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Five ways the aid system can improve its accountability to affected people

From thinking long-term to doing away with catch-all assessments, how to reorganise the way we work so it’s more people-centred.

Graphic of a cardboard box with 4 banners. One says accountability, one says people-centred, one says feedback and another says engagement. Sofía Kuan/TNH

If efforts to improve accountability to people affected by crises are to finally have a chance at progressing, the humanitarian system needs to organise itself differently.

It’s therefore encouraging that the emergency relief coordinator’s new “Flagship Initiative” gives aid leaders in-country the space and flexibility to actually do that – something we’ve found to be critical if this agenda is ever to move forward.

Read more: What’s the ‘Flagship Initiative’, and how might it transform emergency aid?

Past reforms have made countless references to improving accountability, but have only taken the issue so far. It is not global guidance and surge capacity that’s needed, but big and small changes made to the many complex systems – messy and overlapping – that interact to make or break conditions for people-centred aid.

As the Flagship Initiative starts to pick up steam, and begins its rollout on the ground, here are five pieces of advice for the aid system, informed by years of listening to crisis-affected people.

 

Think – and act – long term

People do not want to be aid recipients. They know what they need to recover from crises. Usually, they also know how they could get it, if they had the means. What they don’t tend to understand is why, or how, the aid system is broken into sectors, and why longer-term aid is not the concern of ‘humanitarians’ wearing the same logos as those working on education, livelihoods, and healthcare programmes that are funded by the same donors. 

When it comes to longstanding efforts to bridge humanitarian and development work – the so-called ‘nexus’ – there are positive indications that efforts are ramping up. Yet coordination teams still consistently baulk at our findings on people’s longer-term priorities. 

When people affected by protracted or repeated crises consistently tell us that aid is not meeting their needs because it’s too short-sighted, it’s time we recognised that the right response is not, “but we are busy saving lives!”, but rather, “so how can we reorganise to address that?” 

This reorganisation will take an overhaul of the aid funding system, which arbitrarily separates humanitarian funding and development funding. It won’t be easy, but that’s what’s needed. 

 

Stop with the catch-all assessments; focus on people’s capacities and priorities instead

We know by now that crisis responses will consistently be underfunded, often drastically. So why do we still set about asking people considered ‘vulnerable’ a laundry list of questions about their every possible need, knowing full well that they will never be met? 

If we’re to crawl closer to becoming a system that listens and responds, we need to critically examine the worth of catch-all assessments and instead try to better understand capacities and priorities at the local level.

More needs to be done to better understand what support communities would most prioritise to help themselves.

In most cases, we should also consider cash the default response, asking people when it wouldn’t work instead of always having to make the case for why it might. 

 

Don’t mistake reactive complaints and feedback mechanisms for accountability 

When responses are designed based on sector, donor, or agency priorities – with little or no consultation from those slated to benefit – reactive feedback mechanisms cannot play catch-up. They may help to solve problems faced by individuals (say, for someone who has been left off an aid distribution list, or who has been given a defective item), but most feedback mechanisms come far too late to back up the truck and redesign a programme.

An internal Ground Truth Solutions analysis of more than 15,000 data points from crisis-affected people found that even when people were satisfied with the response they got from a feedback mechanism – something we long considered to be a metric of best practice in accountability – they did not feel any better about the relevance or usefulness of the humanitarian response overall than those who had not used such a mechanism.  

Reactive complaints and feedback mechanisms are essential tools for accountable responses locally, but let’s kick them off the agenda for global accountability reform discussions this year and properly elevate the discussion on what it means for a response to be truly accountable. 

 

Don’t let aid protocols and standards get in the way of what communities say they want

Reaching the most vulnerable is a bedrock principle of humanitarian aid, but who decides who that is, and how do we know whether we’ve gotten it right? In most communities, our data shows, we don’t.

In Nigeria, for example, our research found that many people would prefer aid simply go to everyone, even if it means spreading it thinner. In Somalia, people undermine the painstaking work of defining and implementing vulnerability criteria by pooling and redistributing aid to their neighbours, no matter who it was intended for. And in the Philippines, people frequently divide up their aid into smaller portions and give it to those who need it most because humanitarians didn’t find them. It’s honourable to dedicate so much time to impartiality, but we’re getting it wrong, and we’re ignoring community priorities in the process.

Likewise, controlling people’s resources in the name of protection (for example, by providing vouchers instead of cash, lest money fall into the wrong hands or put women recipients in danger) can – while well-intentioned – see people sell their aid on at lesser values to pay for other priorities, at the mercy of exploitation by black market vendors. 

Some standards of community engagement may also not fit community priorities. Many cash recipients tell us that as long as they get their aid on time and know for how long they’ll keep getting it, they don’t really want or need further consultation. 

Principles and standards are critically important, but we might need more rigorous reflection on what is protection and what is paternalism.

No regulation, no reform

Finally, it is no surprise that humanitarians have shied away from regulatory processes – humanitarian action can be dangerous, unpredictable, and it is constantly at the mercy of external threats. But the absence of regulation sees us perpetuate the myth of humanitarianism as altruism when it is actually self-monitored against non-enforceable standards for which nobody is held accountable.

Answers to this usually take the form of indicators (or box-ticking exercises) for programme managers. Is accountability reflected in the Response Plan? To what extent are communities consulted in programming? But as we see time and again, it’s not hard to meet these poorly articulated – often meaningless – indicators and pass the monitoring systems without actually improving the response. Independent bodies should be keeping tabs on how well the system is actually meeting community priorities. They should be doing this from the community perspective, and with consequences for falling short.

A functioning healthcare system cannot exist without regulation and regulatory bodies. When there is negligence, people in high places lose their jobs. The humanitarian sector, whose self-described purpose is to save lives, has no such thing.

Until an independent function exists to track accountability to crisis-affected people – with repercussions for individuals and entire organisations when it fails – the system will continue to function as it always has.

Edited by Jessica Alexander.

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