Unpacking the drivers of accountability

This blog was originally posted on the Ground Truth Solutions website.


With the growing focus on effectiveness and accountability in humanitarian operations, expectations for feedback mechanisms are unrealistically high. Contemporary wisdom demands that they both provide insight on the perceptions of people affected by humanitarian disasters and create the impetus for follow-up action. That’s a lot to ask in a field where power relations remain heavily skewed towards aid providers. In reality, giving affected people ‘voice’ – in the sense of influencing the way their situation is understood and addressed – requires a complex mix of tools and incentives that have not yet been systematically considered.

There are two main types of incentives for change: external – because you have to do it, and internal: because you want to.  In this blog, I focus on the first. In many situations, normative or regulatory frameworks have proven to be blunt but effective tools to motivate changes in practice. Take building safety codes or the Kyoto Protocol that limits emissions of chlorofluorocarbons.

The starting point is an accepted normative framework, and in the humanitarian sector the freshly minted Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) breaks new ground with guidelines that stress the importance of giving people supposed to benefit from humanitarian aid the opportunity to say whether or not they actually do so.

A common standard is one thing but getting organizations to move beyond supportive rhetoric is another. The good news is that we now have many tools for listening to affected people and understanding their perspective. Most humanitarian organizations boast a participatory approach to program design. A smaller subset of agencies keeps an ear to the ground during program implementation, not just in the design phase.

There are now robust examples of how to listen-up throughout the program cycle. They include ACAPS’ independent assessments, Ground Truth’s light-touch survey and follow-up methodology, REACH‘s data for planning and decision-making, #quakeHELPDESK’s rumor tracking in Nepal, and, despite their limitations, helplines. There is also an array of communications tools championed by the CDAC Network that are the essential counterpart to collecting feedback.

But the CHS standard and complementary tools like feedback mechanisms are not enough unless accompanied by some form of forcing mechanism.  In the absence of a true shift in power dynamics, where crisis-affected people have a real choice about what kind of aid they want and who they want to provide it, what other levers can shift practice?

One crucial way of overcoming humanitarian agencies’ reticence to go the last mile is for donors to use their financial clout. In the oligopolistic conditions of humanitarian aid, donors’ funding decisions are as close as we get to market forces. We can already see signs of this happening: US aid appropriations legislation now makes collecting and responding to feedback a condition of granting aid, and similar conditions are being considered by both the UK and Swiss aid administrations. These measures send important signals to aid providers – become more responsive to feedback from affected people, or risk losing funding. Private philanthropic channels like Global Giving and Charity Navigator are also championing this approach.

It would be a great leap forward if all donors used the World Humanitarian Summit process to make robust accountability procedures a must for their grantees. It is time to go beyond nice language in funding proposals and reports. We need clarity about how aid providers plan to hold themselves accountable and evidence they’ve done so. Crisis affected governments could also leverage their often limited influence in aid decisions by pushing this too.

Real change, however, requires more than withdrawing financial favors – or, for that matter, piling them on. If we are to shift the humanitarian sector towards greater accountability we need to find ways of motivating rank and file staff to implement this agenda – not because of external pressures alone, but through internal incentives that reinforce that it’s the right thing to do.

Failure to get staff buy-in is now the greatest stumbling block to more responsive humanitarian action; one that neither a common standard, nor tools to implement its provisions, nor financial or regulatory pressure from donors and governments can fix on their own. Unless staff are motivated to embrace the accountability agenda, it is not going to happen. That is the focus of my next blog: how to get humanitarian workers on board.

Nick van PraagNick van Praag directs Ground Truth Solutions which is supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the IKEA Foundation and DFID.

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