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Accountability – what’s in a word?

Families queue for food in Badbado IDP camp, Mogadishu Kate Holt/IRIN
Families queue for food in Badbado IDP camp, Mogadishu (Jan 2012)

The concept of "accountability", like much humanitarian vocabulary, can be complex and elusive.

The concept of “accountability”, like much humanitarian vocabulary, can be complex and elusive. Some organizations, like Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) do not even like using the word.

“We’re not very comfortable with the term ‘accountability’, because… we are still not very clear on what we mean by accountability,” said Caroline Abu-Sada, coordinator of MSF’s research unit in Geneva.

And if understanding its meaning in English can be a struggle, translating it into other languages can be near impossible.

More stories on accountability:

From Rwanda to Haiti: What progress on accountability?

Accountability in action

How to put accountability into practice

For example, “In French, it’s absolutely untranslatable,” Abu-Sada told IRIN. The best she and her colleagues have come up with is “redevabilité” - “it’s an unpronounceable, very bizarre word. It’s not really user-friendly.”

“How do you explain `protection’ if you try to translate it into your mother tongue?” asks Maria Ahmad, who manages a humanitarian communications programme for the International Organization for Migration in Pakistan. “I still don’t know how I can explain `protection’ to my mother.”

In an effort to make its meaning clearer, IRIN has gathered some conceptualizations of “accountability”:

Accountability (to those in need) is …

… “the responsible use of power.” (Humanitarian Accountability Partnership - HAP)

… “about keeping beneficiaries informed in such a manner that they have the necessary tools to hold us accountable.” (Niels Bentzen, global accountability focal point, Danish Refugee Council)

… “first and foremost about communication with affected people.” (Jacobo Quintanilla, director of humanitarian information projects, Internews)

… “really about systems and processes. Do you have the right staff? How do you communicate? What are your participation methods? Boiling accountability down to feedback mechanisms is a bit of a cop-out.” (Gregory Gleed, member of roving team, HAP)

… “about beneficiaries participating in the process of improving their situation.” (International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies)

… “about bridging the gap between listening to what affected people say and taking action based on that feedback.” (Ground Truth program)

… “leadership/governance; transparency; feedback and complaints; participation; design, monitoring and evaluation.” (Inter-Agency Standing Committee Sub-Group on Accountability to Affected Populations)

… “proximity, acceptance, transparency… It’s about making sure that the medical services we’re providing are first of good quality and second are corresponding to the needs.” (Caroline Abu-Sada, research unit coordinator, MSF)

… “ensuring that communities have a right to say what their concerns are; and our duty to respond and ensure their rights are met and their right to receive assistance is met.” (Madara Hettiarachchi, associate director for humanitarian accountability, World Vision International)

… “a shared commitment to learning as the path to excellence and to integrity in fulfilling commitments to stakeholders.” (World Vision International’s Accountability Framework)

… “a responsibility, not a choice.” (International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies)

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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