Issue 24 - Article 1

Accountability: the three-lane highway

October 3, 2003
John Mitchell

It seems that everyone involved in humanitarian action is in favour of improved accountability.  States and political actors, donors, the UN, humanitarian agencies and the media all uphold the principle of being held to account for one’s actions towards others.  Everyone agrees that being held to account will enhance the responsibility of individuals, organisations and states and, in turn, improve the quality of humanitarian action.  As this ‘accountability culture’ has developed, so the number of duty bearers and duty-holders has increased, and the varieties of accountability have proliferated. We now talk of ‘upwards accountability’, ‘downwards accountability’, ‘horizontal accountability’, ‘forwards accountability’, ‘backwards accountability’, ‘responsible accountability’; the list goes on.

Three areas of accountability

The means by which humanitarian agencies have chosen to improve accountability have been dependent on organisational mandates, identity and raison d’être.  This has given rise to a rich, but sometimes confusing, array of initiatives and approaches. These approaches can be rationalised into three main areas, or ‘lanes’ on the accountability highway. The first concerns the rights and needs of the ‘beneficiaries’ or ‘claimants’ of humanitarian assistance.  The emphasis here is on participative methodologies, contextual programming and approaches for listening to and responding directly to the needs of people affected by crisis.  The second area emphasises humanitarian principles, codes of conduct, legal instruments and bodies of ethics and philosophy; and the third technical standards, performance indicators, impact indicators and results-based approaches.  Broadly speaking, this typology represents a three-lane highway leading to the ultimate destination of improved accountability in the humanitarian sector. These lanes are not exclusive; some approaches may overlap, and the portfolio of approaches adopted will include elements from all three lanes.

Given that this expanding accountability culture has produced such heavy traffic on the three lane accountability highway, many humanitarians are beginning to ask whether it is bringing about the changes we all hoped it would. Are we collectively more accountable? Is the practice and impact of humanitarian action any better as a result?


Accountability in humanitarian action is related to power. At the ‘highest’ level sit states and political actors. The optimistic view is that the modern social contract between citizen and state invests sovereignty in the people, rather than in the government.  States are charged with being accountable to their citizens on the basis of international law and human rights. On an intra-state level, this opens the door to international or regional interventions in response to perceived violations of human rights.

That’s the theory.  In practice, history suggests that inaction in the face of genocide is the rule rather than the exception; one need look no further than the Rwandan genocide for evidence of this.  Where is the mechanism for making political leaders accountable for inaction – especially since the motivating force seems to be to avoid getting involved? Where states do intervene, as in Kosovo and Iraq, the humanitarian or human rights argument is little more than a flimsy disguise for wider strategic and geopolitical interests.  Fundamental questions remain unanswered.  Where does the responsibility for circumscribing the actions of states lie? Who is responsible for ending a war and creating a durable peace? To whom are states ultimately accountable for these actions? The only position left is to force ‘accountability by proxy’ by controlling the actions of states and political actors by other mechanisms within civil society, such as peaceful protest, lobbying and media pressure. Many would feel that this is inadequate.


Accountability within the humanitarian sector was initially promoted by a general donor concern about the impact and cost-effectiveness of aid.  Donors were concerned to be accountable to the public for the responsible disbursement of funds. Most of the methods for achieving this were chosen from lane three on the accountability highway: the focus was on finding more objective criteria for choosing which agencies to fund, and for demonstrating the impact of monies spent.  This view is still very much with us. Andrew Natsios, head of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), told an audience of NGO representatives: ‘Doing good is no longer enough. We have to show results. If you cannot measure aid empirically, then USAID will have to find other partners to fund’.  One effect is to push the responsibility away from the donor and onto the contracting agency. This has resulted in pressure on agencies to adopt the approaches in lane three, when a more natural ideological stance may have been to focus on the participative methods from lane one.

Having said this, donors are beginning to look much harder at themselves.  A significant reason for this is the ‘coherence agenda’, which has brought to light the fact that humanitarian aid is an instrument of foreign policy; security is now inextricably linked with environmental and health issues, refugee flows, asylum and other humanitarian-related issues. Institutionally, the aid agenda is entwined with the work of other government departments, so that the traditional separation of aid and politics has diminished.  Questions have emerged around donor conditionality, the over-funding of certain programmes and the under-funding of others, uncoordinated funding, declining global aid flows, inequitable flows not based on need and the perceived loss of neutrality and impartiality for humanitarian agencies working in the field.

Has this made donors any more accountable? It seems not. Making aid responses consistent with foreign and defence policies has obscured accountability for strictly humanitarian assistance.  Managerial accountability has been framed in terms of ‘results based management’, but this has been affected by a lack of meaningful measures for humanitarian performance; financial accountability is weak since it is very difficult to track flows of aid funding.

Perhaps the overarching problem here is to do with a lack of clarity around the aims and objectives of humanitarian action. So long as humanitarian assistance is linked to military and political strategies, it will be ‘donated’ not only on the basis of humanitarian need and humanitarian principles, but also on the basis of wider political objectives.


Agencies have tended to pick and mix activities in each of the three ‘lanes’ in order to reach their accountability destination.

Lane 1: participation and the ‘beneficiary’

Traffic in the participation lane has been with us since the 1980s; consultation and participation of affected populations has always been thought of as empowering and appropriate, and therefore more effective.  Developmentalists have championed this notion vigorously. However, these concepts have not made a smooth transition into the humanitarian sector, where they have been extremely difficult to apply.

Perhaps the most ambitious ideas in this field were taken up in 2001 by the Humanitarian Accountability Project (HAP), which aimed to test the viability of developing a range of field-based accountability mechanisms for claimants.  Findings from three field trials have revealed an array of structural constraints that have rendered this particular idea not feasible in practice. There are now plans to set up a ‘professional association’ – to be called Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International (HAPI) – which will aim to hold agencies to account on the basis of ‘accountability standards’.  Whatever this new organisation will achieve, it seems the ideal of a direct connection with the claimant is now lost.

Lane 2: principles and law

The traffic in lane 2 guides the conduct of humanitarian actors and functions as a basis for reflection and holding people to account for their actions.  As such, these principles, codes of conduct and bodies of law are both necessary and important. However, the road has been rocky. Anecdotal evidence from evaluations of humanitarian action suggests that, despite great efforts at promotion and dissemination over the past decade, a significant proportion of field workers are still not aware of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Code of Conduct.  Critics argue that, as signing up to the code of conduct is voluntary, its potential impact will always be diluted.

Many feel that the Red Cross Fundamental Principles, in particular the principles of neutrality and impartiality, are in danger of being compromised, diluted and co-opted. Indeed, events in Chechnya and Afghanistan, for example, where aid workers have been murdered by belligerent groups, underline the fact that the once-sacrosanct symbol of the Red Cross has become a specific target.  The scaffolding around traditional notions of legitimate authority and respect has been all but dismantled. The seemingly ‘unlawful’ intervention by ‘coalition forces’ in Iraq earlier this year has prompted some to argue that international humanitarian law (IHL) and the UN system are in terminal decline.  This may be an overstatement, but it is clear that the authority of IHL and the UN Security Council has been undermined.

Lane 3: Results

Lane 3 represents the application of business management techniques to the humanitarian sector.

These include results-based management, technical standards such as the Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Relief, quality standards such as ISO 9000, quality frameworks such as the EFQM Excellence Model and performance frameworks.  The root of all this appears to stem from a lack of trust. Donors and the media have brought into focus the shortcomings of humanitarian agencies and the practice of audit has been imported from the financial sector to allow for increased scrutiny.  In turn, indicators have been promoted as a way of measuring performance. Old-fashioned systems of accountability based on trust are seen to be outmoded and inconsistent with the exacting demands of the modern world.

Has this approach worked? An increasing number of people outside of the donor community appear to believe that the aims of humanitarian action are not reducible to meeting set targets and following prescribed procedures enshrined in quality frameworks and impact indicators.  Indeed, the search for precise indicators has proved to be something of a lost cause; simple quantifiable targets have been unable to adequately express the desired outcome of humanitarian action. Some believe that these techniques are liable to become co-opted, for example as an excuse not to fund one agency over another, or to commit funding in one country but not another.  Blind adherence to these quantifiable indicators and targets is also seen as undermining professional judgement in difficult situations, for example where aid may need to be withdrawn for moral reasons.  This question has, wrongly, been caricatured as a francophone (against)/anglophone (for) debate. It remains to be seen whether a results-based approach is conducive to measuring the goals of humanitarian action, but the debate is likely to remain colourful.

Where is the highway going?

Although we are some way from reaching our collective destination, there have been improvements and successes.  ALNAP, itself a child of the accountability revolution, is producing the most comprehensive and independent assessment of the performance of the humanitarian sector using the findings from an impressive sample of evaluative reports.  It is finding that humanitarianism is working well; human lives are being saved by effective and professionally-managed food, health and water and sanitation interventions.  There are also improvements in evaluations themselves, and an expanding awareness of key issues. It is true that humanitarian aid has its limits – it is not creating peace or rebuilding livelihoods – but it is increasingly effective at meeting its most basic aim of saving human life. And long may that continue.


John Mitchell is the ALNAP Coordinator.


References and further reading

S. Power, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (London: Harper Collins, 2003).

ALNAP Annual Review 2003 (London: ALNAP, forthcoming, 2003).

Hugo Slim, Future Imperatives? Quality, Standards and Human Rights: Report of a Study To Explore Quality Standards for the British Overseas Aid Group (BOAG), 1999.


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