Accountability and Regulation
by John Borton June 2003

The issues of accountability and regulation are reaching the top of the humanitarian agenda. This agenda derives from multiple concerns. The number of agencies operating in emergencies has increased to unprecedented levels and the cost of international relief continues to escalate – the international response to the Rwanda crisis came with a price tag of $1.2bn between April and December 1994 alone. These costs are rising at a time of unparalleled scrutiny of aid budgets: from the American Congress in Washington to the EU Summit in Cannes, politicians are asking hard questions.

But its not just the politicians who are concerned, nor just money which is at issue. Relief interventions demand exceptional skills: agencies and their staff need to combine sensitivity and understanding of complex situations, while also maintaining the highest professional standards. It is hard to think of another industry or profession, controlling such enormous budgets and having such serious implications for both deliverers of aid and beneficiaries, which operates almost completely unregulated.

NGOs are at the heart of these debates about accountability and regulation. They are the subject of increasing donor scrutiny, but they are also the primary source of innovation in terms of developing common standards of conduct and mechanisms for their enforcement. In 1994, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, in collaboration with a number of NGOs, launched a Code of Conduct to guide relief interventions. In the preface to the Code published by the RRN, we welcomed this move towards self-regulation and standard-setting within the NGO community. We cautioned, however, that the real challenge would be to translate these broad principles, which few people would find objectionable, into specific mechanisms to ensure high professional standards in relief programmes.

Over the past year, the process set in motion by the Code of Conduct has continued to evolve. In this issue of the Relief and Rehabilitation Network, we publish a report on key issues for the management and support of expatriate relief workers. This report, commissioned by four NGOs, places human resource management squarely at the centre of the debate about the quality of aid programmes, and the need for greater professionalism in humanitarian interventions.

The report makes two main recommendations: the establishment of a code of good practice in the recruitment and support of staff, and the creation of a professional body to monitor and promote good management practice. It proposes that an Inter-Agency Coordinator should be responsible for taking forward these recommendations. At present the focus is on Britain, but there is considerable scope for such an initiative to be extended more widely. We would welcome feedback from RRN members on their experience and knowledge of staff management and accreditation in emergencies.

The themes of accountability and standards are continued in the Newsletter with updates on the Red Cross Code of Conduct, Guidelines for Good Policy and Practice by NGOs from the Commonwealth Forum, and a new code on the use of food aid, developed by EuronAid. A central point of the EuronAid food aid code is that relief aid should be used to promote longterm goals of development, not simply a stop-gap measure to respond to an immediate humanitarian crisis. This theme is explored by Penny Jenden of SOS Sahel in Network Paper 11 which reports on an innovative food security project in Koisha, in southern Ethiopia, an area experiencing a chronic food deficit. In 1991, the Ethiopian government launched a National Policy for Disaster Prevention and Preparedness, which aimed to maximise the development potential of relief aid. Network Paper 11 suggests that while there is considerable scope for increasing the linkages between relief and development assistance in areas such as Koisha, the major challenge remains how to confront a structural food deficit caused by the interaction of environmental degradation, the inheritance of decades of economic mismanagement, underinvestment in human development and population growth. In the context of southern Ethiopia, the idea of a linear progression from relief to development is clearly invalid: both relief and development aid need to contribute to reducing the vulnerability of large populations to chronic threats and sudden shocks to their livelihoods.

The challenge of responding to structural crisis is explored further in Network Paper 12 by Joanna Macrae, who considers the dilemmas of ‘post’-conflict transition, drawing on lessons from the health sector. The paper argues that traditional definitions of rehabilitation assistance in ‘post’-conflict situations are inadequate. In particular, it suggests that rehabilitation interventions tend to rely upon the instruments of relief, addressing the crisis of material supplies and broken infrastructure, but often neglecting the deeper crisis in the economic, political and social systems of conflict affected societies. In the case of health services, therefore, it will not be sufficient to rehabilitate damaged health infrastructure and increase the availability of supplies; central issues of human resources and health financing need to be addressed. However, addressing these dimensions of health policy and planning implies overcoming major constraints within the political and institutional environments in transitional situations as well as obstacles within the aid system itself.

Turning to the role of women in emergencies, Kitty Warnock of the Panos Institute reviews recent publications on women in emergencies, highlighting the lack of gender sensitivity which characterises many emergency relief operations. Lindsey Hilsum gives a very different perspective of women’s involvement in crises. Her article, Women Killers in Rwanda challenges assumptions about the role of women in conflict, describing how women in Rwanda have been both the victims and the perpetrators of the genocide.

Also in the Newsletter, Ailsa Holloway, from the International Federation of the Red Cross, looks back on the 1992 drought in southern Africa, and asks whether the lessons from that relief response have been learned, as once again the region confronts a serious drought. Gill Shepherd looks at the impact of large-scale population movements on the ecology of host communities. Drawing on the recent experience of Tanzania, which received a significant influx of Rwandese refugees, she identifies the short and long-term hazards of such movements, and proposes practical interventions to mitigate the worst effects.

In the Newsletter we also report on two developments within the Network itself. Following the RRN’s recent plunge into the ‘surf’, Internet ‘surfers’ can now access information on the Network, publications and membership via the Worldwide Web, and it is hoped that ultimately, publications will be available on the ‘Net’ – so see you on the beach!

In addition to our usual Newsletter and Network Papers, also included in this mailing is a booklet containing a number of papers presented at a conference co-convened by the United Nations Department of Humanitarian Affairs, Overseas Development Institute and Actionaid earlier this year. The pamphlet contains a series of articles which explore the implications of instability for both relief and development assistance. A series of follow-up activities are currently being planned, and we will keep our members up to date on progress.

If there is a theme which links the diverse articles and papers contained in this issue, it is that the world within which NGOs and other relief agencies are working is becoming ever more complex and demanding. What the contributions to this mailing suggest is that many of the assumptions which have underpinned and guided relief and development interventions are being tested. As the boundaries between relief and development become more blurred, and as the stage upon which NGOs operate becomes more crowded, there is a need for agencies and practitioners to look inwards and review their objectives, mandates and management practices. It will also be important to secure adequate and appropriate resources to maintain the quality of humanitarian action. Equally, there is a need to ensure that humanitarian intervention is accompanied by political action which addresses the causes and not just the symptoms of vulnerability. Therefore, NGOs and other practitioners need to look outwards, and engage with politicians, the public and the media. Strategic alliances are needed to exchange information, to provide mechanisms for accountability and to set the terms of future policy: we hope that this mailing provides a window on to existing debates and inspires new ones.

This issue is also available in French: Échange Humanitaire No. 4

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