The ‘accountability revolution’
by Humanitarian Practice Network October 2003

With the huge expansion of NGOs and other actors working in the humanitarian sector in the past decade have come numerous initiatives aimed at making them more professional, more responsible for their power and more accountable for what they do. This has often been referred to as an ‘accountability revolution’.

The responsibility, and therefore accountability, for responding to humanitarian crisis rests primarily, not with operational humanitarian organisations, but with the government or prevailing authority of the country in crisis, and with the states of the international community. It also rests at an individual level: we are all responsible and accountable for how we choose to respond to egregious suffering. This is where the humanitarian imperative originates.

The special feature of this issue of Humanitarian Exchange looks at where the ‘accountability revolution’ has brought us. Our contributors ask who is (or should be) accountable; to whom they are (or should be) accountable; and what they are (or should be) accountable for. John Mitchell reviews three broad approaches to accountability in humanitarian response, in particular concerning the accountability of operational organisations. Maurice Herson explores the particular nature of humanitarian accountability in the light of efforts to improve accountability to the ‘beneficiaries’ or ‘claimants’. While there have been numerous efforts to strengthen NGO accountability, there has been little attention on how effectively donors are held to account for their policies and the impact of their aid. Joanna Macrae and Adele Harmer look at a new initiative that aims to improve donor accountability. The responsibility of states for recognising and responding to humanitarian crisis, and the means for holding them to account, are examined by Caroline Ford. Taking the case of the sexual exploitation of refugees in West Africa, Asmita Naik draws lessons about accountability in practice in the humanitarian aid world. Finally, Austen Davis questions whether the system-wide accountability structures and mechanisms that many believe are needed would be beneficial, or even possible.

As always, we also have articles on a range of other policy and practice issues. In this issue, there are articles on facing the challenges of post-conflict transition for essential public services, health systems, national budgets and income generation. The applications of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for humanitarian operations are explained. Our series on government policy continues with a review of the British government’s humanitarian aid. To end, François Grünewald considers the implications of the war on Iraq for humanitarian action.

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