27 Apr 2021
Why and how to build trust in humanitarian work: Reflections from people of action

The global humanitarian overview reports that in 2021 alone, one in 33 people will need aid to meet basic needs like food, water and sanitation. At Rotary’s centenary Future of Peace Leadership symposium, important questions were asked of the role humanitarians and people of action play in sustaining peace. 

RedR Australia's CEO, Kirsten Sayers, convened a panel with former RedR Australia and Australia Assists experts Natascha Hryckow, Anggie Burchill, and Barnaby Caddy. In the session titled How do Humanitarians Contribute to Sustaining Peace, the panel provided perspectives on engaging with government, communities and other influencers in the delivery of humanitarian action. 

Trust: the essential element

Focussed on the trust dimension of effective humanitarian work, Anggie, Barnaby and Natascha drew on their breadth of humanitarian experience and shared perspectives on why trust is needed in humanitarian work.

For Natascha, currently Coordinator UN Panel of Experts on Somalia and previous RedR Australia board member, understanding the trust deficit and what the gaps are is critical. Natascha shared how "you need understanding to build trust – and trust, to build understanding".

RedR Australia – Australia Assists deployee to UN Women in the Solomon Islands in 2019, Anggie Burchill spoke of the importance of trust to ensure humanitarian responses are fit-for-local communities.

Anggie is well versed in the role of trust, particularly when it comes to disaster risk reduction planning. Across two pacific deployments Anggie shared that effective responses hinge on access and it is difficult to gain and retain access without community trust. From a gender and inclusion standpoint, Anggie spoke of how women are disproportionately affected by disasters and have a different capacity to recover. For Anggie, "we must be careful not to unravel a fragile level of trust and ensure that our support, however well-meaning, does not exacerbate existing divides".

Barnaby Caddy deployed with Australia Assists in July 2020 as an Operations and Logistics Advisor with the office of the Bougainville Electoral Commission. Learning from his experience, Barnaby spoke of how "trust is not automatic," and "there is significant mistrust of many agencies and NGOs that deliver humanitarian aid within communities". Trust, Barnaby said, needs to be earned at both an individual and organisational level.

How to build trust in humanitarian work

As for how to build trust, Kirsten called on each of the panellists to reflect on the linkages between humanitarian work and peacebuilding. 

Barnaby’s expressed how important it is to act as a humanitarian ambassador. Mistakes made by an individual can become mistakes for everything that comes afterwards, shaping perceptions on an organisation or even a country. 

For Natascha, building trust is all about doing your homework. Natascha said that technical expertise alone is not enough when linking humanitarian action and peacebuilding. Rather, time should be spent on asking the right questions and listening to people and communities living and working as humanitarians and leaders.

Responsiveness and adaptation to what the community needs, is a vital ingredient to building trust said Anggie. Without sensitivity to the contexts and capacity of people affected by conflict, trust is hard to build and quickly lost. 

In reflecting on the session and thanking participants and the panel, Kirsten spoke of the need for people of action to be prepared, mindful and responsive to trust dynamics. 

"RedR is a proud supporter of Rotary and its community of talented and committed people of action". 

"By listening, partnering and working together, through organisations such as RedR and Rotary as well as other partners involved in humanitarian action, we can build a safer and more sustainable peace with communities around the world," Kirsten said.