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How do you ensure accountability in challenging settings?

Beth Turner

Programme Development Coordinator, Integrity Action

The power imbalance that exists between humanitarian and development agencies and the people they are trying to help in challenging contexts has long been acknowledged by both sectors.

The power imbalance that exists between humanitarian and development agencies and the people they are trying to help in challenging contexts has long been acknowledged by both sectors. As holders of money and resources, agencies and organisations are the ones that are making the biggest decisions in what interventions delivered on the ground looks like.

I (Beth Turner, Programmes Development Coordinator) recently attended a session at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), titled ‘Being accountable to people affected by armed conflicts’. The issue of top-down decision making and the implications it has on ensuring that agencies truly are accountable to the people they are helping was discussed.  There was two central themes to the event;

  • How do humanitarian actors embed mechanisms to ensure that they can be accountable, especially in challenging contexts?
  • How do we ensure accountability goes beyond being merely a tick-box exercise, and promotes real participation of people ‘on the ground,’ that translates into the progression of humanitarian interventions?

Being accountable to those affected by armed conflicts can have many positive implications on the design and implementation of an intervention. Firstly, by putting accountability mechanisms in place, it gives those affected a vital line of communication and information. This might mean a need not previously identified is brought to the attention of those with the resources to address it.  Secondly, it enables humanitarian agencies to listen and to respond to the needs of those affected. This might result in changing the intervention over time so it becomes more effective and considerate of the context it is applied in. Thirdly, it builds trust.  When the decisions of humanitarian agencies are based on what people affected are saying, it shows that beneficiaries are at the centre of the response.

Conflict-afflicted settings are just as, and can be more, complex than settings that have been hit by a natural disaster. Firstly, traditional lines of communication are damaged; telephone lines might be down and there might be no internet connection. This limits the ability for international agencies to access information about the setting they are to work in-and thus prepare the most appropriate response. It also impacts the ability for people on the ground to share information and resources.  There is also the possibility that a party in the conflict wants to limit the ability for citizens to communicate. Capture of media outlets, propaganda and the closure of public spaces means that citizens are not fully aware of the situation they are not in or where they can safely go to find help. Even getting access to the area might be challenging, with humanitarian agencies often acting from outside. This is exemplified by the situation in Syria, where much aid is blocked from getting to civilians in desperate need.

Humanitarian agencies, in order to be accountable, have to understand these environments in order to implement the most appropriate mechanisms. This, as explained by the chairman of the session, should focus on turning people into ‘active responders,’ giving them the agency and ability to speak up when they want to. Decisions are then made based on feedback that is representative of the situation on the ground. This approach signifies the transition from the ‘accountability revolution’ prevalent in the early 2000’s, into now what is a call for a ‘participatory revolution.’ 

There was no clear answer about how to do this. This ‘known unknown’ was described by Rachel Hastie of Oxfam GB as ‘the collective blind spot of humanitarian action.’

However, it does become more achievable when humanitarian agencies relinquish some of their power to local structures. Building capacity of already existing structures means that people affected are better able to communicate with those delivering an intervention. This means they can be more responsive to changing circumstances, with decisions able to be made at the local level.

What incentives are there for humanitarian agencies to fully embed participatory mechanisms? This was a constant theme throughout the discussion. This suggests the idea that humanitarian agencies might be unwilling to transfer too much power to actors on the ground, especially when they are unsure of their capacity to deliver. This, rightly or wrongly might make them wary of the implications on results, and consequently the impact on their funding. Christina Bennett of the Humanitarian Policy Group described this fear as a consequence of the ‘humanitarian business model’ which implicates the donor, not the people affected, as the ‘client’. This makes responsive decision making to be embroiled in a ‘hybrid of bureaucracies’ which dictates the vertical supply chain that leads to the implementation of the intervention on the ground.

That is not to say that humanitarian agencies are prevented from incorporating participatory mechanisms because of donor pressures. Some donors are especially forward thinking in this.  Humanitarian and development organisations should collectively show how important the participation of affected people is to the realisation of a successful intervention. Budgeting for community consultations, for technologies that enable feedback, learning from failures and successes as well as building into programs clear plans of how they will transfer ‘power’ to local structures is essential for changing the funding cultures across the sectors and creating a ‘gold standard’ to ensure participation.

Establishing a ‘gold standard’ will also limit the risk that accountability becomes merely a tick-box exercise for humanitarian and development agencies. Taking a survey twice during an intervention is not sufficient to prove accountability to people affected. This creates an ‘illusion of accountability’ as Rachel Hastie stated, which should be actively discouraged by donors and also people within the organisations- though it might be the cheaper and easier method.  There needs to be a realisation, that though it might be initially uncomfortable for agencies to relinquish power, it will lead to a more successful and sustainable impact on the people affected, and their communities.