15 Apr

While The Tsunamis were kind of the first big field test, humanitarian accountability as a general idea seems to have fully come of-age in Haiti. Like “participation” and “sustainability” in years past, “accountability” has formally achieved buzzword status among those aid non-insiders who watchdog and comment on aid. The number of ordinary citizens who talk to me about accountability is actually rather astounding. I wrote in the previous post that dramatically increased media visibility on the Haiti earthquake response, compared with past disasters, will – among other things – increase NGO accountability. And it will. But I think that it is time now to talk a bit about what humanitarian accountability is, and as important, what it is not.


The IFRC Code of Conduct (widely adopted within the humanitarian aid community) reads, “We hold ourselves accountable to both those we seek to assist and those from whom we accept resources.” And an introductory PowerPoint presentation on what humanitarian accountability is, available on the HAP website, goes on to describe three main tenets or characteristics that I’ll paraphrase as follows:

  1. Aid actors (like NGOs) should to plan and implement programs in a responsible manner.
  2. Aid actors should account for their actions, and be held to account for them.
  3. Aid programs should include feedback mechanisms through which recipient individuals, states and governments can voice concerns without fear of reprisal.

While that all may seem straightforward enough at first glance, I can assure you that it is not necessarily so. For the non-aid workers reading, let’s clarify just a bit about accountability (and so that there’s no confusion, when I write “accountability” in this post, I specifically mean “humanitarian accountability”):

Accountability is not NGOs jumping to explain themselves every time there is an accusation or insinuation. As more and more aid non-insiders begin to use the language of accountability, it is important to remain clear that there is most definitely a difference between accountability to beneficiaries about what is being done and how and why, on the one hand, and explaining ourselves ad infinitum to those who just don’t get it. An aid non-insider misunderstanding the issues and raising the alarm that “aid agencies are slow to respond” or “should run distributions better” does not mean, necessarily, that we’ve screwed up or have been somehow unaccountable.

Aid is not a democratic process. Horribly uncool to say. But someone has to. I’ve written before that aid is about bringing change in from outside. Sometimes that change is downright painful. This article by Austen Davis lays out quite well a number of the issues around interpretation of what humanitarian accountability means in practical terms:

“…we should be primarily accountable to victims. However, the idea that this means that we need greater community participation is a dangerous over-simplification. The degree to which a humanitarian worker can be accountable to people in societies that have been destroyed from within is questionable. Humanitarian workers act within highly politicised and biased environments.”

Part of implementing aid programs in a responsible manner means that there are absolutely times when we, the aid workers, as outsiders, look at a situation and know what we need to do in order to improve it, to save lives, to bring a measure of humanity into situations that should never exist. In those situations, it is not a matter of voting or basing programs on lowest-common-denominator logic. To be pulled into poor programming models based on pressure, whether from beneficiaries, from donors, or from external commentators in the name of accountability would amount, ultimately, to the opposite.

But accountability still is a process… It is important to understand there is rarely an instance of an aid agency being either totally unaccountable or 100% accountable. In the context of emergency response work there are some fairly specific things that NGOs can and should do to be accountable (laid out very clearly in The Good Enough Guide) but even so “accountability” is less of an auditable state of being or not-being as it is a culture of how to implement. The disaster happens; your agency responds; some accountability measures are implemented from minute-one, others phase in down the road. Sometimes the specifics of the emergency or the context are such that certain accountability measures are simply not doable.

Accountability is variable. Expanding on the previous point just a bit, there is no one-to-one relationship between accountability and aid effectiveness. It is possible to do poor quality, ineffective aid even where great accountability mechanisms are built in and accountability practices are followed. And the converse is also true: it is possible to deliver very high quality, very effective aid with no overt or specific attention to The Good Enough Guide or use of HAP’s (excellent) online resources. Of course good accountability practices and mechanism do help make aid more effective. But it is important to understand that they do not equal each other.

Doing accountability takes thought, work and costs money. There is a great deal that can be said around this point. But it is incredibly important for aid non-insiders – particularly those who would raise accountability concerns publicly – to understand that accountability requires organizational infrastructure and resources to do at all. It takes people, on the ground in an emergency response, whose job and role is focused on accountability. It takes money, and it takes time. It takes organizations bandwidth to do accountability. All in contexts – and Haiti is a very good example – where there is a great deal of external scrutiny and pressure to be “more cost efficient” or to “move faster.” In many instances, because it is about engaging extensively with communities for feedback before, during and after, accountability can slow the delivery of aid and slow the communication of results or impact. Moreover, doing accountability and doing it properly effectively raises the cost of emergency response.

I am not at all trying to imply that we should be lax or resistant to good accountability practices. Quite the opposite: accountability is critical. But I am also saying, that we all need to understand exactly what it is, what it is not, and the trade-offs involved in doing accountability in the field.

4 Responses to “Accountability”

  1. Carla 15 April, 2010 at 7:54 pm #

    Great post. There is a difference between humanitarian and development accountability, no? I wonder if outsiders don’t sufficiently separate the two–or aren’t even aware that they are separate?

  2. zenpeacekeeper 15 April, 2010 at 10:41 pm #

    I feel strongly about the need to have the balls to be an ‘outsider’ sometimes. Sometimes that means holding to humanitarian principles even when a disrupted, perhaps even traumatized community don’t see the need for them. Accountability doesn’t have to mean “making sure that everyone in the local community is really happy with everything you do”. Not when there will always be conflicting interests in any community.


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