Accountability and humanitarian actors: speculations and questions
by Austen Davis October 2003

Accountability is a relatively straightforward concept. So why is humanitarian accountability so peculiarly complex?

As humanitarians, we work for people who have been victimised, which means they have had their rights as citizens and their human dignity denied. We work in highly unaccountable environments.  Accountability is one of those unquestionably ‘good things’ that it is taboo even to question, but what it actually means is far from clear. Who is accountable, for what and to whom?  The relationships that allow independent humanitarian action mean we have to be accountable to those who give, those who do and those who receive – but are these all part of the same set of accountability concerns?

Accountability means simply being able to be held to account for one’s actions, and implies a degree of responsibility for those actions. To be accountable one has to be clear about the specific limits of responsibility of the actor in question.  Second, the objectives of the actor have to be clear and legitimate. It seems to be extremely difficult to define humanitarianism.  Are soldiers intervening in Kosovo to prevent massacres and ethnic cleansing humanitarian?  Are soldiers giving out water and food in Iraq humanitarian?  Is the FAO a humanitarian agency (as claimed in some fundraising)?  Is Oxfam humanitarian when it calls for non-intervention in Iraq on the basis of likely civilian needs?  Is MSF withdrawing from North Korea in the face of manipulation humanitarian?  Is the Red Cross refusing to publicly expose massive and organised abuse humanitarian?  Whatever your take on what humanitarianism is, there is clearly a very broad use of the term and a wide understanding of what it means, and hence what humanitarian responsibility entails.  Without the capacity to be explicit and precise about objectives, it is unlikely that accountability can be enhanced as a one-size-fits-all initiative.

Humanitarian charters or the commitments of aid agencies normally refer to saving life, alleviating suffering, protecting and enhancing human dignity and (for some) contributing to the capacity of the individual to make his or her own choices concerning their own life.  But even this range of objectives is broad and cannot be measured on the same scale.  How do you compare the value of a mission that was successful in reducing mortality rates with one that was successful in restoring human dignity?  If there are too many axes of worth, then any critic can either condemn or praise every action.

A series of initiatives has aimed at improving the quality and coherence of humanitarian action – the Sphere project, ALNAP, the Humanitarian Ombudsman project, the Humanitarian Accountability Project, the ‘Good Donorship’ review.  Most are multi-agency initiatives with heavy backing from the UN or NGOs, and heavy donor government involvement. It is this that condemns the whole accountability process.

Misconception no. 1: the ‘international community’ fulfils its humanitarian responsibilities by acting through the ‘humanitarian system’

These two phrases sum up a great deal about where we go wrong in promoting and developing humanitarian action.  The development of extensive mutual involvement of donor governments, UN agencies and a vast array of NGOs as humanitarian actors – all meeting in the same conferences and having interlocking funding and communication agendas – has promoted a false sense of combined and coherent action.  Differences of purpose and responsibility have been blurred to such an extent that it is impossible to say who is responsible for doing what: we are all the same, cogs in one vast machine with a single benevolent purpose.

If this were really true, systemic attempts to promote accountability might perhaps function.  But there is in fact no such thing as the ‘international community’ – there are international relations, but the peoples of the earth, their nations, their states and their leaders, hardly behave as a single community.  And there is no such thing as the ‘humanitarian system’ – there are various actors with inter-dependent relations, but they are hardly all oriented towards the same goals.  The mixing of multiple agendas (such as peace, development and economic or political interests) with humanitarian objectives undermines the single-minded purpose that must characterise any humanitarian system.  This misconception is critical as it allows the formation and perpetuation of a false view of what humanitarian action is about – how the actors inter-relate and what the challenges are.  It necessarily dictates false answers to falsely conceived problems and allows responsibilities to be avoided – which ultimately kills.

Misconception no. 2: humanitarian action is simply short-term relief aimed at saving lives

However much we talk about dignity, freedom of choice, the morality of humanitarian action and human compassion and solidarity, we normally then move on to the serious business of measuring mortality and malnutrition rates.  Systemic approaches towards accountability necessarily focus on the generic over the specific; the measurable over the intentional; and the preferences of funders over those of victims.  Quality of action is not a minor concern. We are working in other people’s societies and in moments of shocking disregard for life, people and society.  We cannot afford to go in armed only with good intentions.  We have to be good, we have to be wanted, and we have to use our scarce resources to do as much as we can as well as we can. This has to involve more than reduced mortality rates.

We are currently working under bizarre circumstances whereby our sector orients itself towards standardisation, quality and accountability agendas driven largely by government donors which also seek to reduce the costs of humanitarian action.  The same promoters of quality also promote a cost-effectiveness that is oriented towards reducing costs above enhancing quality.  The result is a form of assistance that largely ignores the conditions of delivery, presence and solidarity and the risks of the co-option and abuse of humanitarian assistance as a means to control victims of crisis.

Misconception no. 3: the failure of accountability is the most significant failure of humanitarian agencies

This misconception states that the failure of humanitarian accountability is the fault of humanitarian agencies, and that it is morally unacceptable that they do not improve.  This ignores a real problem with accountability – we act in other people’s societies and so are accountable to their laws.  But we act because a society has failed to look after the basic needs of some people, and so we work in contradiction to the powers in the society that we are accountable to. We obtain our funding and our legitimacy from Western publics.  Do we answer to private givers, to government donors, to multilateral technocratic donors (ECHO, the UN), to local authorities or to victims?  Ultimately, we should be primarily accountable to victims. However, the idea that this means that we need greater community participation is a dangerous over-simplification. The degree to which a humanitarian worker can be accountable to people in societies that have been destroyed from within is questionable.  Humanitarian workers act within highly politicised and biased environments.  There are few institutions that have not been touched or tainted; if you rely on them and they become responsible for directing resources, they are often co-opted and corrupted.  How can one seek to be accountable to victims when the nature of victimisation means disempowerment, control, manipulation and abuse?

Everyone has a personal story illustrating abuse of authority.  Here is a very undramatic one: I once worked in a refugee camp in the Ivory Coast, where ‘community leaders’ asked why we spent so much money providing care to people; if we just gave them the drugs, they would distribute them equally and we could afford to buy more.  I carefully explained to them that if we provided enough drugs and distributed them equally to everyone, this would not ensure better health – there is a difference between equity and equality – and you do not always want to disclose to the powerful one’s need for care.  In our own societies, we do not manage complex welfare programmes and health care systems purely through the dictates of beneficiary preference. We have laws, professional institutions, specialist media and other instruments to seek patient perspectives.  Accountability and regulation is a sophisticated and multi-dimensional affair. Humanitarian workers are usually quite young and inexperienced, and have to work in the reality of their context – not all people have the experience and political knowledge to ensure good management of a process of negotiation and articulation of need and response.  In broken societies, the complex institutional architecture needed to generate adequate checks and balances simply does not exist. This is not our fault.

We must remember that victims are victims. Humanitarians work in difficult places, with limited power and capacities, but this does not mean that we should give up.  Not everything is our fault and we cannot fix everything. We have to be clear what our responsibilities are and what we are able to do; and we have to be very clear what we cannot do and where others have responsibility, or we will end up simply providing charity and reinforcing oppression, abuse and exclusion.  External powers have some responsibility to act to protect ordinary people, but these responsibilities are much contested in international law and only sporadically applied. Local powers have the responsibility to ensure the rights, freedoms and welfare of their people – do not confuse responsibilities.  We need to ensure that we do not unwittingly take on their responsibilities, or point the finger.

Misconception no. 4: humanitarian aid is non-political, so politicians, the UN and NGOs can all sit at the same table to build a global humanitarian system

Humanitarian action seeks to alleviate suffering. Humanitarianism is predicated on a shared value for human life.  Political adversaries are encouraged to allow humanitarian actors to intervene with the deal that we will serve the civilian population, promoting human life and dignity and not making partisan choices to support one side or one political project over another.

This does not mean that humanitarian action is reduced to simple charity – the giving of assistance to alleviate pain without challenge to the status quo. Humanitarian assistance is provided in deeply challenging conditions in places where human beings are being degraded, humiliated and abused.  The presence of humanitarian actors demonstrates (rather than substitutes for) political failure.  Humanitarian action has a radical and anti-authoritarian character that is essential in reducing the dangers of manipulation and co-option, turning our help against the people we try to help.  Belligerent governments, donor governments, UN agencies and the vast array of NGOs have different objectives and responsibilities which should be enhanced to encourage realistic solutions to problems, rather than maintaining the current irresponsible delusion of collective oneness.

Humanitarian actors have to be accountable to multiple donors, to local authorities, but principally to the victims of crisis.  These responsibilities are often at odds, the chief problem being that local authorities are often the victimisers, while international donors make excuses for their inaction. This makes the issue of accountability to victims complex and highly contextual.  Accountability to victims is often a struggle in the face of power and is highly dependent on the political savvy of aid workers (which can be encouraged and supported by agencies) and the professional standards and drives of the agency and its staff.

A sectoral or systemic attempt to generate humanitarian accountability has little currency.  It blurs responsibilities and differences of capacity; without a clear determination of objectives and legitimacy, an agency cannot be held accountable. Instead, each organisation has to be clear about what it is trying to do.  Each organisation has to negotiate the terms of access and action with all the parties it confronts, not allowing the UN to negotiate and administer joint access and modes of operation. Each organisation has a responsibility to offer quality assistance (sharing lessons learned) through the development of professional standards and training, and to be open and transparent to other actors and the media about what they do, the risks they take and their successes and failures.

Accountability systems that genuinely contribute to the development of better, faster and braver humanitarian action would be well worth the investment.  But initiatives which take up time, blur responsibilities and build illusions without enhancing the quality or speed of humanitarian action are taking resources away from important work. It is time we asked ourselves where the balance lies now.

Austen Davisis general director of MSF-Holland.