Putting the ‘H’ into humanitarian accountability
by Maurice Herson October 2003

The Humanitarian Accountability Project (HAP) has made significant progress in defining accountability. In so doing, however, it risks losing sight of the particular nature of accountability in humanitarian situations.  A recent search on Google.com for ‘accountability’ brought up nearly three million results covering an enormous range of areas in which accountability is now sought, investigated, formulated or mandated.  They cover most aspects of public – and some private – life. The Humanitarian Accountability Project (HAP) appeared as number 109 on that list. The origins of the HAP lie in the search to find a method of redress for the beneficiaries, or potential beneficiaries, of humanitarian assistance (now grouped together as claimants).  Three field trials have been carried out to test various approaches to field-level accountability: in Sierra Leone in December 2001–May 2002; in Afghanistan in May–July 2002; and in Cambodia in August 2002–February 2003.

The HAP defines accountability as follows:

Accountability involves two principles and mechanisms: (i) those by which individuals, organisations and States account for their actions and are held responsible for them, and (ii) those by which they may safely and legitimately report concerns, complaints and get redress where appropriate. Humanitarian accountability is concerned with ethics, rights and responsibilities … and agreed standards and benchmarks. Men, women and children affected by disasters have a right to assistance and protection. They also have a right to information, to participation, to be heard, and to redress.

The HAP thus talks about accountability in ways that are hard to differentiate from the other contexts in which the term is widely used.  Although there is a great deal of dispute about the nature, applicability and status of principles of humanitarian practice in the world today, the core concepts of independence, neutrality and impartiality at least lie at the heart of all of these disputes, alongside the right to life with dignity.  This article argues that they should remain within the concept of humanitarian accountability, although they can be at variance with some aspects of the more general concept of accountability to claimants. We must hold to this right and these principles, even if others, including at times claimants themselves, might not give them priority.

The case for accountability

In general terms, humanitarian action aims to provide assistance and protection in an appropriate and timely way to those affected by disasters and crises. This idea of appropriateness translates into accountability to:

  • beneficiaries/claimants;
  • standards – aiming to specify good practice in humanitarian action, and in the specific case of the Sphere Project serving to quantify the rights of claimants; and
  • principles – serving to guide the behaviour of humanitarian agencies, ultimately to the benefit of claimants.

The case put forward here is based on the idea that any organisation that wishes to meet humanitarian needs has a set of accountabilities. The ones that are of interest here are to:

  • claimants;
  • principles; and
  • institutional mandates.

These may themselves refer to other externally validated mandates or instruments. This is the case for many organisations that claim a rights-based approach to their work, or subscribe to the Red Cross/NGO Code of Conduct or to the Sphere standards.

There is both a moral case for humanitarian actors being accountable to claimants, and a practical case, that being accountable to claimants results in better programme outcomes.  The moral case, which is not hard to argue, rests on the idea expressed by the word ‘claimant’ itself: that those in need have rights to protection and assistance. Thus, those who deliver assistance or assure protection are doing so out of a reciprocal duty. As the HAP trial in Cambodia stated:

  • humanitarian claimants have a legitimate claim to assistance;
  • humanitarian actors assume responsibility to protect and uphold that claim; and
  • with responsibility comes an obligation to accountability.

The practical case, while intuitive, is not supported by a great mass of empirical evidence, although the Ombudsman Project and the HAP arose out of a desire to meet certain deficiencies or problems in the delivery of assistance.

The case for being accountable to principles of humanitarian action is similarly two-sided. Here, the two parts are the moral case for acting according to certain principles, and the practical case for the better outcome from so acting.  There is a great deal of argument around these two complementary cases.  Do the principles serve only to position agencies on the correct bit of high ground and assure their ability to, for example, negotiate with armed factions or state duty-bearers? Or do they also enable better outcomes for the recipients of aid and further their protection?  Whatever the position one takes in these arguments, to act without regard to these principles is not acceptable. They are at the core of humanitarian action.

The bulk of the empirical evidence for the link between accountability and good practice comes from government and administration in democratic societies, which are a long way from the sociological description of what is happening in most situations where there is humanitarian need.  We should thus be wary of transferring the conclusions of this evidence. Besides, the representative nature of such democracies is in this context at odds with the fact that humanitarian agencies are distinctively self-mandated – with the arguable exception of the UN agencies – and therefore cannot claim to have delegated legitimacy.  This makes it all the more important to operate according to externally validated principles.

What does accountability to claimants actually entail?

The HAP trials have been based on the ideas of exclusion (to be avoided), inclusion (to be assured), proper or appropriate action (to be monitored) and consultation.  The first three are about the quality of the assistance programme – no-one in need should be left out, and so on.  It could be argued that, if they are to be successfully implemented, these ideas require commitment in practice to impartiality, neutrality and independence.  The last, consultation, is often seen as both a tool and a method to support and aid the achievement of the others, and also a thing worth doing in itself; to return to the HAP definition above, it is the methodology that applies the ‘right to information, to participation, to be heard’ (and maybe also to ‘redress’).

There are those who support the position that humanitarian assistance should aim to deliver, as well as is possible, relief from suffering; anything else is a bonus but not integral to the project. Others would argue for including other motives and objectives – for transformation through humanitarian action.  A spectrum of positions between the two exists, of course. For the former, consultation is an instrument for assuring better results, while for the latter, it is perhaps as important as the material assistance itself, although to seek to increase people’s capacity to run their own lives at the potential expense of those lives arguably makes little sense.  If humanitarian action is conceived of as primarily about mitigating the effects of disasters, then the value of participation and consultation with beneficiaries is no greater than the value of the principles of neutrality and impartiality – they both serve the prime objective of improving overall programme performance.  Therefore, humanitarian accountability requires the application of these principles, as well as interactions with claimants.  If humanitarian action is conceived of as also, or equally, or even primarily, about the transformation and empowerment of those affected, then these fundamental humanitarian principles have no place in an accountability theory or practice, and accountability has no different meaning in humanitarian practice than it does in any other sphere.

Accountability in the real world

An experience that was formative of my views about this subject occurred while I was working with newly displaced people in Sri Lanka.  My initial assessment of course entailed talking extensively with a range of them.  Again and again, above all else, the adults wanted to be able to assure an education for their children. They could envisage making temporary shelters to live in and they hoped for food assistance, but they could not see how they would be able to provide books, paper, pencils, teaching, classrooms and continuity leading towards qualifications; education was a major issue in bringing about the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.  However, we could see also the public health risks: these people had no latrines and no easy access to clean water, nor ways of storing it safely. In that case I proposed, initially against their will, to do water and sanitation projects, and only later to consider education – although that did follow in time.

By doing this, we were being accountable to the claimants by means of adherence to the principle of the right to life, as upheld through a public health programme designed to protect their lives.  I hope that I did a good job of arguing the case for what I wanted to make our priority, that I kept people informed not only of what we intended to do when, but also how and why, and what role they needed to play in it all. In the fullest sense, the accountability we sought to have towards them was certainly about more than consultation, information, listening and participation.

There are, of course, practical constraints on being consultative with claimants or on beneficiary participation in conflict situations. Indeed, such activities can exacerbate the threats to claimants on the one hand, and on the other can be inimical to impartiality.  Agencies might undertake opportunistic consultations and keep claimants informed as far as feasible, but accountability to the needs for protection and assistance in these situations may be best served by adherence to principles that allow agencies to operate; that is, the principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence.

One of the uses of the Sphere minimum standards has been in the evaluation of the impact of humanitarian programmes, testing whether agencies have succeeded in providing what is needed by reference to those standards.  Evaluations by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) in the UK have used the Red Cross/NGO Code of Conduct as a yardstick for measuring the behaviour of agencies while providing assistance. Both might be admirable ideas in themselves, but they need to be linked to the idea of accountability to claimants as much as to the behaviour of agencies.  Accountability means setting standards, not just accepting them. It not only can but needs to be exercised through adherence to general principles as well as to consultative and participative methodologies.

Maurice Herson is Deputy Humanitarian Director in Oxfam GB. He first engaged in assistance activities while he was living in Sudan in 1985, and has since then worked in or on emergencies in four continents.