How to make aid workers champions of accountability


When we launched Ground Truth in 2012, we thought tracking the perceptions of the intended beneficiaries of aid – accurately and frequently – would prompt more responsive humanitarian programmes. That still sounds reasonable, and our experience over the past three years has gone a long way towards validating the hypothesis. But it also underlines the challenge of going the last mile – of motivating staff to act on feedback from people whose insight could help them do a better job.

One has to sympathize with humanitarian staff. The majority are keen to do their best to help people in need. The places they work are often difficult and increasingly dangerous, and there is little stability or job security. Expectations and demands on them are high. They are supposed to provide high quality aid under difficult circumstances while complying with myriad bureaucratic requirements. In face of all this, the cost of adopting new accountability initiatives may seem to outweigh the price of continuing business as usual.

Here is how we might fast forward aid workers’ buy-in:

  • Give aid workers credit for the listening they already do. They react defensively when told it’s time for something completely different. Frame new approaches as building on past practice but make sure staff understand that real accountability goes well beyond ticking the boxes of consultative program design and standard monitoring.
  • Create the conditions for what industrial psychologists call ‘intrinsic motivation.’ People do things best when they chose to do so. It’s about appealing to their values and encouraging them to act because they believe it matters – not because they are compelled to do so. Dozens of studies show that professional gratification comes mostly from a job well done.
  • Align rewards. Accountability to affected people must become a standard competence and performance assessment category for all client-facing staff. Rewarding good practice – instead of turning a blind eye to examples of poor personal accountability – should become the norm.
  • Build a shared vision of what success looks like. Most humanitarian organizations, beyond trite statements about wanting to put themselves out of business, don’t have a clear definition of success. Spelling it out would provide a target against which staff could adjust their performance – and weigh up the benefits of bringing the beneficiary perspective into the mix.
  • Draw attention to the advantages staff themselves derive from greater accountability. For example, studies show that engagement with communities can increase security for staff in dangerous places. Others point persuasively to gains in effectiveness. Make the case! It will likely have more impact on behaviours than revising agencies’ statements of purpose to include greater accountability, as the IASC has recommended.
  • Move from exhortation to rational explanation. Vague blandishments to be more accountable provoke pushback and confusion. Better to focus on explaining clearly the component parts of accountability and what they look like in practice. Clarifying the costs – in terms of human suffering – of failing to take the beneficiary perspective into account is also persuasive.
  • Publicize accomplishments. Encouraging media attention and management shout-outs about staff accomplishments might also help tip the balance. Comparing agencies’ relative levels of accountability could encourage a staff-led race to the top.
  • Ensure that more accountability is balanced by less of other things. There’s an aversion to frequent demands from agency headquarters to test new initiatives that may have merit but come on top of everyday tasks. If a robust approach to accountability is to become standard practice across the aid industry, other things must give. There are plenty of tasks that could be subtracted from current aid practices but monitoring programme performance against poorly conceived log frames should be first on the list. Reporting against real progress on accountability commitments in the Core Humanitarian Standard makes more sense.
  • Aid agencies should pay more attention to the views of their own staff. Systematically collecting feedback from frontline workers on the performance of backline management and support systems motivates people who may feel overwhelmed and ignored, and provides useful supplementary data.

The positive knock-on effects of making humanitarian work more client-focused are widely accepted. The normative framework is in place, the tools for implementation are tested, and many governments and humanitarian leaders are on board. What’s still missing is staff buy-in. We need to encourage them to pick up the gauntlet, intrinsically motivated to do good better.

A version of this blog post was posted on the CHS Alliance website.

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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