Issue 21 - Article 9

Accountability and quality: uncomfortable bedfellows?

November 5, 2002
Laurent Larose and John Adams

Accountability’ and ‘quality’ have been the subject of a variety of initiatives within the humanitarian community, and there has been lively debate between proponents of the different approaches. Yet accountability can in fact hamper efforts to improve quality because of the way the humanitarian system operates.

What are quality and accountability when applied to humanitarian action? Borrowing from the world of business, with its clients and suppliers, we might define quality as ‘the conformity of the humanitarian service to the explicit and implicit needs of clients’. Therefore, the quality of programmes should be evaluated by qualitative and quantitative surveys of ‘customer satisfaction’, besides the technical indicators that measure elements of the service and the process. According to Professor Rob Gray, accountability is ‘the duty to provide an account … or reckoning of those actions for which one is held responsible. Thus accountability involves … the responsibility to undertake certain actions (or forbear from taking actions) and the responsibility to provide an account of those actions’. According to the Red Cross/NGO Code of Conduct, humanitarians working in disaster relief are accountable ‘to both those we seek to assist and to those from whom we accept resources’.

So there are two clients: the ‘payers’ and the ‘users’. The client-payers of the humanitarian service are the private and institutional donors. The client-users – the raison d’être of the whole aid business – are the so-called ‘beneficiaries’. This term implies passivity, and that people invariably benefit from the humanitarian services provided. However, the benefits of humanitarian action cannot be taken for granted, and should rather be demonstrated by monitoring results and evaluating impact. We could use the word ‘rights-bearers’, which conveys respect for human dignity, and acknowledges that populations suffering from natural or man-made disasters have the right to assistance to restore their coping capacities.

Kosovo 1999: constraints on quality

In most emergencies, the imperative to prevent epidemics may drive agencies to bypass good practice and codes of conduct, particularly regarding refugees’ participation in needs assessment and programme design. In Albania in 1999, it quickly became clear that there was no short-term risk of epidemic, thanks to the good pre-crisis health of the refugee population, and the scale of the international response. This offered an opportunity to implement and field test the Sphere standards. Yet evaluations of the response note a general lack of professionalism, and suggest that standards were rarely met, including in crucial areas like sanitation. Why did the same organisations that worked hard to define standards and good practices then neglect these tools?

The UK Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC)’s Kosovo evaluation states that ‘the international attention on Kosovo meant that agencies were under enormous pressure to spend funds, leading to problems of quality control and wastage’. Thus, we see the pernicious links between the media profile of an emergency and the availability of funds. Funding depends largely on the level of media attention to an emergency, and hence the amount of public interest it attracts. The negative consequences of this include less funding when the immediate emergency phase gives way to less dramatic rehabilitation work.

Humanitarian NGOs have developed fundraising coordination bodies like the DEC so that ‘funds raised are used in an effective, timely and fully accountable way’, and to ‘raise standards in the implementation of humanitarian responses’. To be effective, DEC appeals are called only when there is ‘sufficient public awareness of, and sympathy for, the humanitarian situation’. Thus, more public attention is drawn to situations that are already under the media spotlight, and we have over-funding of high-profile emergencies. Because, globally, resources are finite, this fund-raising mechanism is prejudicial to the impartial response to emergencies, regardless of where they are, how large they are and how much attention they attract. This is one example of the antagonism that exists between humanitarian principles and objectives on the one hand, and the organisational logic of the humanitarian system on the other.

Another concerns the allocation of resources. The first phase of an emergency is characterised by a rapidly evolving situation. Because a quick response is required, life-saving programmes are implemented while assessments are still being completed. Programmes are planned according to the first rough assessment. Meanwhile, in order to be effective appeals are launched as soon as possible, before a clear picture of the situation is available. Funds are allocated according to assumed needs, and their assumed evolution. But what happens if the needs identified by a more in-depth assessment are less grave than estimated in the first stage? Because of the need to be accountable to donors, flexibility is limited, and funds raised for one emergency cannot be used for another. In Kosovo, for instance, funds were so plentiful that agencies supplied disposable razors in hygiene kits distributed to refugees. But money used to provide a little extra comfort in one disaster could well be used to save lives in another. This is how upward accountability (to donors) may prevent downward accountability (to the rights-bearers at a global level), and may ultimately challenge the fundamental principle of impartiality. Stating that the intention of donors is paramount confounds efforts at a fair allocation of global humanitarian resources. As Sphere does not define maximum standards in aid, it provides no safeguard against wasting money in programmes which are mainly resource-driven, rather than needs-driven. Thus, accountability may not give us quality.

What happens if an emergency manager addresses only the real needs, and does not use all the available money? Most funding systems are based on the NGO’s capacity to respond to the ‘disaster’. This is estimated according to the NGO’s overseas expenditure in recent years. Thus, capacity is estimated according to the size of programmes implemented during previous emergencies. A manager implementing programmes that respond to actual need, rather than to available funds, may well lower expenditure, and thus reduce the apparent capacity of his or her organisation. In turn, this would reduce the amount of funds made available to the organisation for the next emergency. In short, being professional would adversely affect the organisation’s ‘humanitarian market share’. The institutional logic of the humanitarian funding system encourages big, high-profile programmes, and compels managers to spend the allocated budget regardless of the real level of need.

Addressing the constraints on quality

Some limitations could be reduced by reformulating policies. To reflect the reality of the process, the policy of bodies such as the DEC could be that appeals are driven by estimated needs, and are not solely a response to a media or fundraising opportunity. Appeals could be clear that, if excessive funds are raised, the surplus will be used for the post-emergency phase, or for alleviating other acute human suffering in other parts of the world. This would still capture the spirit in which funds were donated. The main concern of donors is that their donation will reach people in need, and not be wasted.

The constraints may also be reduced by informing and educating donors about the reality of the field and, above all, by training aid workers. If we really want to improve the quality of humanitarian action, we have first to convince humanitarian actors of the crucial importance of implementing good practices in the field, and monitoring and evaluating programmes with objective indicators. The main limitations of quality processes are that there are no links between funding and rights-bearers’ satisfaction, and that the rights-bearers have no power over the service providers. Even independent evaluators are paid by the evaluated organisations, inevitably making objectivity difficult. This ambiguity may explain why the DEC evaluation of the Kosovo response expresses ‘concerns about programme quality, particularly in areas such as assessment, monitoring and evaluation’, while stating further that the assistance ‘was broadly relevant and appropriate to people’s needs’. One may question how it is possible to assess the relevance and appropriateness of programmes when monitoring and evaluation have been neglected.

All field workers should be trained in the techniques of qualitative and quantitative surveys used in sciences like sociology and marketing, so enabling them to evaluate their own work. Training would also help actors to internalise the quest for quality, which would be more efficient than a top-down approach, where the issue is the concern of headquarters and consultants, but not really of field staff. In most emergencies, the impulse to meet immediate needs on the ground may lead field workers to bypass precisely those codes and standards developed and advocated by headquarters.

Keeping our eyes on the ball

None of the limitations of quality processes stems from a lack of commitment to quality, at the individual or the organisational level. Each system generates its own internal institutional logic, which may in some ways be at odds with its overall objective. This happens in all organisations, even in the commercial world. Fundraising bodies like the DEC are undoubtedly effective fund-raising mechanisms, and the efforts of the humanitarian sector to improve both the accountability and the quality of the service it provides are clearly sincere. But the limitations demonstrated here argue for more realistic objectives for the quality process. This realism will help us to avoid disappointment, and prevent humanitarian actors from wasting time, effort and resources on unproductive debate about quality approaches and evaluations.

Laurent Larose has worked for both MSF and Oxfam. He is now a consultant, researcher and trainer, and a founder member of Trinôme, a network of humanitarian workers sharing ideas and reviewing each other’s work to improve performance. His e-mail address is: John Adams is also a member of Trinôme. He works as a trainer and researcher at Bioforce in Lyon.

References and further reading

An evaluation of Sphere is currently under way, and we will report on it in Humanitarian Exchange later this year. In the meantime, see the September 2001 issue of Humanitarian Exchange, which has an article on the institutionalisation of Sphere and the Humanitarian Charter.

See also:

V. Laboucheix, Traité de la Qualité Totale (Paris: Bordas, 1990).

Astri Suhrke, et al., The Kosovo Crisis (Geneva: UNHCR, 2000), available at

Peter Wiles, et al., Independent Evaluation of DEC Kosovo Appeal Funds (London: ODI, 2000), available at ,a href=> DEC, DEC Policy Handbook UNHCR, Handbook for Emergencies, www.unhcr.

Peter Raynard, Mapping Accountability in Humanitarian Assistance (London: ALNAP/ODI, 2000).

Anna Jefferys, ‘Giving Voice to Silent Emergencies’; and David Verboom, ‘Medair and the ISO 9001 Quality Standard’, both in Humanitarian Exchange 20, March 2002.


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