Issue 12 - Article 6

An Ombudsman for Humanitarian Assistance?

November 1, 1998
Deborah Doane, Ombudsman Project, British Red Cross

The debate surrounding accountability in humanitarian assistance took a step forward recently, as attendees of the World Disasters Forum in June agreed to pilot an ‘Ombudsman for Humanitarian Assistance’ (HAO). The Forum was attended by the majority of UK humanitarian agencies who gathered in London to review the findings of an 8-month feasibility study, known as the Ombudsman Project, co-ordinated by the British Red Cross (see issue 9).

The main finding from the feasibility study was that, in principle, it is possible to develop an Ombudsman system for use in humanitarian emergencies. There remain, however, a number of outstanding issues that require further investigation. What are the outstanding challenges?

Beneficiary access

The focus on access for claimants was considered to be the primary motivation for creating an Ombudsman, as no other mechanism of accountability has such a direct relationship with beneficiaries. At the same time, there are a number of limitations to this approach as access to beneficiaries will be dependent on the particular context.

A programme of outreach, using local partners and beneficiary representatives, may help to facilitate access in certain situations. At the same time, an Ombudsman would need to avoid any attempts by powerful stakeholders to ‘represent’ beneficiaries for their own political aims.


So far, the Ombudsman Project has been led by UK-based agencies. However, it was agreed at the World Disasters Forum that the Ombudsman would best work within an international jurisdiction which would include membership from non-UK NGOs. Furthermore, an HAO would require legitimacy amongst organisations within the international humanitarian system, which includes host governments, local organisations and the UN. The creation of an International HAO would require immense commitment, time and negotiation with numerous actors and organisations.

Methodology, role and outcome

The feasibility study proposes a flexible methodology for the Ombudsman. The main role would be to provide advice and incentives for agencies to adhere to the main codes of practice and standards in humanitarian assistance – the Red Cross and NGO Code of Conduct and the Sphere Project Minimum Standards as a start.

Finding a consensus on interpreting codes and standards will no-doubt present big challenges as different agencies, each with their own ‘raison d’être’, may interpret the Code of Conduct differently according to their own values and the political and ethical context in question. The Ombudsman would examine the potential for identifying a more regulatory approach so that sanctions may be used if facilitation does not affect the required changes in practice.


An HAO will require considerable and sustained financing in order to carry out its activities. Private Sector Ombudsman are generally financed by the sector themselves and these additional costs are passed onto their customers. This method of financing is clearly more problematic in the field of humanitarian assistance.

Some government funding may be available, but relying upon this for the majority of funds could result in a loss of ownership and compromise independence of the Ombudsman. Ultimately, agencies must be prepared to pay membership fees, on a sliding scale, in order to sustain an independent Ombudsman for their sector.

Next steps

A proposal for a pilot project is now being developed, in consultation with a wider range of humanitarian actors, including international organisations and beneficiary representatives. It is anticipated that the proposal will be presented to UK agencies early in 1999, with the hope of starting a pilot project by next summer.

The pilot itself will involve two key elements:

  • Testing the methodology

    Only through first-hand interaction with both beneficiaries and agencies in the field can we see which methodologies will prove to be the most effective. Modest interventions will take place with the Ombudsman, agencies, host governments and beneficiaries.
  • Institutional development

    A strategy will be developed and implemented over the same period of time to determine how to establish legitimacy with stakeholders and seek to broaden participation in the Ombudsman scheme within the international arena. A governance framework will also be developed.

Overcoming the challenges

In spite of the challenges, there has been an overwhelming amount of support for the Ombudsman concept. Agencies in the humanitarian community are well aware of the criticisms they have faced in recent years, regarding the lack of accountability and professionalism, and are anxious to respond to these in a proactive manner. By self-imposing an Ombudsman on the sector, they are not just acknowledging that problems do exist, but more importantly, are recognising that beneficiaries should have a direct say in helping to discover the appropriate solutions.

For further information about the Ombudsman Project, contact:

Deborah Doane
Ombudsman Project
British Red Cross
9 Grosvenor Crescent
Tel: (44) 171 201 5283
Fax: (44) 171 235 4397


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