Issue 52 - Article 6

Accountability – don’t forget your staff

November 30, 1999
Jonathan Potter
People In Aid
The Leprosy Mission in Nigeria, displaying the People In Aid Code of Good Practice

The accountability priorities in the humanitarian and development sector have always been to beneficiaries and donors. But to serve beneficiaries and donors well organisations need to be accountable to staff. Such accountability is not to be found in words (e.g. ‘we value our people’): organisations must act out their duty of care and moral commitment to good practice, and provide encouragement and frameworks for leaders and managers to demonstrate their commitment to their staff and volunteers. When an organisation is truly accountable to its staff there will inevitably be improvements in communications, management skills, team and individual performance, commitment and motivation, staff health and security, retention, the capacity to change and more. The overall result should be more effective delivery of mission, more efficient use of resources and ultimately financial savings.

Being accountable to staff

Externally, most observers will not be thinking of accountability in conceptual terms; donors, partners, beneficiaries and of course staff themselves will be looking at the impact of accountability in pragmatic terms and with their own interests at heart. Donors have a clear interest in organisational performance; as one put it to me recently: ‘Donors are holding organisations accountable and responsible for the performance of their staff’, even if they may not know how best to assess and then correct what they might find. But US foundations may be a sign of the future of funding. As the New York Times reported in July, foundations and wealthy donors are increasingly harnessing their donations to improvements in management. Cited in Ruth McCambridge, ‘Omidyar and Lewis and Their Approach to Management Advice’, The Nonprofit Quarterly, 31 July 2011,  The article talks of ‘good investment sense’ and the wish to ‘support management assistance efforts that apparently try to avoid crises of the magnitude that would create rifts between an organization and a management focused donor’. Of course, grantees need to be sure that a donor’s demands are appropriate, but it is perhaps encouraging that more funds are becoming available for such support.

In relation to beneficiaries, the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) says:

Inevitably, in looking at an organisation’s accountability to its beneficiaries we must look at the role of staff and the systems which support them to carry out this accountability. We are expecting a range of HR policies and practices (job descriptions, performance evaluations….) to take notice of the organisation’s expectation that staff will act accountably towards our beneficiaries. Our accountability is not just as an organisation but as a collection of individuals.

In a similar vein, the Keystone Partner Survey in January 2011 looked at the performance of international agencies from the point of view of their in-country partners. The role of staff was noted as the key characteristic of successful partnership – that ‘staff from NGOs are respectful, helpful and capable’. See

Staff themselves can choose to stay with or leave their organisation. Research suggests they tend to leave because of poor leadership and management, a dissonance between the organisation’s stated values and organisational practice, burn-out or because of better rewards or greater promotion prospects elsewhere.

Accountability in HR and people management

Most people reading this article will be employees. And most employees want their employers to be accountable to them in a number of ways. Accountability to staff is the responsibility of various roles within an organisation; trustees, line managers, the HR function and employees themselves each have specific responsibilities.

Traditionally HR is accountable for regulatory compliance with labour laws and for good practice, while line managers are responsible for the operational impact of applying HR decisions. HR business partners can provide productive links between HR and the line, and the trend is for line managers to take on more responsibility for activities such as recruitment and performance (in the UK voluntary sector the HR function has seen a year-on-year reduction of 7% in costs per employee). Agenda Consulting, People Count Third Sector, 2011.  Where there is statutory legislation and trustees have legal obligations (as in the UK for example), then HR acts on behalf of trustees to ensure compliance with equal opportunity and health and safety laws.

The leader (whether CEO, department head or team leader) is ultimately accountable for all things relating to people, including talent identification and management, security, health and safety, organisational values, culture and good HR practice, pay and benefits and ensuring optimal return on investment for staff-related activities (such as recruitment, learning and development). However, it is clear that not all CEOs realise (or accept) that, ultimately, the buck stops with them: following the kidnapping of one of his staff in Sudan, for example, the CEO of a well-known NGO was asked whether he had responsibility for the security of his staff. He answered ‘I don’t believe I have … When you go into a place like Sudan, you have to understand that the Sudanese authorities have taken control of security. I’ve 2,700 employees at the moment. Can I know what’s happening in every village?’. Paul Cullen, ‘Sharon Commins Says Goal Put Her Life in Danger’, Irish Times, 23 December 2010,

In some ways the CEO is right: how can he know what is happening in every village? Perhaps not, but a different choice of words could have offered greater confidence to those to whom the organisation is accountable (especially staff, donors and beneficiaries). Equally, it is true that, below the leader, there is usually a hierarchy of people to whom the CEO delegates the implementation of policy; in this case, presumably, a Country Director and a security manager for Sudan. There is an alternative, which deprioritises accountability to management, hierarchies and compliance. Horizontal accountability suggests that teams and individuals can manage issues better than managers, and can improve productivity through trust, clear goals and communication. See  Relying on colleagues is a key component of good security, and will give an aid worker in the field more comfort than knowing the CEO is accountable to staff for the policy.

Such mutual accountability is equally important in other areas too. Examples include the Emergency Capacity Building (ECB) project’s Trust Handbook, See  which provides tools to help build better-functioning emergency teams; agreement by participants at People in Aid’s 2009 Humanitarian Human Resources conference See  that the emotional intelligence of colleagues was a major contributor to successful change programmes; and the growing acceptance of compulsory Codes of Conduct and whistleblowing procedures to promote transparency and combat fraud and undesirable behaviour.

Explicitly acknowledging the role of staff in organisational development is a useful way of spreading accountability. On values, for example, the Chief Executive of the UK’s Chartered Management Institute says:

The importance of engaging employees in the creation of values … is too often forgotten. There’s a tendency for leaders to spend hours holed up in boardrooms trying to thrash out what they think the vision and values of the company are. If your values are to resonate with employees, as well as customers, they must be an integral part of how the organisation does business, not simply a senior management aspiration. See (subscription required).

Values are particularly important in the humanitarian sector: many staff could earn more in the corporate sector but they choose to work for humanitarian agencies because they wish to ‘make a difference’, and their employers’ mission and values help them to do so. An HPG report notes that: ‘Aid agency staff believe that organisational values, when communicated and reinforced through training, opportunities for advancement, appraisals and examples set by senior managers, promote honesty and loyalty to the agency’. Sarah Bailey, Need and Greed: Corruption Risks, Perceptions and in Humanitarian Assistance, HPG Policy Brief 32, September 2008.  Organisations should also be offering more to staff: trained managers, accurate job descriptions, ways of being consulted and equity in reward practices. The ‘employer brand’ – what the organisation says about itself and its relationship to its staff and other stakeholders – is strengthened where organisations and leaders live out the organisation’s values and promote good practice in these areas.

Challenges and successes

So how is the humanitarian sector doing on accountability to staff? A report card would tell us that we could do better, but before we punish ourselves too harshly, let’s consider the challenges we face, and the resources available.

A first challenge: organisations might see their accountabilities as compliance or self-interest, as opposed to a moral obligation: ‘we will run security training so that any litigation is less likely to be successful’, as opposed to ‘we will run security training because we want our people to feel and be safe’. A second challenge: that procedures take precedence over people. Audits of HR are sometimes carried out not to test that policies and practices are having a positive impact on people and performance, but simply to ensure that HR staff and managers are following the procedure written down.

A third challenge concerns the organisation’s willingness and capacity to learn about these issues. While HR, and to a lesser extent CEOs, are increasingly using measures and return on investment analyses to look at the people side of the organisation, on the operational side not enough is being done to use learning to bring about changes in practice. People in Aid looked at 56 recent humanitarian evaluations to see how staff issues were assessed. We found that references to human resource management were ad hoc and not systematically covered: ‘The identification of HRM [human resource management] issues may depend on the interest and experience of the evaluator, only focusing on HRM when it has a noticeable impact on programme activities’. Internal report summarised in ‘State of Humanitarian HR’,  People In Aid and ALNAP are working together to ensure that the forthcoming ALNAP evaluation guide includes questions to guide evaluators on HR practices.

In terms of resources there is a great deal for organisations to learn from and use. In addition to People In Aid’s own Code of Good Practice, HR and people management issues feature in every generic code or standard for the sector. InterAction’s PVO Standards, the INGO Charter, the Disaster Emergency Committee’s Accountability Framework, the Sphere Handbook’s Core Standards, the Australian Centre for International Development’s Code of Conduct and many others all feature at least some aspects of HR for which subscribing organisations are expected to be accountable. So do codes with more specific intent, such as Keeping Children Safe (child protection), the HAP benchmarks (beneficiary accountability) and the Antares guidelines (preventing stress). The People In Aid Code was explicitly written to cover quality and accountability in all aspects of people management and HR. See  When the Code was created in 1997 it was offered with a compliance mechanism to ensure that, unlike the NGO Red Cross Code of Conduct (the only agreed sector-wide standard to precede it), organisations could measure improvement against the standard and be recognised by staff, donors, peers and others for their achievements.

Box 1The People In Aid audit focuses on the extent to which adherence to the People In Aid Code is embedded in operational and management practices throughout the organisation, and the quality and effectiveness of consultation (see Box 1). See Members go through this process of certification for a number of reasons, including to demonstrate their accountability to their staff. For Save the Children UK, for example, Jasmine Whitbread, then CEO, said: ‘This award is recognition to [all our people] that we have made great progress in raising our standards, demonstrating our willingness to be held accountable and to achieve our ambition to be a great place to work’. Likewise, the Sierra Leone Red Cross identified a range of benefits from becoming certified. See  In a statement the Society noted that it ‘wanted to obtain committed status [i.e. certification] in order to demonstrate that it values its workforce who collectively contribute to the achievement of its objectives’.

Will every NGO, Red Cross Society and UN organisation, large or small and wherever the HQ, not just value but demonstrate that it values its workforce? If they do, there is little doubt that our individual and collective endeavour to help those affected by poverty, conflict and disaster, and to spend our donors’ money efficiently, will be transformed. 

Jonathan Potter is Executive Director of People In Aid.


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