November 10, 2011

Ground Truth: completing the cycle of accountability in humanitarian operations

Ground Truth


Triggered by natural disasters, pandemics, food insecurity, and population displacement, international development assistance destined for humanitarian interventions almost doubled from $6.7 billion in 2000 to an estimated $12.4 billion in 2010, according to the 2011 Global Humanitarian Assistance report. While demands grow exponentially and donors worry about impact, questions are increasingly asked about how those at the receiving end of humanitarian assistance perceive efforts undertaken on their behalf.

The short answer is ‘we don’t know’. Humanitarian agencies talk a lot about the importance of listening to beneficiaries but make little effort to act on what beneficiaries say. This is the challenge that the Ground Truth program is designed to address: completing the cycle of accountability in humanitarian programs by bridging the gap between listening and taking action.

Importance, potential impact

This program holds the promise of emancipating the ‘beneficiaries’ of humanitarian aid who, for too long, have been the silent recipients of what is often inadequate and inappropriate support.  It will do so by introducing two innovative tools which complement the work of other groups working on quality and accountability in the humanitarian space and enhance the effectiveness of humanitarian operations by improving the way programs are planned and implemented.

•    The first tool is a light-touch approach to gathering beneficiary feedback that yields data that is accurate and comparable, and can be translated into program design and performance management with relative ease—a significant advance on the way feedback data is currently collected and the use to which it is put.

•    The second is a published index that will track and compare the performance of different aid agencies, based on the perceptions of  ‘beneficiaries’, thus acting as a guide to donor support and encouraging aid providers to try new, more effective approaches to humanitarian interventions that standard evaluations struggle to catalyze on their own.

By offering humanitarian agencies a new survey methodology and an instrument of accountability that makes beneficiaries the ‘unit of account’ of humanitarian action, Ground Truth will encourage agencies to move away from a management focus on outputs toward outcomes for beneficiaries. Both the approach and methodology are rooted in real-time learning and performance improvement. And while it will contribute to accountability and evaluation, at its core the program is about more effective humanitarian interventions.


The outputs are a new, more actionable feedback methodology and, based on the data yielded by this methodology, an index of comparative humanitarian performance that reinforces accountability to both beneficiaries and the aid providing public.

With the design of these tools complete, other specialized groups (notably humanitarian standard setters and capacity builders) will be better able to support humanitarian organizations in developing strategies that reflect the perceptions of their beneficiaries. By adding an external, independent set of benchmarks, Ground Truth will stimulate demand for their standards and services.

Ground Truth’s key outcome will thus be to bridge the gap between listening to beneficiaries and taking action of what they say. This will help ensure that the perceptions and insights of beneficiaries become a central element in the design and management of humanitarian operations. This will lead to more effective and efficient aid programs and, as a corollary, to reduced human suffering and anguish.