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Then and Now: 25 years of aid accountability

As the UN introduces yet another initiative, a timeline of efforts to give more say to affected people.

Lindsay Bremner/Flickr

People receiving emergency aid have little say over the kind of assistance offered and who provides it, nor do they have much opportunity to complain about it.

Over the years, numerous aid initiatives have attempted to close this accountability gap for affected people in humanitarian crises – providing them with information, but also listening to their feedback and including them in decisions that affect their lives.

The concept is now a staple of every major humanitarian reform process. Evaluations repeatedly show that aid efforts that include affected people are not just better on principle, but result in higher quality and more relevant aid programmes.

Last week, outgoing UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock proposed an independent commission to respond to the views of crisis-affected people and hold the aid system to account to those it aims to serve. The suggestion may have been billed as something new, but it’s far from the first time humanitarians have recognised the need to listen to affected people.

Mechanisms and channels for receiving feedback – be they hotlines, complaints boxes or SMS surveys – abound when it comes to delivering aid these days. But critics say they too often amount to “window-dressing”: They may be professionalising the mechanics of gathering comments, but are they really influencing top-down decision-making processes?

Once defined as “the responsible use of power”, accountability still skews heavily towards those who pay. While aid agencies have to be answerable to donors, they rarely are – at least in any meaningful way – to their end clients: the so-called “beneficiaries” of their services.

But momentum for change is building, and this timeline charts the progress of initiatives both on the ground and in policy spheres to put “people at the centre of aid” – one of several slogans in the ever-changing terminology. We also track the limitations of accountability efforts, which to some, appear to have achieved “rhetorical rather than real results”.

Hannah Stoddard contributed to research and reporting.

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