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An Independent Commission for Voices in Crisis: changing the referee instead of changing the game

by Maryam Zarnegar Deloffre
26 April 2021

This week outgoing Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock offered a scathing assessment of progress on accountability to affected populations (AAP) and proposed an Independent Commission for Voices in Crisis (ICVIC) as a mechanism to hold aid agencies to account. This call is in response to data that shows humanitarian organisations consistently perform poorly when it comes to truly including affected populations in humanitarian decision-making, taking their opinions into account when providing aid, and addressing complaints.

While the idea for an independent commission is provocative, it is not new. This idea was part of the original standard-setting initiatives in the late 1990s. It failed and will likely fail again for many of the same reasons. An ICVIC is just a new way to referee the same game. A true accountability revolution would involve questioning whether we are playing the right game.

An independent commission is not a new idea

The current efforts to address AAP are rooted in the Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda (JEEAR), the first multi-agency, system-wide evaluation of an international humanitarian response, which fostered enduring networks that were instrumental in developing several collective accountability and standard-setting initiatives. Already in 1996, the JEEAR made a strong recommendation for an Ombudsman for humanitarian assistance—a special office under the aegis of the United Nations where beneficiaries of humanitarian assistance could voice their grievances about humanitarian organisations’ activities in the field.

Why did the HAO fail and what lessons can we draw?

The Humanitarian Accountability Ombudsmen (HAO) ultimately did not come to fruition and instead morphed into Humanitarian Accountability Partnership-International which merged with others to form the CHS Alliance. Some of the challenges to the HAO have since been resolved, but many persist and would also be obstacles to the proposed ICVIC.

One reason why the HAO failed was the perception that it was a British project with little buy-in from other stakeholders. It gained momentum at the 1997 World Disasters Forum hosted by the British Red Cross Society and the original working group tasked with researching the feasibility of various models of ombudsmen-type systems, was comprised of British NGOs, donors and academics working in the humanitarian field.

Over the last twenty years, standards projects have increased inclusion and participation in standards development processes, using practices like consensus-building, field-testing, and broad-based consultation. Yet, I show in a recent working paper that though standard-setting initiatives like Sphere and the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) have sought input and participation in developing the rules, a small group of actors decide what game is being played. Focusing on rule-based coordination as the way to achieve quality and accountability, reflects a particular practice community dominated by INGOs based in North America and Western Europe.

ICVIC, like the HAO, would have to establish a complaints procedure and an external monitoring and regulatory mechanism based on a common agreed-upon framework. As the HAO was being proposed in the early days of AAP, the quality and accountability standards initiatives had not yet taken shape and there was heated debate regarding baseline standards. The sector now has the CHS against which complaints could be filed but the CHS already has a verification mechanism through the Humanitarian Quality Assurance Initiative (HQAI). CHS is already a prerequisite for several donors including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark and the UK’s Disasters Emergency Committee and organisations verified by HQAI have streamlined access to partnership agreements from the German government and the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO).

A third reason HAO failed was critics viewed the suggested policing role of the Ombudsman and its potential power to sanction NGOs as an unacceptable violation of NGO independence. Given increased restrictions on civic spaces and related concerns regarding shrinking humanitarian space, it seems unlikely this criticism will go away.

A final, and most significant challenge to the HAO, was how to reach and involve crisis- and conflict-affected populations. Nearly twenty years after the demise of the HAO, this remains the key stumbling block. Despite continuous commitment to AAP, surveys consistently show that people from Haiti, to Uganda, to the Central African Republic still do not feel consulted or that their complaints are taken seriously. This is because, today, like in 1996, we are offering technical fixes to political problems.

Missed opportunity for a radical reimagining of aid

An independent audit or monitoring mechanism assumes the underlying accountability problem is that affected populations have no way of alerting donor agencies when providers of humanitarian assistance do a poor job. Right now, affected populations report feedback directly to the implementing organisations, who may or may not act on that information. ICVIC would collect this feedback and report it to the Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC) and other donors who would apply direct pressure by prioritising funding to organisations who make the grade.

But by placing a global mechanism—the ICVIC—as an essential linchpin in humanitarian accountability, maintains focus on global solutions, which works against the localisation agenda. Localisation requires more direct forms of accountability and a shift in focus from global to national or subnational mechanisms. While thin on details, the ICVIC proposal still centers on the global—ICVIC will grade Clusters, humanitarian response plans (HRPs) and humanitarian needs overviews (HNOs), it will report to the ERC, and it will be housed in OCHA.

A more promising model would 1) empower national and local NGOs to define and design the benchmarks for accountability, 2) would locate ICVIC at the local level, with locally owned advisory boards and direct input from affected populations, and 3) would include real-time, joint evaluation to assess needs that would support allocation of flexible funding and act directly on feedback from affected populations. ICVIC, as proposed, will perpetuate a system that requires information and resources to flow through global organisations, rather than imagining a system that shifts focus and power to local and national actors and bottom-up forms of governance.

Maryam Zarnegar Deloffre is Associate Professor of International Affairs and the Director of the Humanitarian Action Initiative at the Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University

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