Commissioner Georgieva watches the animal vaccination in Siti Zone Commissioner Georgieva watches the animal vaccination in Siti Zone Photo credit: Malini Morzaria/EU/ECHO
The role of donors in enhancing quality and accountability in humanitarian aid
by Corinna Kreidler November 1999

The fact that the international humanitarian system is not delivering the quality of aid it is supposed to pushes all of us to look at what has to change. This article focuses on what donors can do to improve the quality of humanitarian aid. Donors have various roles within the accountability chain. First, there is accountability to donors: recipient agencies are accountable to donors for how the funding received is spent. This gives donors the leverage to insist that quality aid is delivered with the funds provided. Second, there is accountability through donors: the collective pressure donors can apply to other stakeholders, such as national governments and UN agencies. Finally there is accountability by donors: initiatives that look at quality and accountability within donor organisations themselves.

Donors are a key link in the accountability chain, and stakeholders expect donor representatives to ensure that action is taken when the humanitarian system does not perform well. However, most donor agencies are part of their government’s foreign ministries, so they can only put pressure on recipient governments if this is in line with their own government’s foreign policy priorities. Hence, it is important to take a closer look at what donors can and cannot influence – and what tools they have at their disposal to enhance the accountability and quality of humanitarian aid. This article uses the example of DG ECHO, the European Commission’s Department for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection, currently the largest humanitarian donor in the world, accounting for some 40% of total humanitarian spending in 2010.

Accountability to donors

ECHO requires all potential partners to sign a Framework Partnership Agreement, which commits them to meeting minimum standards in their internal procedures and programming before they can apply for funding. While this requirement ensures that the many new and inexperienced agencies that often show up in high-profile crises are excluded, there is a risk that it could create a ‘cartel’ where only a few organisations have access and newcomers struggle to get in.

Donors can influence partners’ adherence to standards and accountability mechanisms at the various stages of the funding cycle – proposal appraisal, monitoring, financial and narrative reporting and evaluation. When appraising proposals, the criteria should include the following:

  • The tools used for needs assessment and project planning are appropriate.
  • A transparent and cost-effective budget is provided.
  • Arrangements are made for qualitative monitoring and independent evaluation.
  • There is a commitment to applying agreed standards, such as Sphere.

Donor monitoring of funded projects is another way of enhancing quality and accountability. ECHO has a larger field presence than any other humanitarian donor, enabling it to systematically monitor all the projects it funds. Indeed, ECHO staff are held accountable if a project has not been monitored, or if the monitoring visit has not been documented. Through these monitoring visits ECHO staff ensure that the standards set at the proposal stage are met, and offer technical assistance to support other elements of good quality management, for example recommendations on improving monitoring systems through better quality indicators and help with designing an after-action evaluation. Increasingly, ECHO is sharing this monitoring capacity with other donor agencies, especially in multi-donor projects. It is gradually becoming good practice to share monitoring reports amongst donor colleagues and to organise joint donor visits, which in turn helps reduce the burden on partner agencies.

Peer monitoring by recipient agencies is also a useful tool for enhancing inter-agency learning. ECHO’s peer-monitoring visits in Liberia in 2007 and Darfur in 2009 showed that this approach has great potential to add value as it goes far beyond the usual sharing of information on activities in coordination meetings. For example, instead of telling each other how many wells they have dug, participating agencies have in-depth discussions on such issues as well diameters and ways to encourage community participation in construction. In this way, a monitoring visit becomes a true source of joint learning and collective quality improvement.

Reporting, especially financial reporting, is a standard mechanism for enforcing accountability as a lack of information or analysis – or doubts about the same – can lead to an external audit and potential legal consequences, including ECHO requesting the reimbursement of funds or asking the EC’s fraud investigation unit to take formal action. As a result, partners themselves normally ensure that good-quality reports are submitted on time. Finally, ECHO uses external evaluations, commissioned either by ECHO itself or by partners using ECHO funds. These can be eye-openers, both for the implementing partner and for the donor, and can lead to institutional learning on both sides.

Having qualified and experienced field staff is key to ECHO’s approach of providing ‘supportive supervision’ to its partners. ECHO field staff have been involved for many years in the implementation of humanitarian aid work. When donor staff lack field credibility or the time and resources to visit funded projects regularly, the donor’s ability to reinforce quality and accountability is significantly weakened. An exclusive focus on reducing donor administration costs (including resources for monitoring) can therefore negatively affect quality and impact.

The effectiveness of all of the quality control mechanisms discussed so far – with the exception of financial reporting requirements – depends almost entirely on the goodwill and internal procedures of partners.

Accountability through donors

Donors are often asked to use their collective influence to persuade national governments to adopt or avoid particular policies or courses of action. A recent example is a letter from five of the leading bilateral donors to the UN Principals calling for a ‘proper accountability framework of the leadership pillar of humanitarian reform’ and emphasising that ‘we all share the responsibility to improve the international humanitarian response system’.

NGOs believe that humanitarian donors have a responsibility to use this leverage. However, ECHO policy, which requires strict adherence to humanitarian principles including maintaining a certain distance from national governments, means that it uses this approach very sparingly. Within the EU system, first and foremost EU Delegations have the mandate to negotiate with governments, and many other donor countries believe that their embassies or political representatives in their capitals are often better placed than humanitarian actors to exercise political leverage.

Donor leverage can also be used to address system-wide issues. A recent example is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) donor group’s efforts to improve collective reporting against the annual Humanitarian Action Plan. This initiative aims to improve joint reporting on common indicators in order to get an overview of what the humanitarian community in DRC has collectively achieved with annual funding of over $500 million. As important stakeholders in a country’s Humanitarian Country Team, donors can call for increased collective accountability and better results. Despite such individual positive examples, donors are still not punching their weight. Donors need to further harmonise their standards and approaches in order to use their leverage to more effect.

Accountability by donors

Whilst individual agencies should focus on meeting beneficiaries’ needs at the lowest possible cost (i.e. being efficient), donors have an obligation to ensure they achieve the highest possible impact with the funding they have available (i.e. being effective). This means not only selecting the best projects but also ensuring that proposals address areas and populations with the greatest needs. Funding second or third priority operations can reduce effectiveness as resources are then not available for more severely affected people. Hence, donors have to use all means available to them to ensure that they have sufficient data and information to make informed decisions on where and how to allocate funds.

Donors are accountable to themselves, through self-regulation, and to external actors, including non-operational agencies, host governments, taxpayers and the media. Open criticism of donor behaviour from within the aid system is very rare, as few grant recipients are prepared to bite the hand that feeds them. The Development Assistance Committee (DAC) peer review process and the Humanitarian Response Index (HRI) developed by DARA in 2007 have helped to address this. The primary objective of the HRI is to ‘provide feedback to those responsible for humanitarian policymaking on how their efforts are seen from the ground’.+DARA, Humanitarian Response Index 2010, available at

Donors have also attempted to regulate themselves through the Good Humanitarian Donorship (GHD) initiative, under which they have adopted a set of standards and operational principles. Despite some progress, research by the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) in 2007 found that ‘implementation efforts have not been significant or systematic enough to stimulate generalised changes in donor behaviour’.+Sue Graves and Victoria Wheeler, Good Humanitarian Donorship: Overcoming Obstacles to Improved Collective Donor Performance, HPG Discussion Paper, December 2006. Only a very weak monitoring framework has been put in place, and consistent adherence to the principles remains a challenge for donor staff. To ensure quality and accountability, donors need to have systems in place that reward high-impact operations, punish low quality and link impact measurement of a funded operation to how well the donor staff in charge of that grant performed oversight during implementation. There is, however, an attribution problem as high-impact operations depend on many factors beyond the control of the donor and its staff. Most of the performance frameworks ECHO uses focus on the quality of partners’ work, not ECHO’s.

The role of outside actors

Donor agencies are part of government administrations which are controlled by the legislatures of their countries. However, very few politicians have a clear idea of how the aid industry works, and nor does the general public. In recent high-profile crises media reports have increasingly focused on what went wrong rather than what worked well. Media attention on aid operations, especially in highly visible crises, is a growing factor influencing accountability by donors, for better or worse. Increasingly, decision-makers within a donor institution are under pressure to do something, which can lead to highly visible action that does not necessarily achieve the greatest impact.

The mass media are the most likely source of information for ordinary citizens on the performance of humanitarian aid. Using the media to enhance acceptance of the humanitarian endeavour amongst taxpayers and to raise awareness of how complicated it is to deliver high-quality humanitarian aid is therefore an important task. Public opinion surveys conducted by ECHO regularly show that public acceptance should not be taken for granted, and may well be declining in the light of the current problems facing European economies.+Eurobarometer, Humanitarian Aid 2010, available at


It is clear that donors hold a key position in the accountability chain. They can insist that implementing agencies aim for high-quality performance, lobby at the political level for humanitarian space, remind national governments of their responsibility to protect their citizens and push for better accountability within the humanitarian system as a whole. And they must themselves be held accountable. Too often it is left to individual donor staff to put quality and accountability at the core of their work, including their own personal performance. A comprehensive review of the GHD principles, for example on the occasion of their upcoming tenth anniversary, could address this problem.

Donors must find ways to use their leverage wisely and responsibly. Laissez-faire donorship, or even worse awarding funding in order to improve a donor’s image or gain public approval, makes donors complicit in supporting system-wide under-performance. Donors can and must use their collective potential to press for more rapid change and better performance. While they should listen to their partners before allocating money, allowing them as much operational independence as possible, donors should exercise as much quality control as necessary to ensure the most effective use of funds for those in greatest need of humanitarian aid.

Corinna Kreidler is Head of the ECHO office in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). She is writing here in a personal capacity.