The Ombudsman Project: pilot project to investigate the concept of an Ombudsman for humanitarian assistance
by David Peppiatt, British Red Cross Society November 1997

Ombudsman is an old Swedish word that has been used for centuries to describe a person who represents or protects the interests of another. The term is now more frequently used in the public and private sectors to refer to a special office or officer to whom citizens can go with their grievances about maladministration or malpractice.

The idea of adopting the ombudsman concept within the humanitarian system has gained credence in recent years, most notably following the Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda. With the growth in numbers, power and influence of NGOs, commentators on the international humanitarian system have increasingly stressed the need for some mechanism, such as an ombudsman or inspector, to hold agencies to account for their activities in the field, above all for the beneficiaries of aid. The idea has gathered new momentum since the 1997 World Disasters Forum hosted by the British Red Cross Society in London, where the UK NGO community agreed to support a pilot project, coordinated by the British Red Cross, to examine the concept of an ombudsman-style system for humanitarian assistance.

In principle, a Humanitarian Assistance Ombudsman would act as an independent, impartial body to regulate NGO activities in humanitarian emergencies which may include failure to comply with any relevant legal obligations or codes of practice, and also investigate real grievances identified by beneficiaries.

A Working Group has been established to study the feasibility of such a system and aims to design an appropriate model that could function in humanitarian emergencies. Both international and local NGOs will be involved in the initiative and invited to contribute by providing ‘Accountability Case Studies’ that focus on the views of stakeholders in recipient countries. The project will address how such a scheme could work in the environment of humanitarian emergencies; who would be the complainants; who would act as the Ombudsman and with what jurisdiction; how the monitoring and grievances would be handled; and what remedies are recommended or sanctions, if any, imposed on those who malpractice.

The project will be developed under the direction of an inter-agency Steering Group and discussed more widely with a Reference Group, comprising UK NGOs, donors and academics involved in the humanitarian system, and also through the Active Learning Network on Accountability & Performance in Humanitarian Assistance (ALNAP).

A full report of the findings will be presented at the next World Disasters Forum in 1998. For further details please contact:

John Mitchell
Project Co-ordinator
British Red Cross
9 Grosvenor Crescent
London, United Kingdom
SW1X 7EJ
Tel: 0171 201 5433
Fax: 0171 235 0397
E-mail: jmitchel@redcross.org.uk