Issue 63 - Article 5

Constructing a culture of accountability: lessons from the Philippines

January 16, 2015
Barb Wigley
Survivors of Typhoon Haiyan in Capiz, Philippines

The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC)’s Task Team on Accountability to Affected Populations (AAP) aims to promote a system-wide ‘culture of accountability’ within humanitarian organisations. A systems approach to AAP – including Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) – should, in theory, increase the impact of individual agency efforts, offer resource efficiencies and provide more coherent and accountable services to the people the system seeks to assist.

The declaration of a Level 3 emergency in the Philippines in late 2013 presented an opportunity to test this theory in practice. Following the declaration, an AAP coordinator was deployed (the first such deployment to a humanitarian response). The coordinator – a World Food Programme (WFP) secondee – arrived just ten days after the typhoon made landfall. After the one-month deployment ended, consultants were brought in to continue the work. Drawing on this experience and learning from the application of AAP in other emergency responses, this article reflects on what counts when trying to build a culture of accountability. The interrelated threads of these reflections can be summarised under three overarching conclusions:

  1. Accountability will not happen without the engagement and commitment of those in leadership positions at all levels of the system.
  2. Retaining a clear focus on the core mission of this work is critical.
  3. Joined-up thinking Thanks to Patricia Colbert, Senior Gender Advisor at WFP, for this description.  between cross-cutting issues makes each better.


Leadership is one of the most critical elements in keeping the agenda and mission on track. Tools and systems alone will not result in effective change without strong and visible commitment from the highest levels. This is the only thing that keeps AAP, PSEA and CwC on the agenda, however precariously, and the experience of agencies that appear to have been more successful than others in embedding a culture of accountability within their practices shows that it is the commitment of their leaders to the cause, rather than the specific tools they chose to implement it, that makes it stick. It was senior leaders in the sector that put AAP on the map in the Philippines, and it was faltering leadership commitment and a lack of understanding of the core mission that caused it to struggle from time to time.

The mission

Numerous systems, standards, tools and processes have been developed in recent years to improve the quality of humanitarian aid. It seems, however, that an attraction to the functional and structured language of tools and mechanisms has been accompanied by a drift away from the primary purpose of a culture of accountability that seeks to make accountability to the people we seek to assist ‘the way we do things around here’. The tools and mechanisms have increasingly become an end in themselves rather than a means through which the primary purpose of AAP can be achieved. AAP is about using power responsibly and seeing the people we seek to assist as our equals. This definition comes from the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership.  AAP should reinforce the right of affected people to receive and have influence over assistance safely and with dignity and choice. Understanding why we are doing AAP should help guide every decision as to what and how we do it, as should remembering that accountability to affected populations has a rights agenda as well as a political and social one. The business process and structured systems approaches used to implement AAP form just some of the means for change, and not the end game.

Somewhere along the way in the struggle to get the humanitarian system on board with new ways of thinking and doing, the tools and the mechanisms have become an ‘as if’ primary purpose, where the ultimate goal is rewritten as if it is the regulation of organisations, having certain processes in place, ticking certain boxes and even mobilising certain technology. Without the foundational underpinning of a consistent dialogue regarding the needs, experience and input of each segment of communities affected by conflict and disaster, these mechanisms can be ineffective, dislocated and even counterproductive. If we put ‘accountability mechanisms’ in place, but fail to ensure that the most vulnerable and marginalised can access them, or if we speak only to those with political and social power, we risk strengthening social exclusion and marginalisation.

In the Philippines, the small team of AAP and Communicating with Communities (CwC) specialists agreed at the outset to find out what typhoon-affected girls, boys, women, men and the elderly had to say about the response. As a start, with the support of the Philippine Information Agency, we spent two days at evacuation centres in Tacloban and Palo, where in small teams we talked to typhoon survivors in groups and on their own, filtered by gender and age. The idea was not to be scientifically or statistically representative, but simply to start a conversation and see what we could learn.

We found that people were cut off from their usual information and communication sources (including television, radio and print media), and that only some people (mostly teenagers) had managed to save their mobile phones. Adult women and men especially found the lack of both general news and specific information about the response a source of additional anguish and requested detailed information about their rights and entitlements and agency plans that far exceeded the simple messages the humanitarian community was inclined to transmit to them. Women and men of all ages highlighted their need for telephones and radios, and the means to recharge them, so that they could receive information.

Beyond the basic needs of food, water and temporary shelter, adults said that their highest-priority needs were financial assistance, housing, tools, building materials and livelihoods; children and adolescents wanted more food and to return to school. Adolescents and young adults were more likely than other groups to notice and be concerned by lack of fairness and corruption in distributions, and were also more inclined to be disturbed by exposure to dead bodies. The elderly, both women and men, were particularly distressed by a lack of appropriate undergarments and requested specific attention to their health needs related to ageing and pre-existing conditions.

When asked how we could improve the response, the elderly and young people called for information to be a higher priority, for the specific needs of different groups to be taken into account more in the delivery of aid, and for the most vulnerable to be more clearly targeted. Adolescents and young adults also called for improved dignity, order and transparency in aid distributions.

Simple exercises like these, alongside analysis of feedback received through an Internews radio station, were written up in brief reports and issue papers and disseminated as widely and rapidly as possible as a common service to all agencies. This reinforced the point that the voices and opinions of ordinary people affected by the emergency were as important and as instructive as input from what are usually more privileged, better educated and more powerful ‘key informants’. This approach also demonstrated that, contrary to what an initial review suggested, it is possible, using a small team of AAP, CwC and reports officers, to consult a broad range of people of different ages, genders, abilities, backgrounds and needs from the beginning of an emergency, and without detracting from lifesaving interventions.

Feedback on these initial reports was overwhelmingly positive, and agencies and clusters reported making rapid adjustments to programming based on the information provided. Consultation findings influenced decisions and protocols; UNFPA added radios to their NFI kits for women, FAO incorporated recommendations in their distribution protocols, HelpAge International addressed the lack of underwear for elderly women and men and ActionAid coordinated information and feedback in a way that was informed by the reports. These outcomes suggested that the provision of synthesised feedback from communities could prove a valid centralised way to keep such feedback flowing to all agencies throughout the response.

Overall, the rapid deployment of the team meant that AAP, PSEA and CwC were on the agenda from the very early stages of the response, including at cluster level. The value of having dedicated expertise available to conduct consultations was demonstrated through the extremely positive reception across the humanitarian community to the existence of the role and the information it provided, as did the ongoing demand for input and advice, including from the UN, NGOs and government agencies. For the first time, projects that were either specifically oriented to AAP, CwC and PSEA, or which had strong elements of them, were included in the revised appeal, including proposals for interagency common service projects. Unfortunately, the novelty of this approach meant that initially these projects were not funded by donors, and further lobbying and negotiation were needed to get them off the ground. For example, through the determination and persistence of Plan International, with support from actors such as the IASC Task Team, the community consultation project described above was taken over and developed into the Pamati Kita project (see the following article by Alex Jacobs).

Joined-up thinking

While NGOs in particular have been working on improving their accountability to the people they seek to assist, collective efforts in this area have been weak. A joint mission conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organis-ation (FAO), WFP and the global Food Security Cluster to investigate AAP in Pakistan in 2012 found that, even in a setting where more national and international agencies than anywhere else were openly implementing commit-ments on accountability, very little was happening collect-ively aside from peer support and a few joint mechanisms.

Added to this tendency for agencies to work alone on accountability is the siloed nature of what are in fact cross-cutting issues. Worthy causes raising the importance of gender, age, accountability, communication and disability find themselves competing against each other for resources and attention. Rather than joining forces constructively and creatively, or being encouraged to do so by donors, the politics and competition between agencies can prove counterproductive. As a result, programme officers become overwhelmed by the requirement to consider each issue separately and to report on growing numbers of disconnected and unrelated indicators.

In the Philippines, as in other settings, through the efforts of the OCHA CwC team and the CDAC Network, it has been demonstrated that addressing the communication, information and connectivity needs of communities is a clear first-line priority in any humanitarian response. The work done together as a team during the first month of the response also showed that the quality of this approach is enhanced by an AAP lens that encourages community involvement at a deeper level, clear problem definition, consideration of cross-cutting issues according to gender, age, diversity and protection, and greater follow through and response to two-way communication. The two together effectively combine technological expertise with social science.

The AAP role allowed for more coherent advocacy around the different needs and experiences of the women, men, girls and boys affected by the disaster. By supporting and linking up gender, GBV, protection, CwC and other cross-cutting issues, AAP coordination reduced the demands on the time of humanitarian responders, providing already analysed and processed information which could be immediately used and applied, and a clear framework for the provision of quality services to all segments of affected communities through the application of existing accountability guidance. Including the IASC’s Commitments on AAP and associated tools, the HAP Standard and Sphere standards.

While this experience demonstrates how ‘joined-up’ thinking and action can be achieved through leadership and collaboration at country level, building these links at a global level will be much more challenging. Initiatives and thematic areas that have higher and more established visibility and funding may not be easily persuaded to share their hard-won gains with others, despite the potential that a fresh approach might bring.


The deployment of an AAP coordinator to the Philippines typhoon response highlighted the importance of leadership, retaining focus on the mission rather than just the tools, and ‘joined-up thinking’ and action around crosscutting issues as things that count in constructing a culture of accountability in humanitarian relief.

Simply put, if we are not thinking about issues such as gender, age, diversity, disability, information, two-way communication and protection as part of a cohesive whole, we cannot claim to be working accountably. AAP is not only about tools, but also a framework for enhancing the way we provide humanitarian relief to the women, men, girls and boys affected by conflict and disaster. It ensures their participation, establishes the means for two-way communication with them and allows them to give us feedback and complain if our aid has brought unwelcome consequences. It also provides a means to coherently advocate on the range of issues that confront the people we seek to assist during an emergency, and ensure that they are our partners in the response, not just the objects of our actions. Ultimately, AAP has to bring together and add value to what is already there, not compete with other issues for attention and funding or contribute to ‘issues fatigue’.

In order to construct a culture of accountability, current attitudes, which see people-related issues as non-essential and encourage competition between issues rather than ‘joined-up’ thinking and action, need to change. While a lot of progress has been made in certain areas, infighting and competition have prevented a more meaningful outcome. While addressing this may present a long-term challenge at the global level, experience from the Philippines suggests that practical collaboration at the local level can produce results.

Barb Wigley was formerly Senior Humanitarian Advisor with WFP. She is currently in Iraq as Food Security Cluster Coordinator.


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