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From Rwanda to Haiti - what progress on accountability?

Haitians in the sprawling slum of Cité Soleil queue for WFP  food distributed by a Brazilian battalion of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti Sophia Paris/UN PHOTO

It kick-started a drive towards better accountability throughout the sector, including higher programming standards, a better-skilled workforce, and stronger accountability to disaster-affected communities.

Out of JEEAR came accountability mechanisms like the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International (HAP-I), the Sphere Project to enhance accountability and quality standards in disaster response, People in Aid, and the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance (ALNAP) in Humanitarian Action.

The growing emphasis on accountability was also linked to a sector-wide shift towards rights-based approaches to aid, bringing aid back to the humanitarian principles, and an effort to professionalize (and thus improve) management and strategy, said an October 2011 paper by the Humanitarian Practice Network of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a UK think-tank. In the past 10 years agencies have realized they need to evaluate the impact of their work rather than simply focusing on the outlay, and in an increasingly competitive industry, donors are now insisting on impact studies too.

More stories on accountability:

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Accountability in action

How to put accountability into practice

Disaster survivors - and states - are also demanding greater accountability themselves. Information and communications technology allows disaster survivors to complain when things go wrong, to voice their priority needs and to bridge the gap between funders and the communities. 

Progress since then has been bitty, but “critical mass” has now built up, says HAP interim head Robert Schofield, as actors ranging from UN agencies to small local NGOs realize they can no longer afford to sideline the issue.

“It feels like there is a critical mass that has moved it [accountability] beyond incremental change to something more fundamental,” he told IRIN.

For Jacobo Quintanilla, director of humanitarian information projects at InterNews, an international NGO promoting local media, better communication underpins four elements that are crucial to accountability - transparency, participation, monitoring and evaluation, and effective feedback.


Though studies of how better communication with people in need can impact aid responses are scarce, there is building evidence that better accountability and communication with beneficiaries leads to more useful, relevant programming. For instance, in the 2009 earthquake in West Sumatra, Catholic Relief Services provided shelter based on disaster-affected people’s priorities and reportedly received a 99 percent satisfaction rate.

When infoasaid, and international NGOs ActionAid and World Vision, asked drought-affected communities in Isiolo, northern Kenya, in 2011 what their information priorities were, they asked for weekly updates on livestock and food prices, and water and pasture availability, which the agencies sent via text messages. Most people said it was exactly what they needed, had improved their livelihoods, and “made their lives easier and better”, said Robert Powell, spokesperson at infoasaid, which uses information technology to improve communication between communities, the media, and aid agencies.

Conversely, a lack of consultation can have adverse consequences. Haitians burnt down a hospital set up by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to treat cholera victims because they worried they would be infected with the disease. Health NGO Merlin found female flood-survivors in Pakistan were not accessing their services because there were no female health staff. Once Merlin rectified this, “user rates shot up”, said Richard Cobb, Merlin’s monitoring, evaluation and accountability adviser.

But more evidence is needed, said interviewees, and several organizations are currently collecting fresh data. “What is needed are more examples of the causality between improved accountability and superior quality or value for money in programmes… agencies need to present a good business case,” said John Borton, accountability expert and co-author of JEEAR and many other evaluations.

Landmarks in humanitarian accountability 

Heads of UN and non-UN agencies, using the “transformative agenda” of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), are making accountability to disaster survivors a key priority in the push for better quality delivery of humanitarian aid. In 2011 they established a sub-group on accountability to affected populations, which will test new ways of working in three countries.

Quality standards initiatives like the Sphere Project, People in Aid, the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP), and the Active Learning Network for Accountability in Practice (ALNAP) have come together to consolidate their norms and standards in the Joint Standards Initiative.

The creative use of information and communications technology in humanitarian operations by aid agencies, NGOs and the private sector skyrocketed in 2010 and 2011. Organizations like Internews, Infoasaid, Ushahidi, BBC Media Action, and the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities network continued to strengthen.

A major impetus for change was the Haiti earthquake of October 2010 and its aftermath.

Ten months after the earthquake in Haiti in October 2010, cholera broke out, eventually infecting 500,000 people and causing 7,000 deaths, according to Médecins sans Frontières. Studies linked the outbreak to poor sewage disposal at the UN peacekeeping troops’ camp. In November 2011 the US-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) and the Haitian Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, sought hundreds of millions of dollars in damages from the UN.

Following problems it saw in the Haiti response, the Swiss Development Cooperation agency joined with the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA - an NGO network), and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to strengthen partnership between international humanitarian groups and national governments to boost quality response.

Meanwhile, IFRC continued its work on an International Disaster Response Law, which focuses on collaborating with national Red Cross societies to help governments better prepare for disasters and develop their disaster management laws.

The UK Department for International Development has five commitments to accountability in its funding decisions, including giving aid recipients a greater voice, promoting better impact assessments, working on standards to assess accountability, and emphasizing adherence to accountability.

No longer an option

Change is happening slowly, and stubborn obstacles remain: among them a gap between policy and practice and inadequate coordination despite a lot of talk, while the deep attachment of aid agencies to autonomy has prevented an external ombudsman being put in place to rate the quality of humanitarian performance, as recommended by JEEAR and an interagency review of the response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Another complication is the ever-increasing number and diversity of actors who flock to respond to high-profile crises. When a 7-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, thousands of groups, including humanitarian agencies, missionaries, diaspora members, scientologists, and celebrities such as Sean Penn, descended to try to help, with varying results.

“Each major crisis - including the Horn of Africa, the Pakistan floods and the Haiti earthquake - has faced an accountability challenge,” said HAP-I’s Schofield.

Steps agencies have taken towards greater accountability include more two-way communication with disaster survivors; a shift in aid approaches, such as giving cash rather than food, which enable communities to make their own choices; and the collaboration of Sphere, HAP-I and People in Aid, which promotes good practice among aid workers, to create joint accountability standards.

There have also been institutional changes. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), which coordinates UN and non-UN humanitarian partnerships, has endorsed accountability to disaster survivors as a key principle on IASC’s “Transformative Agenda”.

The Agenda aims to improve leadership, coordination and accountability in emergency response by setting up a working group to improve transparency, feedback and complaints, and participation in programme design and evaluations.

Improving accountability is no longer a choice. “Now [that] disaster-affected populations can make their voices heard through the media, agencies are recognizing that forward accountability [as in, accountability to disaster-affected communities] is no longer an option,” said Paul Knox-Clarke, head of research and communications at ALNAP.

Haitians used Twitter to voice their frustration at slow aid responses to the 2010 earthquake. A group of Haitians (with help from the US-based Institute for Justice and Democracy) is taking the UN to court for allegedly fuelling a mass cholera outbreak, which went on to infect 500,000 people and cause 7,000 deaths, according to MSF.

Aid survivors and diaspora communities are directly and vocally influencing aid responses. Survivors of Indonesia’s Mount Merapi eruption in 2010 used Twitter, SMS and Facebook to tell the world what was happening, and sent their key findings to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The Somali Diaspora responded directly to funding needs for food aid posted on an interactive map by NGO the Danish Refugee Council; while hundreds in the Haitian diaspora collaborated to create a map of hardest-hit areas using OpenStreetMap.

Struggling to keep up

But many aid agencies are struggling to keep up with the pace of change, said Robert Powell, spokesperson at infoasaid, which uses information technology to improve communication between communities, the media, and aid agencies.

Traditionally risk-averse, agencies must change their approach - moving away from a reliance on donors to partner with private companies - which have a lot of money to invest - to create better and economically sustainable two-way communication tools.

A growing number of entrepreneurial technology companies have provided help in disasters. Frontline SMS, which can turn one computer into a communications hub, has been used to track disease spread in Cambodia and violence against children (with Plan International) in Benin. Google created missing persons lists in Haiti; while the country’s largest mobile phone network Digicel used its GPS trackers to map out post-quake people movements.

Rather than seeing themselves as charities, agencies should start thinking of themselves as service providers for their clients, said Borton. But this requires NGOs going back to basics. “Why do aid agencies exist? It shouldn’t be to perpetuate their own bureaucracies - it is up to them to shift their working agenda to better serve people.”

Responding to feedback

Communications is one thing, responding to it, another. World Vision’s associated director of humanitarian accountability, Madara Hettiarahchi, said many agencies are wary of adverse publicity, while staff members fear personal criticism, but responding to feedback is the only way to get people the assistance they really need.

Feedback will only work if the organization is ready to respond to it, if it is culturally appropriate, and does not ignore or duplicate existing local feedback mechanisms, said ALNAP’s Knox-Clarke. It must also be designed not simply to reinforce power structures within affected communities, but to give space to often-overlooked groups such as women, children or the elderly, to speak their minds.

Critics say technology-reliant feedback mechanisms favour one group: young urban males, who represent the largest proportion of mobile phone and Internet users. But while women and rural communities are lagging, they increasingly have access to mobile technology. As an aid worker told BBC Media Action “They [Somalis] may not have had lunch, but they have a mobile phone.”

Agencies are becoming more attentive to listening to often-unheard groups: Save the Children has set up children’s committees through which they channel feedback; many agencies present feedback options pictorally so that illiterate people can engage with them.

Derk Segaar, head of OCHA’s Communications Services Section, said feedback must be well-coordinated or it will risk creating confusion. It also works best when set up ahead of time - the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) aims to put in place formal agreements with mobile phone providers in 50 disaster-prone countries to set up emergency helpline numbers in advance of a disaster.

But still, too few agencies currently have efficient ways of collecting, analyzing and responding to feedback, or sufficient staff with the necessary skills, noted a 2011 report by the Collaborative Learning Project.

People Matter

Accountability to disaster survivors - including better two-way communication with them - is “still driven by a select number of individuals within organizations, who in many cases lack the institutional support and resources to do the job systematically, and in other cases simply lack know-how,” said Jacobo Quintanilla, director of humanitarian information projects at Internews, “We don’t have enough people with adequate skills to make it happen.”

A number of initiatives have taken off in recent years to help build up a cadre of sufficiently skilled humanitarians, and to create `surge forces’ who can be deployed at a moment’s notice. These include the Emergency Capacity Building Project, created by 15 British aid agencies to determine the common humanitarian competencies required by aid workers, and what kind of leadership works best

“Without... a commitment to staff development inside the organization, nothing will happen,” said Jonathan Potter, head of People in Aid, which was set up in 1997 to improve management and technical skills across the humanitarian sector.


Expertise on accountability is growing but it is still seen by many agencies as an add-on activity rather than being integral to good programming, and major gaps remain, said accountability expert, Borton.

Infoasaid’s Robert Powell said their ideas for boosting interaction with disaster survivors are being resisted by aid agencies in the Sahel, who say they do not have the time.

While the impetus towards accountability must come from agencies themselves, donors can encourage this by stressing compliance with minimum accountability standards. Some worry this would just end up being a paper work exercise to please donors, but unless everyone is pushing higher standards across the board, “it won’t work” said Borton.

Some stand out - Denmark’s development cooperation agency (DANIDA) has pushed NGOs to comply with minimum quality HAP standards. The Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) has for years been accountability-driven. The UK Department for International Development (DFID) insists on accountability to disaster-affected people if NGOs are to receive their 72-hour rapid response disaster funding, said a DFID spokesperson.

But coordination among donors is currently weak, as evidenced by the flagging Good Humanitarian Donorship, an informal, voluntary donor coordination and quality initiative, “which is cause for despair”, Borton added.

Humanitarian actors have for years shunned third-party enforcement, and the system “desperately protects its autonomy”, said Borton. “Looking back, one could say it was absurd to have created something [the Sphere standards] that is at the core of what we do, but with no commitment to follow through or monitor adherence,” he told IRIN.

HAP-I tries to institutionalize compliance by calling on all members to live up to quality standards. Membership has grown to 82 agencies, 13 of them certified to the HAP standard, but most are small or medium NGOs. The larger agency federations shun membership, partly because it is difficult to ensure each member complies.

Agencies working mainly through partners - such as health NGO Merlin, which works through government health ministries - say joint accountability is complex. In this context, compliance is all the more important and must come down to insisting on meaningful, quality partnerships, according to ALNAP’s Knox-Clarke.

The reluctance to be monitored is not always well received. Quintanilla of InterNews pointed out that “local media accept the power of a watchdog on governments and different actors - why don’t we do the same? Do checks and balances on anything that matters to communities… from governments to humanitarian organizations,” he suggested.

While enforcing compliance is not realistic at least in the near future, now is the time for accountability bodies to “lift their vision” and embrace the new focus on beneficiary accountability put forward in the IASC’s “Transformative Agenda”, so that all actors can start to use the same standards. “This would be a big prize,” said Borton.

Progress on accountability is likely to continue, albeit inefficiently, he added. Quintanilla puts this down to risk-aversion. “The humanitarian system is risk-averse to a degree... The system simply cannot continue doing business as usual.”

For more stories on humanitarian accountability, please visit our In-Depth


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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