The HAP and humanitarian accountability
by May 2003

Once again, talk of war dominates the international agenda, and once again humanitarians confront some difficult questions about the ethos and ownership of humanitarian action in contested and politicised environments. Agencies often operate in difficult circumstances, between crisis and reconstruction, between disasters and post-disasters, between states and non-states, where evidence conflicts and politics intrudes. In these contexts, difficulties arise around the applicability of international and domestic legal standards, and about the fundamental principles that guide humanitarian work.

To claim humanitarianism back from militarisation or instrumentalisation, we must insist that humanitarian work is based on, and guided by, ethics and accountability: as Hugo Slim has suggested, we must take the moral cue from those suffering and surviving crisis situations, rather than rely on the traditional role-model of the ‘heroic intervener’, which is too often a military construct. Just as important, we must also be in a position to uphold and demonstrate our claims to these principles, and our distinctive competence in solidarity with crisis-affected people. This is why the call for stronger humanitarian accountability was made, and this is why the Humanitarian Accountability Project (HAP) was established.

The Humanitarian Accountability Project

The HAP was set up two years ago by a number of humanitarian agencies, in response to concerns about the lack of accountability towards crisis-affected communities. The HAP was the last of a series of initiatives within the humanitarian community over the 1990s, which sought collectively to address the changes and challenges the sector faced. Over the last two years, some 70 staff and consultants have conducted three field operations to try out accountability mechanisms in real time emergency situations, undertaken five research projects, and engaged in a variety of advocacy activities on accountability.

Why humanitarian accountability?

The need for accountability in humanitarian action stems from the simple fact that humanitarian actors exercise influence and power over the lives of crisis-affected individuals and communities. The HAP defined accountability as involving two sets of principles and mechanisms:

  • those by which individuals, organisations and states (referred to as duty bearers) account for their actions and are held responsible for them; and
  • those by which individuals, organisations and states may safely and legitimately report concerns, complaints and abuses, and get redress where appropriate.

Thus, we deliberately moved away from a definition that focused exclusively on the process or duty of accounting (and being held responsible). For duty-bearers to account for their actions, there must be other mechanisms in place, allowing citizens, staff, service users and others to ask questions, or report complaints.

Main findings: field operations

The HAP carried out three field trials 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 progressively moved from being the accountability mechanism (in Sierra Leone) to supporting agencies in setting up or strengthening their own accountability mechanisms (in Cambodia). The trial in Afghanistan served as the connection or transition between these two approaches. Since each trial differed from its predecessor based on what we had learned, thorough self-assessment and external evaluations were essential.

In Sierra Leone, the HAP tested the feasibility of a ‘trouble-shooter’ or ‘constable’ mechanism. It investigated a number of accountability issues, and provided rapid redress to humanitarian claimants by approaching field-based duty-bearers. The main shortcoming with this approach was that its impact did not extend beyond the beneficiaries concerned, it did not outlast the team’s departure and it did little to foster institutional change and managerial accountability.

To address questions of cost-effectiveness and sustainability, in the Afghanistan field trial we opted for the HAP acting as an accountability catalyst through monitoring and facilitation. Monitoring allowed the HAP to build its credibility and legitimacy, and to raise its profile by bringing up cases or issues. But agencies requested more than facilitation: they wanted technical and strategic support for accountability.

This encouraged us to use the Cambodia trial to work with committed agencies in developing their accountability mechanisms. The agencies and the HAP worked together to monitor and respond to beneficiaries’ concerns, assess organisational practices, provide accountability training and identify a permanent mechanism that would outlast the HAP.

The field trials provided interesting findings regarding accountability mechanisms and their respective effectiveness and sustainability. HAP’s research shows that, to be accountable to beneficiaries, agencies should inform, listen to, monitor and respond to concerns, and report back. In particular, agencies should be encouraged to set up mechanisms allowing them to listen to complaints from beneficiaries. Operational actors are in the best position to ensure and strengthen accountability to beneficiaries. This requires setting up accountability mechanisms within operations, as well as strengthening managerial accountability and responsibilities. Accountability to beneficiaries will not be sustainable and institutionalised unless self-regulation, at both agency and inter-agency level, is improved and strengthened. No independent body, however large, will ensure that the millions of humanitarian claimants have access to avenues of recourse if and when they have legitimate complaints and concerns.

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HAP field trials also underscored many instances of a lack of accountability to beneficiaries, though these were by no means newly discovered by us. The concerns cited most often by crisis-affected individuals included:

  • a lack of information regarding relief entitlements and the future of the assistance;
  • an inability to recognise and identify who is who among relief workers, and who works for which organisation;
  • that it was impossible to raise issues or ask questions;
  • misunderstanding, misinformation or disinformation regarding relief entitlements;
  • concerns about protection and insecurity; and
  • corruption among officials or beneficiaries themselves.

These problems were especially acute for the poorest, women-headed households, for children and for the handicapped.

Main findings: research and advocacy

HAP research projects included a field study on the Gujarat earthquake and inquiries into the legal responsibilities of humanitarian actors, the relevance of medical ethics to humanitarian work, the ‘accountable organisation’ and mechanisms of accountability.

Advocacy work has taken place in headquarters and at field level, and sought to increase consensus within and outside the humanitarian sector around the necessity to improve accountability towards crisis-affected communities. The HAP developed user-friendly documents and messages and systematically advocated for the strengthening of accountability in various NGO and UN settings and meetings, and with a large variety of actors.

This work has identified a number of findings. Humanitarian agencies have gone a long way towards accountability through a firm commitment to human rights, setting up quality standards and indicators, evaluating their programmes and consulting with humanitarian claimants. However, important weaknesses remain: there is insufficient monitoring of how standards are being implemented, and insufficient compliance with them; knowledge of standards in the field is inadequate, and mechanisms for complaint and redress are non-existent; managerial accountability is weak and there is insufficient commitment among organisations’ leadership.

Our research highlighted a number of lessons from other sectors. Other professions have increased quality and strengthened accountability through a focus on collective responsibility, strong self-regulation and, in serious cases, recourse to independent mechanisms. Medical ethics are particularly relevant to the principles and practice of humanitarian work. Central to medical care is the trust that patients have in doctors. This trust is essential, but comes with high levels of responsibility for doctors. Peer review constitutes a particularly important mechanism of quality control. Finally, of course, humanitarian actors carry a range of responsibilities under criminal and civil law: duty of care, fiduciary duty or trust, and protection responsibilities, for example.

Towards a permanent accountability mechanism

A fundamental conclusion to emerge from HAP’s work is that accountability may best be strengthened and implemented through the creation of a strong international self-regulatory body. This model recognises that accountability is the primary responsibility of operational agencies, which are also best placed to ensure and strengthen accountability to their stakeholders. A permanent accountability mechanism would seek to assist these agencies in meeting this responsibility by providing strategic and technical support, monitoring and developing accountability standards and practices.

In January 2003, HAP member agencies and others agreed to the HAP proposal for an international, membership-based, self-regulatory body focusing on accountability towards beneficiaries. This new organisation proposes a ‘staircase’ approach to accountability. By this we mean that not all member agencies are expected to implement accountability standards in the same way, and at the same speed. The proposal is that each member agency will develop and report on its own work-plan, milestones and time-frame. The proposal prioritises ‘learning’, and insists on monitoring and compliance procedures. The main functions of the new organisation will consist in building and strengthening the capacity of member agencies through technical and strategic support, in the field and at headquarters, and monitoring progress made.


Agnès Callamard is the Director of the Humanitarian Accountability Project. The HAP website is at www.hapgeneva.org.


References and further reading

Agnès Callamard, Visions and Plans for a Permanent Accountability Mechanism (Geneva: HAP, September 2001).

Agnès Callamard, Towards a Permanent Accountability Mechanism: Questions and Answers (Geneva: HAP, February 2003).

Agnès Callamard and Koenraad van Brabant, ‘Accountability: A Question of Rights and Duties’, in World Disaster Report 2002 (Geneva: IFRC, 2002).

Ian Christoplos, The Humanitarian Accountability Project: First trial in Sierra Leone, (HAP: Geneva, July 2002)

Ian Christoplos, The Humanitarian Accountability Project: Field trial in Afghanistan, (HAP: Geneva, October 2002)

Sara Davidson, The Accountable Organisation (Geneva: HAP, March 2002)

Andy Featherstone and Sarah Routley, Facilitating and Monitoring Accountability: HAP Field Trial in Afghanistan (Geneva: HAP, 2002). HAP, Humanitarian Accountability: Key Elements and Operational Framework, (Geneva: HAP, 5 December 2001).

Nicholas Stockton, Report on a HAP Mission to Kabul – October 2002 (Geneva: HAP, October 2002).

Hugo Slim, ‘Doing the Right Thing’, Studies on Emergencies and Disaster Relief, no. 6, Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, 1997.

Koenraad van Brabant, Promoting Transparency and Accountability: Field Trial in Sierra Leone (Geneva: HAP, 2002).

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