Place-based work in the charity and international humanitarian sectors

By Elizabeth Parker 15 October 2019

In recent years there has been renewed interest both in the UK charity and international humanitarian sectors, in place-based approaches. Why is this? Are they talking about the same kind of work? And does terminology matter?

NPC has covered some of the factors behind renewed UK interest in place before but broadly, cuts to government funding and a sense that some places are becoming ‘left behind’ have forced local authorities, funders and charities to think about how their work can be better joined up, to make the most efficient use of limited resources.

In the international humanitarian sector, the driver has been increasing numbers of humanitarian crises happening in cities and towns, rather than more rural areas. Humanitarians have identified place-based approaches as a way of addressing the complexities of working in urban areas and working with a greater number of non-humanitarian organisations.

And in this sector place-based approaches are also sometimes called area-based approaches, settlement-based approaches and neighbourhood-based approaches. This range of language reflects that depending on the context, the ‘unit of social change’ may be as big as city or as small as a neighbourhood.

So there’s a lot of language out there and you might take the view that this doesn’t matter, that it’s fine if it’s all a bit messy and imprecise but I don’t agree.

The risk of this vagueness is that organisations label their work as place-based because it’s seen as the ‘latest big thing’, when in fact it is business as usual. This could lead to the rapid rise and fall of place-based approaches as work done under that banner may not deliver the promised results because it does not really take on the principles of place-based work. We could even see place-based approaches being adopted where they are not appropriate because they are ‘trendy’.

At NPC, we feel there is too much potential in the concept for this to be allowed to happen. So, I’ve been thinking about what a common definition might look like.

Defining place-based approaches

In the humanitarian sector, an upcoming synthesis of 30 case-studies defines such an approach as providing:

‘multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder support to the whole population, living in a specific geographic area with high levels of need’.

So what does this mean?

In this context ‘multi-sectoral’ means holistic: looking to understand and meet the needs of the target population, whether it be with housing, health, water or education.

And ‘multi-stakeholder’ means delivered by a range of relevant organisations.

For example, Care International Lebanon and Akkarouna delivered a place-based programme that targeted vulnerable neighbourhoods in Tripoli. They established and worked with neighbourhood committees to deliver shelter, water, sanitation and protection assistance.

In the UK, a broader definition has emerged—many aspects of which mirror the humanitarian sector. For example, the focus on targeting the most disadvantaged communities, working within a defined area, with a wide range or organisations (government, charities, business and people themselves). There may also be more of focus on systemic change, for example focusing on prevention and early intervention to tackle issues early on and reduce the demand for services.

Why place-based approaches are important

It’s important to think hard about this because ‘place’ is more than just trend. Place-based approaches can deliver real and meaningful positive change to their communities. They can act as a valuable catalyst for local change; present mechanisms for effectively focusing resources; prevent consultation fatigue; mobilise a ‘bottom-up’ approach and attract much needed investment.

However, when poorly conceived, badly designed, undertaken by under-resourced staff, or adopted inappropriately place-based approaches can enhance inequalities between the target area and surrounding ones; shift responsibility onto the wrong stakeholder; be costly to implement and take a long time.

Coming to a shared understanding of what place-based approaches are, and when they are appropriate, will help organisations decide where best to fund and deliver them. Part of this will come from further research about best practice delivery, allowing us to improve programme design and make the case for adequate time, funding, and recruitment and the rest will come from collaboration between organisations in places. We’ve been convening a network of charities, local government bodies and other stakeholders thinking about place, and, whether it is definitions or not, we’ll keep sharing what we’re working on with the sector. Please get in touch if you are interested in joining.

If you’d like to find out more about NPC’s work on place-based approaches and get involved in our future plans, please contact me.