The international humanitarian community is gearing up for a reset of the Grand Bargain. The review is on cue. Over the past couple of decades, new humanitarian reform initiatives have succeeded one another every five years or so. The challenge for negotiators now is to ensure that Grand Bargain 2.0 breaks out of this relentless boom-to-bust reform dynamic and provides a credible pathway to change.
Putting people at the centre is acknowledged as essential, yet the prevailing approach to accountability to affected people (AAP) cannot deliver this. It is built around mechanisms like helplines, communication projects and other discrete activities loosely overseen by accountability working groups. These mechanisms and activities may add value, although research carried out in the context of the Grand Bargain in 2019 shows comparatively few operational stakeholders believe they are worth pursuing in the face of other priorities. Even if there were more buy-in, these activities are not enough to be transformational in the sense of the Participation Revolution, a pillar of the Grand Bargain that aims to establish aid recipients’ influence in decision-making.
There are variations between countries but our findings show that depressingly high numbers of affected people do not believe they have much of a say. Take Chad, where we have just completed our fifth round of data collection since 2018. With few complaints mechanisms that work, we found that only 19% of internally displaced people and refugees there think their opinions are taken into consideration by humanitarians. They also tell us consistently that their most important needs are not met. In our March 2021 survey, only 12% of respondents answered positively on this. ‘This kind of humanitarian aid cannot empower us,’ one refugee said. Rather, they want access to land, services and the freedom to engage in petty trading.
The next iteration of the Grand Bargain must focus not on genteel notions of AAP – a helpline here, a rumour tracking exercise there – but on addressing three interconnected realities that are barriers to progress. The first is the absence of a results culture as the driving force behind humanitarian action. Second is the hectic tempo of the humanitarian planning cycle that diverts energy and attention from the real task at hand – finding solutions that measurably improve the lot of affected people. Last, and despite endless talk about incentives, is the lack of inducements powerful enough to actually spur change in the way humanitarian agencies operate.
Accountability to affected people is meaningless without broader accountability for results. A potentially-robust building block exists in the form of country-level Humanitarian Response Plans, which include upfront the broad strategic objectives that humanitarian teams hope to attain through their collective actions. This is progress, but it is not enough. There’s little incentive to systematically revisit the strategic goals to assess progress towards meeting them, and they’re broad enough that a lack of progress can almost always be explained away citing a lack of funds. In fact, there is little effort to look backwards and explain anything at all. It’s all about the next horizon, a relentless planning and implementation exercise that leaves country teams breathless. In most instances assessing needs and designing the response takes place simultaneously rather than sequentially – and there’s no serious effort to measure results. The whole fraught process feels as though it is more about securing funding than successfully improving the lot of affected people – and if fundraising is in fact its core purpose, there are probably easier ways to go about it.
In most places, the Humanitarian Programme Cycle lasts just 12 months. This means that, inevitably, every stage is rushed, even in humanitarian responses that will last for decades. One stage that receives especially short shrift is measuring results. It’s time to slow things down and stretch out the programme cycle so there is enough time to assess needs, make and implement plans and, crucially, monitor and review results before the programmatic wheel turns again.
A first step would be to extend the Humanitarian Programme Cycle to 24 months, with six-monthly reviews to find out whether humanitarian action is working – not from the perspective of aid workers, who have their own take on things, but from the perspective of the people whose needs and preferences humanitarian action sets out to satisfy. Their feedback is not the only important metric in assessing results, but it is the most important unmeasured one. It should be used as a driver of change, learning what’s working and what might need adapting.
Within an extended programme cycle, the accountability buck must stop with Humanitarian Coordinators and the Humanitarian Country Teams they lead. Yet no amount of voluntary guidelines, core standards, accountability frameworks or action plans can make that happen. In fact, most of these things are produced and rolled out with only token input from the upper echelons of humanitarian leadership, which is exactly why they can be easily brushed aside as simply more activities competing for dwindling resources.
Humanitarian Coordinators and their teams must measure the results achieved on their watch and seek validation and advice from the people affected by crisis. A cut-through way to get leadership attention is to stipulate that no country humanitarian appeal can be included in the Global Humanitarian Overview, the joint appeal that garners the lion’s share of humanitarian funding for country operations, without an inclusive, participatory review of the results of the previous response plan. Not an ‘AAP plan’ in a Humanitarian Response Plan, or the promise of a new working group – simply a commitment to ask affected people whether or not things are working, and then adapt to their feedback, or better explain why they can’t.
This would give donors a read-out on whether the humanitarian programmes they fund are delivering on their goals and a lever to promote real accountability to affected people. It would also give the Emergency Relief Coordinator, the top official in the UN humanitarian coordination hierarchy, a clearer sense of which country response plans are accountable and which are not.
We know it’s not easy, and we don’t mean to oversimplify or suggest that listening to community feedback magically equips people at all levels to act upon it and provide solutions previously deemed impossible. But done right, it would provide decision-makers with more confidence that the way they allocate overstretched resources maximises benefits to those aid is meant to serve.
Providing extra time to harried aid teams through a longer programme cycle, demanding a thorough review of results drawing on more regular input from affected people, and aligning the incentives exerted by donors and the Emergency Relief Coordinator would lay the foundations for a continuous approach to change in the system. This makes sense, as long as we are willing to do what all the Participation Revolution rhetoric dares us to: respect the views, agency and input of crisis affected people.
Nick van Praag is the Founder and Director of Ground Truth Solutions. He focuses on building the organisation’s team and its activities.
Meg Sattler is a Director at Ground Truth Solutions. She leads on response-wide programmes, focusing on advocacy and global initiatives.