Children’s feedback committees in Zimbabwe: an experiment in accountability
by Chris McIvor, Save the Children (UK) July 2004

Over the last two years, due to drought, economic decline and low agricultural productivity arising from the government’s land reform programme, a significant humanitarian operation has been under way to feed Zimbabwe’s people. During the peak of the hungry season from November to April, some four to five million people (about 40% of the population) have been recipients of food aid. This has largely been delivered through international organisations, since government structures have generally been regarded by donors as too partisan and politically compromised to be able to deliver such assistance in a neutral and impartial manner.

To target beneficiaries within areas of need, agencies have largely used community meetings, supported by traditional structures of leadership such as chiefs, headmen and local councillors. Local leaders convene community gatherings, where agency personnel explain the criteria for selecting beneficiaries. After these criteria have been discussed and debated, the community is then tasked with producing its initial registration list. This is subsequently checked by humanitarian agencies through household verification and further meetings. Community committees are set up to notify beneficiaries of when food will be delivered, to assist with distributions and to participate in post-distribution monitoring.

On paper at least, community involvement in humanitarian assistance in Zimbabwe looks significant. Yet there are numerous signs that it may not be as extensive as it would appear. Many members of vulnerable communities in receipt of food aid do not feel empowered, do not believe that they are privy to all the information they should receive, and do not feel that agencies or their staff are in any way accountable to them for the aid that is delivered.

Community complaints

To explore community concerns, Save the Children (UK) carried out a survey in August 2003 in its three operational areas in Zimbabwe. Community members claimed that explanations of selection criteria were inadequate; agency staff, people claimed, were impatient when questions were asked, for example. They also pointed out that community gatherings were not necessarily the most appropriate mechanism for selecting beneficiaries, since there was a reluctance to publicly dispute the inclusion of influential people who might not merit food aid, for fear of recrimination and possible persecution. Many of those interviewed also complained of late deliveries, uncertain schedules and poor planning of distribution points. Several areas had no shade to protect against the sun or the rain during the wet season, nor did they have adequate latrines or running water.

Save the Children (UK)’s survey also included focus group discussions with 140 boys and girls between the ages of eight and 16. Their criticism was particularly worrying. Despite the fact that many children live in households where parents have either died or are absent, they claimed that they were never included in the registration process. Community gatherings did not seek their participation, nor did subsequent household verifications particularly focus on them as a group that needed to be consulted. When child-headed households were included in beneficiary lists, on many occasions no information was given to them about their entitlements, roles and responsibilities. Finally, children indicated that they were unwilling to make complaints, either within the community or to agency staff, for fear that food aid might be terminated. This was an observation echoed by adults and children alike. No independent, friendly and accessible mechanism of feedback had been set up, and people were left with the impression that the agency did not particularly value what they had to say.

The IASC task force

Further impetus for mechanisms that better responded to community concerns, especially among children, came from the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) task force on Protection from Exploitation and Abuse in Humanitarian Crises. This was set up in March 2002 in the wake of allegations of widespread sexual exploitation and abuse of refugees in West Africa. One of the task force’s recommendations was that humanitarian agencies must be more accountable to beneficiary populations, including children. This included disseminating information to all beneficiaries on their rights, entitlements and responsibilities, as well as the setting up of a mechanism to hear and respond to complaints.

Save’s children’s committees

In August 2003, the Save the Children (UK) programme formulated a plan to translate these recommendations into something practical and concrete. Several factors informed the strategy that was followed.

  • One of the major dilemmas relating to the appropriate monitoring of emergency aid interventions is that the people and organisations tasked with registering complaints and problems may well be the same people against whom the complaints are directed. The willingness to share this feedback and pass it on for resolution may ultimately depend on the goodwill of the people and institutions implicated.
  • Children are frequently invisible within the community structures set up to monitor the performance of aid programmes, and are unable to raise their individual and collective concerns. This relates not only to possible physical coercion and sexual exploitation, but also to their inclusion as beneficiaries in programmes. In Zimbabwe, where there are increasingly large numbers of child-headed households and where such families are considerably marginalised within community structures, this problem is acute.

To meet these considerations, the plan envisaged several stages. Food aid beneficiaries, particularly children, would set up their own committees to collect feedback, complaints and suggestions for improvements to the programme. Child representatives to these committees would be elected by groups of children themselves. These representatives in turn would receive training in information-gathering skills, the principles and practice behind food aid targeting and delivery, documentation and reporting skills and learning on how to be accountable, so that the views and opinions of other children were fairly and adequately represented. Each of these steps was preceded by detailed discussion with parents and community leaders, so as to solicit their permission for children to participate.

To address concerns about potential bias in the collection of information, it was decided to establish an independent channel of communication rather than rely on agency staff to gather and respond to the feedback received. This resulted in the idea of an independent ‘ombudsperson’ who would provide the core point of contact between the committees and the programme. This individual was expected to report to a board that had wider representation than senior Save the Children (UK) personnel. A representative of one of the organisation’s principal donors, a government delegate, a representative from another humanitarian agency and the director of the Save the Children (UK) programme were to form a hearing committee that would respond to the complaints and feedback coming from the children’s groups. This board had a mandate to redirect food aid operations in response to observations received, and to provide feedback to the children around their concerns.

Progress and lessons learnt

Seven children’s feedback committees had been formed by April 2004, representing seven communities in Mutoroshanga District in northern Zimbabwe. These communities largely comprise informal chrome miners and former commercial farm workers. It is in one of the most disadvantaged parts of the country. Save the Children (UK) has been working there for the last four years. Around 50 children have been trained, through formal workshops and practical on-site visits. An ombudsperson has been recruited and the board has met four times to hear feedback from the children, both about the food aid programme and about other issues.

The board generally believes that this intervention has provided information of a nature and quality that may not have been possible through the normal post-distribution monitoring visits conducted by international NGOs. In particular, children have raised issues around the allocation of food aid within households, and the marginalisation of orphans by caregivers prioritising their own children at mealtimes. When agency officers have previously conducted household verification visits, these observations have never been shared with them. The children’s committees have also suggested that the organisation needs to monitor more closely what happens to food after it is collected from distribution points. In some cases, guardians may sell a portion of the rations received to meet needs which have little to do with the welfare of the rest of the family.

Of particular concern are the cases of child abuse that have been brought to the board’s attention. These generally relate to the vulnerability of children under the care of step-parents or other guardians, one or both parents having died. Sexual exploitation, physical punishment, refusal to support orphans’ attendance at school and excessive child labour have been documented. In line with Save the Children (UK)’s child protection policy, these cases have been brought to the attention of the relevant authorities for further investigation and redress.

The children involved have also registered their interest and enthusiasm in being part of this project. It has given them skills they otherwise may not have acquired, and has increased their self-confidence and assertiveness within the family and the community.

Problems have also been noted. Some committee members claim that they have been stigmatised by other children and adults as ‘agency spies’, and that some people in the community are fearful that the aid programme will be terminated as a result of what they disclose. Through general community meetings and awareness raising, Save the Children (UK) has been at pains to point out that the purpose of this endeavour is not to find some pretext to withdraw assistance. One of the principal reasons for greater accountability within the programme is to ensure that it lives up to its ideal of meeting the needs of the most vulnerable.

Yet it would be naive to expect that promoting the accountability of emergency food aid programmes to the most marginalised and invisible members of a society does not have repercussions. This has surfaced in families, where some parents have expressed their reluctance to allow their children to participate in a process that they believe might well undermine their authority: ‘What will they demand next?’ was one comment made by guardians at community meetings set up during the initial phase of the project.

The fear of subsequent ‘demands’ also has a political dimension, and perhaps explains why, in another area of Save the Children (UK) operations, the local authorities rejected a proposal to set up feedback committees. In the project’s pilot district, some traditional leaders and local political representatives have expressed concern about setting up feedback and complaints mechanisms that might challenge their own ways of doing things in the community. As one councillor remarked, it is a short step from promoting the accountability of food aid deliveries to demands for greater accountability among elected office-holders.


Chris McIvoris Country Programme Director for Zimbabwe, Save the Children (UK). His email address is: chrism@scfuk.org.zw.


References and further reading

Humanitarian Exchange no. 24, July 2003, has a special feature on accountability, including an article covering the West African sex scandal.

Feedback Channels: A Save the Children (UK) Strategy for Channelling Complaints and Suggestions Related to Food Aid Operations in Zimbabwe, internal document, Harare, July 2003.

Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Humanitarian Crises in Southern Africa, WFP, UNICEF, SC (UK) Regional Training Report, Pretoria, May 2003. Report of the IASC Task Force on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Humanitarian Crises, 13 June 2002, www.unicef.org/emerg/IASCTFReport.pdf.

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