Issue 30 - Article 19

Humanitarian accountability: putting principles into practice

August 26, 2005
Jan Egeland, UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator

The Indian Ocean tsunami crisis prompted one of the world’s largest-ever relief operations. In its aftermath, the humanitarian community has revisited the issue of accountability, this time with greater public interest – and scrutiny – than ever before. Accountability, along with its corollary, transparency, are two words very much in vogue at the moment, both within the humanitarian community and in the United Nations. But what do we mean by these terms, and to what ends are we applying them? And most importantly, how do they contribute to the health, safety and physical wellbeing of the millions of people around the world who turn to humanitarian workers in times of crisis?

For accountability to have real meaning, it must be tied to a specific set of actors, audiences and objectives: one is held accountable to someone for something. Accountability also implies consequences – one is literally called to account. How do these concepts apply to the humanitarian community, where numerous interests and actors – beneficiaries, agency and NGO partners, donors and host governments – converge?

While roles and responsibilities vary, ultimately accountability is about strengthening our capacity to save lives and alleviate suffering in a manner that affirms individual dignity. However we understand the term, accountability must manifest itself in results on the ground that protect and improve the basic quality of life for those at risk from conflict or disasters.

Any discussion of accountability must begin and end with this question: as a result of our actions/policies/decisions, have we improved our ability to provide aid – quickly, competently, equitably, and in a dignified manner – to those who most need it?

Strengthening accountability through improved response

Today, the humanitarian community is being called up to respond to a wide range of often simultaneous crises, from the Indian Ocean tsunami to the crisis in Darfur and the ongoing calamity in the DRC. Overall, the UN system and its humanitarian partners in the Red Cross/Red Crescent and NGO community have responded reasonably well, given the circumstances. More aid gets delivered to more people more quickly than ever before, thanks in part to improved technical and logistical capabilities and more effective coordination on the ground.

Our technical advances, however, have not been matched by similar progress in human consciousness – in fact, if anything we have further distanced ourselves from the suffering of others. Despite the one-world mantra of globalisation, we still turn a blind eye to the suffering of millions of people who remain outside the media spotlight or beyond the narrow range of political interest. Accountability is thus a twin challenge: improving our ability to respond, and doing so in a manner that upholds the core values we espouse.

One of these core values, impartiality of assistance, requires us to provide aid to those who need it most, wherever they may live. In some crises, such as the tsunami disaster, we have met this challenge, providing massive relief to two million people across 12 countries in a matter of weeks. In other crises, such as Darfur, we initially responded too slowly with too many gaps in assistance, while in DRC and many other countries outside the limelight, our efforts have been woefully under-funded proportionate to needs.

To be accountable to our beneficiaries, we must close the gap between what we practice and what we preach. We must improve both what we do, and how we do it. To that end, the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, has proposed reform of the humanitarian system, which seeks to strengthen accountability by:

  • building a more predictable response capacity; and
  • providing for more predictable and more flexible funding.

This reform agenda, described in the Secretary-General’s March 2005 report In Larger Freedom, will be presented to UN Member States in September. If adopted and implemented faithfully by all parties – donor governments, the UN system and our humanitarian partners – these reforms should improve our ability to respond effectively to future crises.

In addition to these reforms, which are largely quantitative in nature, we also need to focus attention on the qualitative aspects of accountability. As humanitarians accountable to those we serve, and those who help make such service possible, we need to:

  • operate transparently;
  • keep our humanity at the centre of humanitarian action; and
  • confront our greatest challenge – public indifference – by focusing attention on the millions of people who suffer in ‘forgotten crises’.

As Emergency Relief Coordinator, I am committed to strengthening both the quantitative and qualitative factors that will make us more accountable to our beneficiaries, host governments, humanitarian partners and donors.

Objective 1: more predictable response capacity

The need for a more predictable response capacity is clear, as the crisis in Darfur and the tsunami disaster both demonstrated. We can, and we must, do better. To this end, last year I commissioned a Humanitarian Response Review, led by some of the most well-regarded members of our community: Costanza Adinolfi, David Bassiouni, Roy Williams and Halvor Fossum Lauritzen. Their review, to be made public in June, will identify gaps in humanitarian assistance and suggest how we should fill them. They will also make recommendations to ensure we have the personnel and equipment needed to respond immediately to future emergencies, and if need be, to major crises occurring simultaneously in different parts of the world.

Some initial observations are in order. First, the humanitarian community does not have a sufficient number of stand-by staff skilled, trained and ready to deploy for a major emergency. We need to create stand-by arrangements for the immediate deployment of skilled personnel (and equipment), with the emphasis here on ‘skilled’. Over the last decade, we have expanded the ranks of aid workers, but failed to balance improved advocacy with the high standards of quality and professionalism in all logistical areas required to meet urgent humanitarian needs. As a result, the skill sets in some key sectors may have declined, with technical capacity in areas such as epidemiology or water and sanitation often secondary to other endeavours.

Today, there is an urgent need for senior technically skilled staff in the field. We need staff who know the basics of operational response and can train others, especially local staff, if need be. We need staff who can conduct comprehensive needs assessments, lead programmes for the protection of civilians, provide water and sanitation services, design morbidity and mortality surveys, implement effective vector control measures and effectively manage camps, to name just a few critically-needed skills.

To establish greater quality control, there has been talk recently of more systematically accrediting UN agencies or NGOs during a crisis. As Emergency Relief Coordinator, I believe it is incumbent on each agency and NGO to strengthen its technical response capacity, and I have had discussions with heads of agencies on just this point. Accreditation, however, is a matter for local and national governments, not the UN. Our role is to assist if called upon by governments for this purpose.

We also need to strengthen coordination in the field so that gaps are filled and duplication and confusion minimised. To that end, the Secretary-General’s report proposes strengthening the Humanitarian Coordinators’ role, as well as better preparing and equipping UN country teams.

Objective 2: more predictable and flexible funding from a greater variety of sources

Effective humanitarian response is predicated on our ability to access sufficient funding quickly, in a manner that is both predictable enough to enable advanced planning and flexible enough to respond to changing needs on the ground. The Secretary-General’s report calls for more predictable and flexible funding based on needs, and thus is fully consistent with the principles articulated in the Good Humanitarian Donorship Initiative. The UK government is playing a leadership role in designing a better funding structure for emergency operations.

As the tsunami crisis demonstrated, however, we still have far to go in putting these principles into practice. Donors’ unprecedented response to the tsunami in some cases exceeded humanitarian needs on the ground, and NGO/agency capacity to absorb the money. In a move towards greater accountability, donors should consider un-earmarking tsunami funds for use in other crises. Meanwhile, NGOs and agencies should seek permission from donors (individuals as well as institutions) to use tsunami funds for other humanitarian crises.

The tsunami aside, nearly every other humanitarian crisis in the 2005 Consolidated Appeal (CAP), be it in DRC, Côte d’Ivoire or Colombia, faces critical funding shortages. As of early May, funding for all Appeals was 38% (and 24% excluding the tsunami appeal). In DRC, only 22% of the country’s huge unmet humanitarian needs are funded; in Somalia barely 8%; and in the Central African Republic only 6%. Donors’ slow or non-existent response to these crises is putting millions of lives in jeopardy. To be accountable to both people and humanitarian principles, we must push for more equitable funding based on needs and needs alone.

We also should reflect on the financial tools currently at our disposal and decide if we need to upgrade or revamp them to meet the plethora of humanitarian needs. To that end, I welcome the proposal made by the UK’s Secretary of State for International Development, Hilary Benn, to create a new, voluntary $1 billion emergency response fund.


Accountability is about more than getting programmes funded and the trucks rolling. It is about means as well as ends. It is about transparency of intentions and operations, principles and practices.

The UN humanitarian and development agencies have been successfully accounting for multi-million dollar programmes for years. We are accountable to our donors, our partners and the public at large – all of whom have an indisputable right to know where and how their money is being used. Conscious of public demand for greater accountability, the UN recently welcomed a pro bono offer from PriceWaterhouseCoopers to enhance our accounting expertise, as well as the UN’s public Financial Tracking Service. As a result, we will be able to track incoming contributions to the UN pledged through the Tsunami Flash Appeal and provide the public with data on how these funds are used. This new system was launched on 25 May. Few public or private entities have this degree of transparency. But we believe that not only is this extra accountability the right thing to do, it is also the only way to operate.

Keep our humanity front and centre

Humanitarianism is founded on the principle of humanity. How we provide aid often says more to beneficiaries about our motivation and principles than what we provide. In our rush to provide aid quickly and efficiently, we must not neglect the power of presence – the act of human solidarity in the midst of suffering.

Accountability is about these intangible but essential qualities of humanitarianism. Our beneficiaries may well have lost everything in life. Plastic sheeting or a food package may address their physical needs, but suffering far transcends the physical. The first thing people in crisis need to know about humanitarianism is that we will treat them as human beings, with dignity and respect.

Focus on the forgotten

This element of recognition, of remembering those whom the world has forgotten, is an essential component of accountability. To be accountable to the millions of people who suffer far beyond the media spotlight, we must confront our greatest challenge – public indifference. If nothing else, the tsunami crisis showed, in a way few crises ever have, the extraordinary inter-connectedness of our global society. The world’s generosity in the tsunami should be a model for how we respond to all crises – this is the message we need to take to the public, the donors and the media. The value of a human life is the same everywhere, in Bunia and in Banda Aceh.


While our individual roles and responsibilities may vary, our ultimate accountability as humanitarians is to the people we serve. And we must serve them as people, in a manner that affirms individual dignity. Ultimately, ‘accountability’ must manifest itself in results on the ground that protect and improve the basic quality of life for those at risk from conflict or disasters.

Principles into practice: as humanitarians, we are called to this challenge every day, in each and every crisis. As humanitarians, we can promise no more; as humanitarians, we must be accountable for no less.


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