MCC, local partnerships and humanitarian standards

[Individual articles from the Winter 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

During the first MCC response in southern Russia (present-day Ukraine) in the early 1920s, MCC worked with local Mennonite institutions and committees to deliver urgent humanitarian assistance to respond to famine. While the humanitarian landscape has changed dramatically since MCC’s inception, MCC has continued to increase partnerships with local organizations, including local churches, faith-based organizations and other civil society organizations to provide humanitarian assistance to people impacted by conflict and disaster. In the last few decades, humanitarian principles and standards have significantly evolved to ensure more accountability to and ensure the rights of disaster-affected communities. MCC’s strength in responding to humanitarian crises is its wide network of local partners. MCC provides support based on requests from local organizations who are well connected to their local contexts and have access to affected communities. Because these organizations have longstanding relationships in their communities, they can respond quickly to emergency needs and offer assistance that is appropriate and responsive to ongoing needs and is sensitive to contextual challenges.

In June 1957, flour and cornmeal were distributed to storm victims in South Korea. In this photo, MCC service worker Joseph Smucker, of Goshen, Indiana helps to lift a tub of flour (weighing about 50 lbs) onto the head of a woman who is also carrying a baby on her back. Each recipient was allotted 5 lbs of flour per family member. (MCC photo)

MCC’s reliance on local partnerships also presents challenges, including in the ability to scale-up, and can cause tensions with humanitarian principles and standards. This article provides an overall summary of key humanitarian standards and the more recent emphasis on the localization of humanitarian assistance. It highlights examples of MCC’s response to various emergencies and how local partners enhance the quality and accountability of humanitarian assistance, while also noting areas of tension and growth.

Accountability to the people and communities affected by disasters stands at the centre of the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) adopted by international non-governmental organizations in 2015. Humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence form the key principles that govern humanitarian action. The CHS builds off earlier humanitarian conventions, codes of conduct, principles and standards developed by the International Federation of Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the Sphere project and other humanitarian coalitions and standards organizations. The CHS outlines nine commitments which can be grouped into three overall categories: 1) timely access to quality humanitarian assistance which builds local capacities; 2) participation of, communication with and accountability to affected communities; and 3) a commitment to learning and building the capacity and effectiveness of humanitarian actors. The examples and discussion below show how MCC’s approach of partnering with local organizations interfaces with these standards.

At times, partner requests can be at odds with minimum standards and humanitarian principles. Local organizations are often faced with political and social pressures to respond to as many communities and people as possible, pressures which, if acted on, can dilute the quality of assistance.

At the World Humanitarian Summit in 2017, governments, international aid organizations and United Nations agencies committed to reshape the humanitarian sector, articulated in what has come to be called the Grand Bargain Commitments. One of these commitments is to increase support and funding for local and national organizations in humanitarian action, often referred to as the “localization agenda.” The UN Secretary General called for humanitarian assistance to be “as local as possible and as international as necessary”—this includes a call for private and government resources to support local agencies, rather than relying on large international humanitarian agencies, and to commit multi-year funding to enable better response capacity. These commitments are based on the recognition that local civil society actors are often the first to respond to humanitarian crises and are an ongoing presence in their communities before and after these crises.

The first group of humanitarian standards refers to the importance of providing timely, quality and appropriate assistance, including assistance that builds local capacity and avoids harm. The strength of MCC’s relief response stems from its wide network of over 500 local partners. Local organizations are more connected and responsive to the needs of people affected in the communities they serve. Due to MCC’s existing partnerships in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, MCC has been able over the past decade to facilitate its largest response to a humanitarian crisis since World War II. Following the Nepal earthquake in 2015, existing community development partners were able to quickly identify affected communities in remote areas and to identify and address the most urgent needs, despite huge communication and logistical challenges. During the Israeli military’s bombardment of Gaza in 2014, MCC was among the first international organizations to respond to the immediate food and shelter needs of affected people. In countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya and Zimbabwe, MCC’s ongoing agriculture and food security work with vulnerable communities has paved the way for MCC to also respond during food security crises. MCC’s existing community development and peacebuilding partnerships allow it to quickly respond to humanitarian crises because of the pre-existing program these partner organizations have with vulnerable groups.

On July 17, 2014, a truckload of food packages were distributed by MCC partner Zakho Small Villages Project at an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp in northern Iraq–most of the IDPs fled the city of Mosul after its takeover by Islamic State group (also known as ISIS). More than 230 heads of household received the packages which contained basic cooking staples such as rice, lentils, oil and other ingredients, as well as some basic hygiene items. Names not used for security reasons. (MCC photo/Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

At the same time, MCC has faced challenges in some large-scale disaster responses because MCC either did not have existing local partners, as when it responded to the Japan earthquake in 2011 and to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013. Following the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2014, MCC worked to form new partnerships in Banda Aceh, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. MCC also built on local partnerships in India with other Canadian NGOs to form a multi-church agency response in southern India.

In the case of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, MCC had a broad network of local partners and significant resources to program. Over the course of MCC’s seven-year response, MCC undertook food security, shelter, water and sanitation and trauma healing responses through partnerships with Haitian organizations. MCC’s wide network of existing and new partners allowed MCC to mount an immediate, significant and multi-sectoral relief and recovery response. However, the final evaluation noted that MCC should have engaged with fewer partners and focused on fewer sectors. In a large-scale disaster response in which MCC raises significant resources and has a wide network of partners with urgent requests, it can be challenging to keep MCC’s overall response focused.

The capacity to provide timely and appropriate assistance depends on whether local partners have active programming and strong relationships in affected areas. When local partners have robust and active relationships with affected communities, they are also more likely to deliver quality and appropriate assistance. Food assistance is one of the most common requests that MCC receives from local partners. Local partners recommend culturally appropriate and quality food assistance. MCC’s local partners can help discern the proper modality of the humanitarian response (i.e., cash, vouchers or in-kind food baskets). When food baskets are identified as the best approach, local partners are well-positioned to determine the make-up of the food ration. Decisions about the mode and type of food items are then reviewed by MCC to ensure that they meet Sphere minimum standards, including standards that aim to ensure that households receive the required ration for dignity and survival. MCC and its partners together assess what shape humanitarian assistance initiatives should take, with partners bringing local knowledge about what communities name as the top priorities and about what they understand as appropriate, and with MCC assessing such requests through the lens of global humanitarian standards.

At times, partner requests can be at odds with minimum standards and humanitarian principles. Local organizations are often faced with political and social pressures to respond to as many communities and people as possible, pressures which, if acted on, can dilute the quality of assistance. MCC often pushes local organizations to focus their responses to meet minimum humanitarian standards for fewer communities and households, rather than diluting the response across too many recipients. When faced with overwhelming needs, MCC and its partners must maintain the overall principle of humanity, focusing on meeting the needs of the most affected communities to the necessary standard.

In this 2009 photo, Slavica Koncarevic (left), staff of MCC partner Bread of Life Belgrade (BOLB), distributes MCC canned turkey and blankets to members of the Roma community, a minority ethnic group that faces discrimination in education and employment. (MCC photo/Tim Friesen)

The second group of CHS principles relates to participation, communication and accountability. Affected people must help shape humanitarian responses, provide feedback and lodge complaints while those responses are underway and contribute to the evaluation of humanitarian responses. MCC has worked with various churches, faith-based organizations and other groups to set up or strengthen local disaster committees. These local committees will typically include local church leadership along with required skills, knowledge and representation from the affected community. In the case of MCC’s recent response to the crisis in the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, MCC worked with three Congolese Anabaptist church denominations to set-up local relief committees to develop and oversee the response, a multifaceted response targeting internally displaced Congolese that included food assistance, education support, livelihood recovery, trauma healing and peacebuilding components. The local relief committee offered input into the shape of the response, channeling feedback from youth leaders, the women’s commission of the church, church leadership and local government officials.

In addition to coordinating and delivering humanitarian assistance, relief committees provide invaluable counsel in identifying the priority needs the humanitarian assistance will aim to address and in selecting (or “targeting”) the priority households for receiving assistance. In the case of the Kasai response, the local relief committees, with strong accompaniment from MCC, helped in selecting the geographic areas in which they would respond as well as the priority households to receive assistance. Building on the humanitarian principles of humanity and impartiality, the committees selected households based on need, focusing on the most vulnerable, including households with pregnant or nursing mothers, unaccompanied children, people living with disabilities and the elderly. Diverse representation on relief committees, and particularly the involvement of displaced people themselves, strengthens accountability and the targeting of the response. This relief committee model helps protect church leadership who may be accused of discrimination based on church membership or affiliation or other characteristics (e.g., ethnicity or political affiliation). MCC has also worked hard to ensure there is better gender representation on these committees and worked toward integrating gender analysis into its humanitarian response.

In addition to overseeing the targeting of the response, local organizations also solicit feedback and manage complaints from communities receiving humanitarian assistance. Their presence in the community means that they can receive feedback and complaints more directly and are more accessible than staff from other outside agencies. A growing priority for MCC is to help local organizations set up formal feedback and complaint mechanisms in order to increase accountability to and participation of the affected community, as well as to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse, fraud and corruption. MCC continues to build its capacity to better work alongside local partners to ensure the participation of affected people throughout the assessment, design, monitoring and evaluation process, as part of a broader commitment that MCC’s humanitarian responses be adaptive and appropriate.

MCC humanitarian work over the past decades has increasingly relied on local partnerships, with MCC now almost exclusively working with local partners in disaster response.

Coordination and collaboration are also central to this second group of CHS principles. Local organizations are connected to the communities, organizations and government where they operate and often prioritize coordination with local government. At the same time, large international organizations coordinate through the UN cluster system which can often create barriers to participation from local organizations, including safety, language, social or cultural barriers. As an example, in the case of the Haiti earthquake, the initial UN coordination meetings were held in the MINUSTAH (UN Haiti peacekeeping force) compound, with the meetings conducted in English or French and not Haitian Creole. The meetings were often dominated by representatives of international NGOs from the global North with large capacity and were not accessible spaces for staff from smaller local organizations. MCC sometimes represents its local partners within these UN coordination mechanisms.

The last group of three CHS principles relates to organizational learning, capacity building and the effective use of resources. In 2017, MCC conducted a review of its program planning, monitoring and evaluation system. The findings and recommendations included the need for MCC to continue to increase partner and MCC staff capacity in assessment, design, monitoring and evaluation methods, particularly the use of participatory action research methods. The Keystone survey in 2013—an independent survey of MCC’s local partners—found that partners perceive MCC to be a learning organization and at the same time would like more MCC capacity building support in participatory monitoring evaluation methods.

MCC’s capacity building support helps ensure that MCC will have skilled partners who can adhere to humanitarian standards in the planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of humanitarian initiatives. MCC works at partner capacity building in multiple ways, including: a) sponsoring training on humanitarian principles and minimum standards, planning, monitoring and evaluation, and trauma healing and peacebuilding; b) helping organizations set up diverse local relief committees; c) facilitating learning exchanges between different groups; and d) providing significant accompaniment in assessment, planning and reporting. One of the criticisms of working through local organizations is their surge capacity—the ability (or lack thereof) of these small local organizations to scale-up to respond to large humanitarian needs. MCC’s approach has been to start small and scale-up as these partners demonstrate their capacity to manage larger initiatives. MCC humanitarian work over the past decades has increasingly relied on local partnerships, with MCC now almost exclusively working with local partners in disaster response. In our experience this model has allowed us to meet humanitarian standards and principles including ensuring an appropriate and quality response, accountability to, participation of and communication with disaster affected communities. MCC continues to build its capacity with long-term local partners, allowing MCC to scale-up over time and increase its capacity to respond to disasters through local partnerships while meeting humanitarian standards.

Soup being served at a school in Germany, 1947–48, as part of MCC relief efforts at the end of the Second World War. MCC particpated in a joint childfeeding program that reached 72,000 children in eight cities in southeastern Germany. (MCC photo/Heinz Wagener)

Bruce Guenther is MCC’s disaster response director, based in Winnipeg.

Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability. Available at https:// the-standard.

The Sphere Handbook: Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response. Geneva: Sphere Association, 2018. Available at

Barbelet, Veronique. “As Local as Possible, As International as Necessary: Understanding Capacity and Complementarity in Humanitarian Action”. HPG Working Paper. London: Overseas Development Institute, 2018. Bennett, Christian, et al. Time to Let Go: Remaking Humanitarian Action for the Modern Era. London: Overseas Development Institute, 2016.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s