfilling their rights. Read more in our emergencies introduction leaflet Saving Lives, Protecting Rights.
In all our work we prioritise the needs and rights of the most vulnerable and the most excluded. Essentially, our approach is about doing things differently, by:
Ensuring community-led responses
Experience shows that communities are best placed to respond quickly when disasters strike and are the experts on what they need to survive and recover.
By listening to people we can make sure that our responses are appropriate and meet the needs they themselves have expressed. For example, by consulting with communities about the items that they felt should be contained in food packages following the Haiti earthquake in January 2010, we were able to ensure that we were providing culturally-appropriate food.
People are at their most vulnerable during emergencies. Promoting their dignity as human beings can help preserve self-esteem and enable people to regain a sense of control over their own lives.
In the aftermath of the 2010 Pakistan floods, we provided female doctors to care for pregnant women, to treat female patients, to respect cultural norms and preserve women’s dignity. 22 year old Anila Bibi gave birth to a baby boy fourteen days after having to leave her flooded home.
“I was very upset to be away from home in my [pregnant] condition. I was scared and uncomfortable with so many people around. But PWS [an ActionAid Pakistan partner] provided me with privacy and a trained nurse, my delivery went fine and now I have a beautiful baby in my hands.”
Committing to long term response
Except in exceptional cases, ActionAid only responds to disasters in areas where we are already working. This means we have established relationships with the communities affected, and links with partner organisations that can respond within hours.
Whilst providing immediate relief is essential, we recognise the importance of supporting people to rebuild their lives through sustainable initiatives which promote lasting change. That’s why we link our emergency response to our longer term development work, helping change the power dynamics that keep people in poverty and at the same time increasing their resilience to future disasters.
In Haiti, we are helping communities recover from the devastation of the earthquake which hit the country in January 2010. By expressing their feelings through singing, dancing, drawing and other activities, people are able to regain a sense of normality and begin rebuilding their lives.
Accountability to disaster-affected communities
At ActionAid, we also hold ourselves to account for our actions, in line with strict international standards.
In October 2011 we became a full member of the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP International), the humanitarian sector's first international self-regulatory body. In April 2012 ActionAid was elected to the HAP Board, furthering our committment to ensuring accountability to the communities we work with during emergencies.
In ActionAid’s view, accountability is about more than programme management compliance - it is a critical process of empowerment that seeks to enable crisis affected communities to hold duty bearers accountable and thus shift power dynamics in their favour.