Accountability to the beneficiaries of humanitarian aid: old messages, new messengers
by John Mitchell, ALNAP July 2007

Humanitarians have spent a great deal of time talking and writing about the importance of being accountable to beneficiaries. At its simplest, it all seems very straightforward: genuine accountability through the consultation and participation of affected people is empowering and results in more appropriate and effective aid. Everyone seems to agree on this. The concept is explicit in a raft of humanitarian aid policies, codes and principles, donors are beginning to use it as a condition of funding and evaluations of humanitarian action are increasingly highlighting its importance.

The language of participation and accountability to beneficiaries is now being used much more widely and explicitly by high-ranking officials in the humanitarian community. Last year, for example, former US President Bill Clinton, in his role as UN Special Envoy, argued that we need to better utilise and work alongside local structures to ensure that relief and recovery assistance actively strengthens, rather than undermines, local actors. Senior UN officials, including Jan Egeland, the Emergency Relief Coordinator, and Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, have stressed the importance of accountability to local populations and beneficiaries. In June 2006, a parliamentary inquiry into the UK’s response to natural disasters specifically asked witnesses to give examples of how lives are lost through a failure to ensure accountability.

Thus, the language of participation, once the sole domain of developmental theorists and humanitarian idealists, has caught on at the highest levels. It has successfully crossed into the humanitarian sector, and has become a mainstream message articulated by humanitarianism’s most senior spokespeople. On the surface, the message seems to be clearer, louder and more straightforward than ever. Consultation and participation with affected communities results in better and more appropriate aid and saves more lives. For aid agencies, therefore, the pressure to deliver accountability to beneficiaries is increasing, not least because donors are starting to apply accountability as a condition of their funding. The Swedish International Development Co-operation Agency (SIDA), for instance, has asked agencies to sign up to Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) accountability standards in order to be eligible for funding.

Not so very long ago, senior aid officials had a different message. In the 1990s, the prevailing rhetoric was about results-based management and demonstrating impact. The era was epitomised by Andrew Natsios, then head of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), who once famously told an audience of NGO representatives: ‘doing good is no longer enough. We have to show results. If you cannot measure aid empirically, then USAID will have to find other partners to fund’. In this environment accountability to beneficiaries was a peripheral issue, something woolly and airy-fairy that could easily be put to one side in the light of more grown-up and material priorities. So, why the turnaround?

Part of the reason may be that aid agencies and research institutes have essentially failed to demonstrate the impact of their work beyond some basic data on mortality, morbidity and nutritional status. It has been possible to say something about the humanitarian imperative – i.e., saving life in the short term – but wider questions about other humanitarian concerns, such as recovery, livelihoods, capacity-building, protection and rights, remain largely unanswered. On the whole, impact evaluations have been inadequate tools for the task in hand due to, among other things, a lack of baseline data and compressed timeframes. Impact monitoring has not worked and research programmes are prone to methodological problems, including the seemingly intractable problem of how to attribute impact in a multi-variable environment. But despite the lack of empirical proof of impact, USAID has not in fact found other partners to fund, and nor have any other donors. Instead, they have simply found another demand and another idiom for their rhetoric.

From what we have seen this year, the message from the top is now more in line with the concerns of practitioners and those preoccupied with humanitarian ideals. The question of impact, once presented as a strict condition of funding, has taken a back seat as accountability to beneficiaries has come to the fore. Natsios’ concern has not disappeared entirely, but it has been subsumed into a new equation. In this formulation, improving accountability to beneficiaries through increased consultation and participation will result in more appropriate and effective programming; in other words, in the absence of empirical data, better accountability to beneficiaries now serves as a kind of proxy of impact.

All of this sounds like a step forward, and one could be forgiven for believing that there must be an indisputable evidence base underpinning the assumption that participation equals better programming. But there isn’t: these assumptions are not grounded in evidence. Participation theory – imported into the humanitarian sector from agricultural systems thinking in the 1970s and 1980s – has proved a very tricky concept, especially in environments characterised by war, conflict and social dislocation. We know that accountability to beneficiaries in Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), northern Uganda, western and southern Sudan, West Africa and Haiti remains extremely weak. Equally, we know that it is not easy to change this given the realties on the ground. Problems such as lack of access, uncooperative authorities and the proximity of belligerent groups make close consultation with beneficiaries difficult and sometimes inadvisable. An OCHA evaluation from Darfur found that ‘beneficiaries have still not been effectively engaged in the management of matters that concern themselves directly’. Many agencies see participatory processes as ‘empowering’, but the perpetrators of violations of human rights are likely to take a very different view. Responsible field personnel have to weigh up the pros and cons of engaging with aid recipients, and in some situations may prefer to adopt alternative tactics such as ‘accompaniment’ ‘advocacy’ or ‘witnessing’.

The real question therefore is how to implement participatory processes in a way that will not expose vulnerable populations to more risk. Currently, there is no clear way forward given the dearth of evidence about what has worked, where and why. The evidence base simply does not exist. It is astonishing that no-one has yet brought experiences together and presented an analysis. Guides on how to set up participatory programming exist, but their content is based primarily on developmental theories rather than on experience gleaned from the humanitarian environment. This is not to say that some experiences are not there – there is good reason to expect that there is much evidence buried in grey literature, in old agency sit reps, the odd evaluation and in the heads of the people involved. But it remains largely hidden and untested.

All this leaves one with the feeling that the new level of participatory rhetoric, although preferable in many ways to the results-based management talk of the last decade, is based on untested assumptions rather than evidence. But for some it serves a dual purpose: not only does it sidestep the problem of demonstrating impact, but it also fits with the current geopolitical agenda and the tactics for winning the war on terror. The reality is that, despite the humanitarian principles of impartiality and proportionality, most aid remains tied to bigger political objectives. As this ‘war’ increasingly involves winning hearts and minds, so the importance of consultation, of understanding people’s views and needs, increases. In this context, the language of participation contains within it both humanitarian ideals, and military and political objectives. In a world where humanitarianism and geopolitics are often linked, participation provides an idiom that, on the surface at least, is satisfactory to all parties. One can only hope that this includes those who are most at risk of violence, discrimination and deprivation.

John Mitchell is Head of the Active Learning Network for Accountability and performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP). His email address is: