Between February and May 2014, I was seconded to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the Central African Republic as the Accountability to Affected Populations (AAP) and Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) inter-agency coordinator. As part of the Transformative Agenda, interagency coordinators can be deployed at the onset of Level 3 emergencies, with the objective of ensuring that accountability and sexual violence are on the table, and that appropriate processes and capacities are supported. My role in CAR was to provide support to the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT), the Inter-Cluster Coordinator (ICC) and the clusters and their members to improve accountability at the organisational and collective level. For reasons of logistics and security, during my stay in the country I only managed to visit Bambari and Bossangoa, as well as displacement sites in Bangui. This article reflects on my experiences in the country in relation to the Inter- Agency Standing Committee (IASC)s five commitments on accountability, highlights shortcomings and good practice, both from the perspective of aid workers and affected communities, and offers some general findings and conclusions.
Leadership and governance
The plan of action devised by the Emergency Director Group (EDG) and included in the AAP coordinator terms of reference made for good marching orders but was also both very ambitious and generic. It had not been shared with the Humanitarian Country Team, which was not consulted on its content, undermining its acceptance. As a result, a revised plan of action structured around the five IASC commitments on accountability was prepared for the HCT, which adopted it in mid-April 2014. This was an important step in providing a framework for action and reviewing progress, as well as providing legitimacy with the clusters. Following the plans adoption, I co-facilitated an inter-cluster workshop with the ICC and the gender advisor to develop a workplan. In contrast to the EDG plan, the Operational Peer Review relied on self-assessments conducted with aid workers to identify problems and solutions. The review contributed to the content of the AAP action plan.
Throughout my deployment there was regular engagement with the clusters in order to raise awareness of AAP and explore ways to integrate its components into the work of the clusters. Low awareness of the IASC commitments on accountability and the HAP standard, compounded by the absence of material in French, were partly addressed through the production of posters and other documents promoting understanding of accountability. Some clusters provided support in terms of training, and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Common Humanitarian Fund made efforts to integrate markers for accountability into contracts, selection processes and reporting requirements.
Transparency and information-sharing
The provision of transparent information on programmes is usually not seen as a priority in emergency responses, and as a result communities involved in needs assessments are often not told that they will not be receiving any assistance. People in Bossangoa generally understood that it was not always possible for aid agencies to keep their promises, but complained that they were often informed about changes at the last minute or not at all.
Needs assessments should be seen as an opportunity to ask about peoples information needs (for displaced people in CAR the main information need is related to security conditions in home areas), forming the basis for meaningful two-way information. There is still an assumption that, as aid workers, we know what is best for a certain population. As such, communications are often designed to convince people of something, rather than to share information. This was the case in IDP sites in Bangui, where the assumption was that, because of the poor conditions in which displaced people were living, including an increased risk of disease during the rainy season, people should be encouraged to return home or relocate to other sites. This failed because most people were not ready to return due to security concerns. In order to address this issue, a communication approach for IDP sites in Bangui was developed with the Camp Coordination and Camp Management cluster, identifying information needs, the most appropriate ways to communicate with people, the resources required and ways to monitor the impact of messages. To be successful, communications approaches must be devised from an accountability perspective, rather than a public relations one.
In terms of programme implementation, some aid workers still see participation as taking up time they cannot afford, arguing that their programmes rely on experts who know what people need. Multiple examples have shown that this is not always the case, for example when communities receive seeds for crops they are not cultivating. Not involving people, or relying exclusively on small committees that provide a convenient contact point, undermines programmes and makes them less relevant and more vulnerable to corruption. In Bossangoa, community members argued that involving them would improve the quality of registration lists, ease tensions and reduce the risk of corruption. They also suggested special treatment for the most vulnerable, such as providing a tent to shelter elderly people from the rain or facilitating their access to sanitary installations. When people are involved, we do not just get requests, we also get useful suggestions.
Feedback and complaints handling
Continuous dialogue with communities, based on postdistribution monitoring or other ways to seek regular feedback from communities, can help to avoid feedback turning into complaints. To achieve this, the feedback loop needs to be closed by acting on or accounting for requests. In Bangui, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) established a team to monitor the situation in IDP sites, and note requests and complaints. However, very few can be addressed by IOM directly. When the same issues are raised every week without being addressed, the reaction is inevitable: Dont record complaints and dont ask us to submit them if you cant follow up with concrete action. The problem is more complex where many organisations are present, and where information about programme responsibility is unclear, because it is difficult for people to know who to complain to, and the responsibility for taking action is diluted. UNHCR suggested that the MPoko site managers agency should set up a complaints desk, but without a commitment to act on complaints or enforce action this would probably have only increased frustration, and no system was set up.
The closest to a functioning inter-agency complaints mechanism was the 4040 green line, a 24/7 toll-free number set up by the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) in 2013 to monitor and respond to protection issues, map incidents by neighbourhood, provide advice and link victims with organisations that could provide support. Although not the primary purpose of the service, it is also used to convey complaints to service providers, highlighting the fact that there are no effective channels for people to raise concerns and get responses from humanitarian organisations.
Evaluation and learning
In Bossangoa, communities complained about a lack of engagement and follow-up from aid organisations. At country level, very few organisations had a functioning M&E team, but those that did acknowledged its value. For the DRC, while Monitoring and Evaluation officers were sometimes seen as annoying by busy programme staff, they served as a powerful reminder of best practice by asking relevant questions, and were strong allies in supporting more accountable programing.
It is not always obvious that M&E supports accountability both to donors and to aid recipients. In a long discussion with the M&E officer of a UN agency, communities and beneficiaries were never mentioned as a source for or stakeholder in the M&E process, despite frequent prompting. To address this kind of issue, training including participative evaluations was provided to 16 accountability focal points in late April in a workshop jointly organised with the visiting FAO accountability advisor, who subsequently organised participative evaluations with FAO partners.
Should we do it again?
While having a dedicated individual interacting on a daily basis with cluster members, the ICC and the HCT considerably helped in raising awareness, building capacity and developing practice around accountability, lessons from my deployment should be used to improve approaches to accountability if the experience is to be repeated. Sending an inter-agency AAP coordinator to Level 3 emergencies is not in itself sufficient to improve practice. IASC agencies need to be more proactive at including accountability discussions and objectives in their strategic documents, operating processes and programmes. Currently, only FAO and WFP have dedicated accountability positions, an example other agencies should follow. The IASC task team on AAP and PSEA has committed to providing practical support, and the Sphere project is working with HAP International to set up a help desk for field staff. Protocols are also being developed under OCHAs leadership to document more explicitly accountability responsibilities within the cluster system. Given the lack of previous experience, I was hosted by OCHA while being loosely situated in the organigram. Experience to date suggests that the accountability coordinator position should be more clearly linked to the ICC, possibly as the focal point for quality, accountability and M&E.
To ensure that the humanitarian system is accountable in the way it responds, it also needs to dramatically improve its use of information to make decisions and adapt its programmes. In the CAR, as in any other country, information on the humanitarian situation is not reliable, comprehensive or up to date. Except for refugees and IDPs (to an extent), figures for people in need are not updated for months on end, and usually do not include data from all operational actors. Figures are often contradictory and there is insufficient detail on the response. As a result, it is rare that clusters or the HCT can use these figures to discuss action and take decisions, making the response less effective and accountable. More needs to be done to ensure that data is relevant, reliable and up to date. Part of the problem is the disjointed, paper-based approach to delivering aid, with long delays in making data available and incompatible formats and indicators. Given this, the digital management of distributions offered by systems such as the LMMS Android-based platform piloted in CAR offers several advantages. First, increased effectiveness means less waiting time for aid recipients. Second, by making recipient lists less vulnerable to manipulation, digital systems reduce the risk of fraud and make it more likely that aid will reach the people who are meant to receive it. Third, M&E is more effective because distribution reports are available instantly, and allows targeted post-distribution monitoring.
In the end, being more accountable is not just about being more effective. Greater accountability also aligns with the personal values of most aid workers by supporting a more personal, balanced and respectful relationship with communities, thereby also increasing job satisfaction not a bad side effect by any means.
David Loquercio is the Head of Policy and External Relations for HAP International. He was seconded to OCHA in the Central African Republic as the AAP and PSEA interagency coordinator between February and May 2014.