Using voice recorders as an accountability mechanism. Using voice recorders as an accountability mechanism. Photo credit: Dustin Barter
Jumping hurdles: key barriers to community feedback mechanisms
by Viviane Lucia Fluck and Dustin Barter February 2019

Collecting community data is increasingly popular in humanitarian responses. However, there are significant barriers that hinder efforts to build up an efficient community feedback mechanism based on a community’s actual preferences, and that both responds back to the community and links up with other feedback systems. These barriers can be grouped under three key themes: practical, systemic and institutional, with significant intersections between each group. This article discusses the organisational, practical and systemic barriers to implementing meaningful feedback mechanisms, and presents some ideas on how to address them.

Feedback fervour

For too long the term ‘accountability’ was almost exclusively linked to the financial accountability of humanitarian organisations to their donors, leaving aside the immense responsibility of being accountable to the people humanitarian organisations aim to support. However, both at the field and the policy level, accountability to affected communities is becoming increasingly prominent. Pillars of humanitarian policy, such as the Grand Bargain, the World Humanitarian Summit, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) and the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS), have begun to address accountability, and are increasing pressure from the top to comply with accountability standards. At the programme level, working groups on Communicating with Communities (CwC), community engagement and accountability point to a growing interest in this area.

Community complaints and feedback mechanisms are increasingly popular accountability tools. While establishing a feedback mechanism does not mean an organisation is fully accountable, these mechanisms can be a means towards a more community-driven approach to humanitarian aid, and are often the first step organisations take towards broader accountability. In Bangladesh, a study by Internews in 2018 found that 93% of key NGOs, INGOs and UN agencies collected community feedback.+Stijn Aelbers, Viviane Lucia Fluck and Jyoti Rahaman, Humanitarian Feedback Mechanisms in the Rohingya Response, Internews, June 2018 (https://www.internews.org/resource/humanitarian-feedback-mechanisms-rohingya-response-coxs-bazar-bangladesh) However, while there is significant enthusiasm and increasing mention of feedback mechanisms, many promise accountability but fail to deliver. As a CDAC learning review after Hurricane Maria suggested, even if organisations worked with community feedback this seldom went further than asking community members how satisfied they were with their programmes.+Sarah Routley, A Learning Review of Communications and Community Engagement during the Hurricane Maria Response in Dominica, CDAC, 2018 (http://www.cdacnetwork.org/policy-and-guidance/learning-reviews/i/?id=4ff05ee5-d604-4c23-a16e-9d1aa2acb5db) Similarly, in Bangladesh there was a lack of formalised mechanisms that would allow agencies to follow up on feedback that did not fall under their own remit – 15% had no system in place to refer this kind of feedback, 13% stored it as in-actionable or similar and another 18% were still working on a way to refer it. Only 41% of organisations said that they had a system in place, though how well it works is of course another question.+Aelbers, Fluck and Rahaman, Humanitarian Feedback Mechanisms, p. 16. This is highly problematic; not only does it lead to affected communities growing tired of sharing their feedback and complaints and an erosion of trust, but it also gives the false impression of working on accountability while continuing to work exactly as before.

What are the key barriers to installing a successful feedback mechanism? As with anything to do with human interactions and power, setting up and running a feedback mechanism is a complex matter. However, we suggest that key hurdles fall into three, often interlinked, areas: practical, systemic and organisational.

Practical barriers to accountability

Practical barriers to accountability mechanisms are the easiest to identify, but are often ineffectively addressed. Common examples include lack of phone access, illiteracy and affected populations being unaware of their rights to hold humanitarian actors to account (this is far more than just a ‘practical’ barrier). The first phase of the Rohingya crisis in Cox’s Bazar revealed a humanitarian system struggling to adapt to such specific accountability barriers. The approach for the Rohingya was initially based on feedback/complaints boxes and hotlines. This was for a population with literacy levels below 30%,+Internews, Information Needs Assessment, 2017. and where only 54%+Ibid. used a mobile phone, thus rendering these mechanisms ineffective for the majority of the affected population, and especially for Rohingya women and children, who are less likely than men to be literate and/or use a phone. According to Christian Aid’s Accountability Assessment report, only 16% of Rohingya women are aware of accountability mechanisms, against 25% of men, and both women and men prefer to provide feedback through face-to-face contact.+Christian Aid, Accountability Assessment: Rohingya Response Bangladesh, 2018. Trust in and preference for hotlines and accountability boxes was extremely low. The report also highlighted low understanding of rights related to humanitarian assistance. In sum, Rohingya were largely unaware of any mechanisms, available mechanisms didn’t suit them and they were unlikely to assert rights they were unaware of.

Overcoming these practical barriers meant significant investment. For the Rohingya specifically, it required sufficient face-to-face mechanisms, while voice recorders also proved successful, in part because they offered anonymity. Such approaches require labour-intensive collection and processing of data, making them costly. Improving Rohingya understanding of their right to demand accountability also has significant costs. Effective mechanisms may be more economical in other contexts, for instance where literacy rates are higher or phone access more common. For example, Oxfam in Somalia has a toll-free four-digit accountability hotline that is well utilised. The hotline overcomes literacy barriers, is in line with the preferences of Somalis and is cheap. This raises pertinent questions for the sector – how much are we willing to invest in ensuring accountability mechanisms are tailored to the context, and do organisations have the necessary commitment to ensure genuine accountability?

Systemic barriers to accountability

An effective community feedback mechanism relies on a humanitarian system that coordinates and cooperates in regard to feedback. However, in many circumstances

there is weak coordination between stakeholders collecting community feedback and a lack of common standards for feedback mechanisms. Even if an agency aims to collect feedback only on its own programming, say a health organisation asking health questions, they will nevertheless receive complaints and queries about other topics. More often than not any volunteer or staff member in a vest is perceived as a representative of the humanitarian system, or as having better access to that system. This in itself is not problematic, as offering a diverse set of feedback channels may attract a more diverse set of people. Some may prefer a phone hotline over a feedback box, while others may trust organisation x more than organisation y, and therefore be more comfortable sharing feedback with them.

The issue is that these different feedback mechanisms are often not linked to each other, resulting in feedback getting ‘stuck’ if the organisation that received it cannot answer it themselves. This can be due to weak support through the humanitarian system to push the practicalities of a common accountability approach, i.e. minimum standards that are not only agreed at HQ level, but also implemented through the coordination system. There is also a lack of agreement on what and how to collect and answer feedback. Often, each organisation builds their own mechanism without agreeing on basic data entry points that would make it easier to compare and share data sets in order to get a more holistic view of community feedback, which could lead to more response-wide programmatic changes. Moreover, while everybody is keen to see accumulated community data, organisations are still often reluctant to share their raw data with others. Agencies may be wary of airing complaints about themselves or their partners, or a weak or messy feedback system may make it hard to share data.

Additionally, there is a preference within the sector to collect data according to a predefined humanitarian agenda, asking quantitative questions that often relate to satisfaction about programming, rather than letting the community set the agenda and decide what they want to give feedback about. This is partly caused by funding that is still not flexible enough to accommodate significant changes in programming based on community feedback. Including accountability as another box that needs to be checked in order to receive funding is meaningless if it does not come with the trust that communities know what is best for them and how they want to change programmes.

Organisational barriers to accountability

Effective accountability centres on understanding the preferences of affected people, and then designing and implementing appropriate, coordinated systems in response. This is often already known, highlighting that, in actuality, a lack of organisational commitment is one of the major barriers to accountability. For the Rohingya crisis, there was clear evidence of accountability preferences and the efficacy of certain piloted approaches, such as voice recorders. Despite successful pilots, it remains to be seen how committed organisations are to allocating the required resources over the longer term in order to actually make a mechanism like this responsive. In contrast, the level of investment (and thus commitment) required is far lower in Somalia, where the toll-free phone line preferred by affected populations was effective and cheap to establish. Organisational commitment may also be affected by the short-term deployments of many humanitarian staff, including staff responsible for accountability. The irony in all of this is that, for all the funding and effort put into accountability to donors, donor-driven efficiencies often push effective accountability down the priority list.

Since accountability and safeguarding are currently attracting heightened attention, this is an opportune moment to address some of these organisational barriers. This means organisational commitments to achieving effective accountability, from frontline workers up to broader organisational commitments such as the Core Humanitarian Standards. As is too often the case, commitment at one organisational level doesn’t always transfer through to other levels. Donors must also be committed, accepting that in some contexts achieving effective accountability is more labour-intensive and thus more costly than in others.

How can we tackle barriers to community feedback

Much has been done already, and there are many interesting initiatives aiming to improve feedback and complaints mechanisms. The heightened interest in accountability means we are at a crucial turning point where we need to ensure that we do not turn feedback mechanisms into an empty box-ticking exercise. Instead, we must reflect on how we can ensure that feedback mechanisms and programmes fit the community we aim to serve, rather than coming up with solutions that fit us.

The key to tackling these many barriers lies in a coordinated, cooperative approach that puts the affected population at the heart of everything we do. Taking the time to understand affected communities’ preferences for feedback mechanisms, not assuming we know which mechanism is best and using the languages, formats and channels the community prefers, must be a priority. Once a mechanism is established, we need to let the community set the agenda, rather than asking about what ‘we’ want to know or how ‘satisfied they are with what we do’. The next step is to not just ‘answer questions’, but to analyse this feedback, take action and adapt the response. Clusters/sectors need to put pressure on the organisations in their sector to implement accountability, and support a coordinated approach that allows for feedback to be shared and responded to on a sector as well as project level. The support of donors is needed, to fund more significant accountability initiatives long-term with enough dedicated staff, to offer flexibility in moving away from initial programme outlines, and to continue to put pressure on organisations to establish feedback mechanisms.

We need to find ways to make collaboration between different feedback mechanisms more efficient. Collaborations such as that between the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the IFRC on systematically coding community data with humanitarian exchange language (HXL) tags can contribute to this. The collaboration is using community feedback data from the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to develop HXL tags, which make it easier to visualise community data through Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX) tools such as quick charts, while also helping different humanitarian organisations share data more easily. Combined with the community feedback templates currently being developed by IFRC with the support of National Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies, this could be another step towards a more collaborative and holistic approach to community feedback.

On an organisational level, humanitarian organisations need to not only commit dedicated resources and personnel to feedback mechanisms, but also ensure that all staff receive accountability-related support, and understand that it is everybody’s responsibility to support feedback mechanisms.

A people-centred approach

There are numerous practical, systemic and organisational barriers to community feedback mechanisms, including a lack of resources, insufficient collaboration and coordination between different mechanisms and still too many assumptions about affected populations. To clear all the different hurdles humanitarian organisations need to work not only more effectively with each other, but also with the people they aim to support. Efficient and successful community engagement mechanisms need buy-in from all levels, appropriate resources and, most importantly, a genuine commitment to put the people we serve at the centre of everything we do.

Viviane Lucia Fluck is Advisor for Community Engagement and Accountability (CEA) at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). Dustin Barter is Oxfam’s Senior Campaigns and Policy Manager in Somalia and Somaliland, and 2019 John Monash Scholar.

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