European Union-sponsored report calls for plugging caste-based discrimination while disbursing humanitarian aid

caste“Equality in Aid – Addressing Caste Discrimination in Humanitarian Response”, a European Union (EU)  sponsored report prepared by the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN), and authored by Katherine Nightingale, with the support of Lee Macqueen, Prasad Chacko, Tim Gill, Tudor Silva, Samuel Marie-Fanon, Anand Bolimera Kumar and Katia Chirizzi, presents an overall picture of the effect of caste-based discrimination in humanitarian aid and why it continues to be a consistent problem in emergency programming. Excerpts:

Even prior to a natural hazard like drought, floods, typhoons or earthquakes, Dalit communities are more vulnerable and exposed to disasters. Their social exclusion means they often live outside of main villages, with less access to the amenities and information of administrative centres. In some contexts this less desirable land will be more exposed to floods or hazards and have less developed infrastructure like drains, drinking water or flood barriers. The livelihood situation of Dalits, dependent on wage labour and on dominant caste groups, is particularly vulnerable to shocks and stresses like natural hazards. Dalits are mostly landless people with little or no formal assets, working as share-croppers or manual labourers to meet immediate livelihood needs. What assets Dalits do have, such as unregistered fishing boats or nets and make-shift houses without land titles, often go unrecognised as formally owned by them, thereby hiding significant disaster losses.

In a serious disaster situation many Dalits use loans to cope, e.g. to provide for lost homes, food and medicine, exposing them to a vicious cycle of bonded labour, where whole families can become indentured servants to repay a loan often several times over. During an emergency Dalits’ precarious living conditions and lack of social protection mean that they are often the worst affected. But their status as ‘untouchables’ and the social exclusion they face affect the kind of emergency relief they receive.

Dalits are often discouraged from accessing water, food and accommodation due to ingrained, discriminatory societal norms that lead to a separation of common water sources, common dining and common shelter areas according to caste status. These norms are coupled with weak implementation of national laws to address caste discrimination. This means that violence committed against Dalits by other castes usually remains unpunished if they dare challenge such social norms.

Photographs: Dalit victims of Bihar floods 2007

Examples of how caste-based discrimination affects relief efforts can be seen in emergency responses going back more than a decade. The response to the 2001 Gujarat earthquake was affected by discrimination in early relief efforts. Later on, not all affected people had access to rehabilitation processes because of a lack of information. In several South Asian countries, the 2004 Asian Tsunami and its response revealed significant social divisions and discrimination affecting Dalit communities long into post-disaster recovery efforts.

Examples of caste-based discrimination

The following are examples of caste-based discrimination in humanitarian aid:

• Dalit communities are prevented from receiving emergency aid or accessing shelters or kitchens due to perceived ‘untouchability’ and the internalised social norms or fears of violence.

• Dalit communities are excluded or marginalised from the main village centres and community structures and therefore their needs are not part of formal data gathering or decision-making on response with government officials or humanitarian agencies.

• Dalits face problems of registering in relief camps.

• Dalits often receive relief materials of a poorer quality or lesser quantity compared to other recipients.

• Dalit men and women are exploited for their labour to remove corpses and debris from disaster-affected areas.

• Dalit losses are less visible as their work or assets are not formally recognised: e.g. fishing boats and nets used by Dalits prior to the Tsunami, and makeshift houses without land titles.

• Dalit informal work, often in supportive day labour to official ‘casted’ occupations, is impacted by the loss of formal work in disasters, and sometimes by the response efforts that might supplant the role of Dalit day labourers. If crops are destroyed, farming or land labour is affected; if boats etc. are destroyed, only caste fishermen receive support; if chill boxes to keep fish are provided, the marketing and use of unsold fish by Dalit women is undermined.

• Dalit men and women are not consulted or included in decisionmaking in needs assessment and appropriate emergency aid provision that meets their needs. The limited presence or total absence of Dalits in local governance bodies further exacerbates the lack of engagement and consultation.

• Systemic problems of Dalit marginalisation and exclusion from formal development (like in owning land, land titles for homes, official licences for fishing etc.) undermine their ability to access opportunities for recovery of homes or livelihoods in disaster recovery programmes.

• Lack of appropriate assessments of loss or damage of Dalit property, crops and other assets or exclusion of their names in the compensation lists of the authorities further excludes them from receiving their entitlements.

caste biharAnother serious issue is the lack of provision for equity monitoring. This form of monitoring encompasses a number of tools; including vulnerability mapping, identifying barriers to access to resources, services and decision-making and entitlements, and monitoring of provision of humanitarian assistance to affected communities based on disaggregated data. Several tools for equity monitoring and inclusive programming are presented in the annex to this briefing.

According to UNICEF India, several challenges hinder the implementation of equity monitoring in a disaster response. These may include: Differences in stakeholder mandates; common perceptions of threat that monitoring creates; the perceived reluctance of Government and civil society to collaborate; general perceptions of relief as charity; people’s perceptions of vulnerability, a limited understanding of specific needs of different vulnerable groups; and lack of proper methods to facilitate monitoring in a non-threatening and non-offensive manner.

But the recognition is growing of the need to ensure that humanitarian aid reaches those who are most vulnerable and marginalised and the essential role that equity monitoring plays in making that happen. Several caste-affected states have made specific provisions to address caste discrimination within their national constitutions, laws and government policies. Special legislation outlawing caste discrimination exists in India and Nepal, and other affected states may follow. Implementation and adherence to these constitutional and legal provisions, however, depends on whether the state enforces its own laws. Across caste-affected countries, enforcement of laws and implementation of policies is inconsistent and often extremely weak. In India, for example, the body of legislation meant to protect Dalits and improve their situation is extensive, but political will to ensure implementation is often lacking.

Broad principles of humanitarian aid

In 1991, while setting up the department for humanitarian affairs, the United Nations laid down certain broad principles to guide humanitarian assistance, followed in 1994 by the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief. Efforts to strengthen accountability in disaster assistance efforts led to the first Sphere Handbook in 2000, and the adoption of the Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response.

Requirements to prevent caste-based discrimination fall under wider notions of non-discrimination and impartiality and are specifically referred to in the 2011 edition of Sphere Standard. It states clearly that the right to receive humanitarian assistance is a necessary element of the right to life with dignity, encompassing the right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, water, clothing, shelter and the requirements for good health, guaranteed in international laws. It sets out the responsibility to ensure that humanitarian assistance is available to all those in need, particularly those who are most vulnerable or who face exclusion on political or other grounds.

For disaster prevention and response to be effective and reach Dalits and those most vulnerable, humanitarian actors need to clearly recognise the pervasive issues of caste discrimination and the principles of equality and non-discrimination that underpin an inclusive response.

• Public recognition: The main guiding principle is to publicly recognise the problem of caste-based discrimination and exclusion in disaster prevention and response in organisational policies, work plans, and public engagement.

• Common approach: Good practices are founded on a common approach to addressing the risk of caste-based discrimination in humanitarian programming across the spectrum of interventions from disaster prevention, preparedness, response and recovery.

• Disaster management: Humanitarian actors should support the development and implementation of inclusive and appropriate disaster management laws and policies at local, national and international level that enable the effective targeting of marginalised and excluded groups for disaster prevention and response, with a specific focus on caste-based discrimination.

caste3The experiences of Dalits during the relief and rehabilitation that follow disasters have demonstrated the degree to which caste discrimination by default can entrench and enhance inequity. While caste discrimination – despite laws and policies – continues to exist in day-to-day life in many countries, caste-based discrimination during disaster relief and recovery is also highly predictable. Yet humanitarian minimum standards do not currently require or guide providers of humanitarian assistance in caste-affected countries to understand and respond to caste discrimination.

Any failure to adequately address underlying causes of vulnerability means that whilst emergency aid may be becoming more inclusive, Dalits and vulnerable groups will continue to require the bulk of it as they will continue to be the hardest hit. Unless there is a comprehensive and long-term approach to addressing caste-based discrimination in resilience-building and development across the region, millions of people, particular in South Asia, will continue to be at risk from preventable disasters.


It is recommended that a human rights perspective be in built into disaster response and disaster risk reduction programmes of agencies to ensure that humanitarian action meets human rights standards and the needs of rights holders. The Indian experience of caste-based discrimination clearly illustrates the need for policy and legislative measures.

While the state is the primary duty bearer in fulfilling human rights obligations within its borders also in disaster situations, NGOs, UN agencies and international donors assisting disaster risk reduction and response have a responsibility to respect human rights obligations. An adequate response to such obligations includes addressing caste-based discrimination. Therefore all stakeholders involved in providing humanitarian assistance in caste-affected countries are called upon to follow the recommendations and guidelines outlined in this briefing.

• Principle: Publicly recognise the problem of caste-based discrimination and exclusion in disaster prevention and response in their organisational mission, work plans, and public engagement.

1. Humanitarian actors should explicitly declare their adherence to humanitarian principles and publicly acknowledge that discrimination and exclusion on the basis of caste are violations of these principles and of international human rights law.

2. Humanitarian actors should ensure that a strong understanding and public recognition of the societal processes of castebased exclusion at work in communities form the basis of their engagement and decision-making for humanitarian aid provision.

3. Humanitarian actors should recognise in their work and their public engagement that the inclusion of caste-affected communities, such as Dalits, is possible only through interventions that specifically engage with these communities and groups.

• Practise: Encourage and adhere to a common approach to addressing the risk of caste-based discrimination in humanitarian programming across the spectrum of interventions from disaster prevention, preparedness, response and recovery.

1. Encourage a common approach: Working with other humanitarian actors operating in the sub-region or local area to build a common approach to addressing caste-based discrimination across interventions from disaster reduction, to response and recovery.

2. Build on existing accountability commitments across the sector: Incorporating a strong focus on reducing the risk of caste-based discrimination to the delivery of accountability standards like Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP).

3. Tailor participatory approaches for programme planning with a good analysis of the risk of caste-based discrimination in different sectors: Using relevant participatory tools for assessment of the context and the risk of caste-based discrimination for programming at all stages of intervention, from vulnerability assessments and disaster risk reduction work to preparedness, response and recovery.

4. Reinforce accountability and inclusion through advocacy: Local, national, regional and international humanitarian actors have an important role to play in monitoring and holding governments and other humanitarian actors to account for ensuring that their humanitarian aid is inclusive and in line with humanitarian principles and international human rights law.

5. International donors should require inclusion and should fund advocacy to ensure accountability.

Donors, whether governments, UN agencies or NGOs, should require measures to address exclusion and caste-based discrimination in all the programmes they fund, with a particular emphasis on supporting measures to address castebased discrimination as part of a comprehensive commitment to implementing the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) standard in programming.

Donors should allocate specific funding to local national, regional and international organisations working to develop the understanding and evidence for what works and engaged in monitoring and holding government and humanitarian actors accountable to humanitarian principles that include impartiality.

Donors should include as a standard indicator in funded projects the staff diversity of implementing entities, whether in the government, UN agencies or NGOs, looking at the efforts made to recruit Dalit staff.

For full report click HERE

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