Issue 52 - Article 7

Humanitarian leadership and accountability: contribution or contradiction?

November 30, 1999
Margie Buchanan-Smith
A health worker in Haiti appeals for calm following an aftershock

For a number of years humanitarian aid workers have been lamenting the lack of good humanitarian leadership. In 2009 a survey of approximately 500 aid workers carried out for ALNAP’s State of the Humanitarian System report confirmed that they perceived lack of effective leadership to be one of the main challenges to humanitarian action. P. Harvey, A. Stoddard, A. Harmer and G. Taylor, The State of the Humanitarian System: Assessing Performance and Progress. A Pilot Study, ALNAP, 2009.  But what is it that is missing? Over the last year ALNAP set out to answer this question by analysing examples of effective humanitarian leadership, looking at the qualities that aid workers value in humanitarian leadership and exploring the extent to which these qualities are fostered by humanitarian organisations.

The 2010 ALNAP study Leadership in Action focused on operational leadership in responding to crises. Margie Buchanan-Smith with Kim Scriven, Leadership in Action: Leading Effectively in Humanitarian Operations, ALNAP, 2010, Eleven examples of effective leadership were identified and researched. The examples covered different levels (from Humanitarian Coordinator to field manager), a range of different organisations and different types of humanitarian crises.  The approach was based on the assumption that we can learn most about what works from studying models of excellence. The leadership qualities that emerged from the case studies can be grouped into six categories:

  • strategic leadership skills;
  • political skills;
  • relational and communication skills;
  • decision-making and risk-taking skills;
  • management and organisational skills; and
  • personal qualities and values.

This article focuses on the fourth category, and specifically on risk-taking as this has particular implications for how leaders are currently held accountable. But what does risk-taking mean and why does it matter? Why is it not being fostered and how has the drive towards accountability contributed to risk aversion in the sector? These are the questions this article sets out to answer.

Is the space for operational humanitarian leadership contracting?

In order to foster leadership humanitarian organisations must give leaders and teams space to work, and must reward risk-taking. Yet one of the most striking findings from the ALNAP study is that this seems rare; effective humanitarian leadership often emerged in spite of, rather than because of, the prevailing culture in the humanitarian aid sector. This was particularly evident in terms of risk-taking.

Risk is inherent to humanitarian response. Humanitarian crises are, by definition, chaotic and unpredictable; no two crises are ever the same, and what works in one context may not work in another. The case studies emphasised the importance to leadership of understanding the context and dedicating time to contextual analysis. They also revealed that a key leadership quality is the ability and willingness to take risks, and to innovate where the response requires more than a conventional approach.

At its most straightforward, risk-taking means making decisions on the basis of incomplete, unreliable and sometimes contradictory information. What was particularly valued in the case study examples was the leader’s willingness to take more substantial risks that could dramatically improve the effectiveness of the humanitarian response. Examples included being prepared to talk to groups and individuals perceived as ‘hostile’ to the international humanitarian response yet who were key to negotiating access, such as the Islamic Court in the case of Somalia in the 2000s.  Another example was the leader’s willingness to travel, despite the dangers, to the centre of the humanitarian crisis – in this case the Nuba Mountains during the North–South civil war in Sudan – to talk to affected people and to understand the situation on the ground.

While many of the case study leaders showed great courage in taking these kinds of risks their decisions to do so were not made recklessly or uncritically but were based on experience and careful analysis, which was appreciated by their staff and peers. It was concerning, however, that the individual often had to carry the risk without the support of their organisation. This was expressed most starkly in relation to the UN, with some case study leaders commenting that they were most effective when they disregarded their own career paths and the risk-averse tendencies of their organisation and prioritised humanitarian objectives.

So why are humanitarian organisations so reluctant to encourage or back their leaders on the ground to take the risks necessary to make humanitarian responses more effective? This study suggests that a stifling culture of compliance and risk aversion has become the unfortunate by-product of the well-intentioned drive to improve humanitarian accountability.

This is happening in a number of ways, mainly connected with the heavy and mechanistic approach to proposal-writing and reporting that is now required for most humanitarian funding. Risk management, for example, is often reduced to a box-ticking exercise more focused on eliminating risk than on encouraging a dynamic and creative approach to risk-taking based on experience, analysis and judgement. Most donor funding mechanisms demand a high level of predictive accuracy on the part of the applicant, for example of the linear process that is expected to deliver the required results in the log frame, despite the unpredictability of most humanitarian crises. Worse still, ever-more rigorous reporting requirements demand that funding recipients stick to and report against the proposed plan, rather than be responsive, flexible and opportunistic – qualities that are key to leadership – in an environment that is dynamic and changing. Yet an iterative approach is much more likely to result in an appropriate response than rigid adherence to what can quickly become an outdated plan.

The burden of form-filling and reporting associated with this culture of compliance is one of the more insidious ways in which the ‘real work’ – of talking to the affected population, deepening the contextual analysis and adapting the humanitarian response accordingly – is sidelined. One aid worker interviewed for the ALNAP study recounted how, in the 1990s, he used to spend 90% of his time in the community and 10% on reporting. Now he spends at least 50% of his time communicating with headquarters. This is how rigorous and demanding reporting requirements have become.

The combined effect is to reward and incentivise compliance with reporting and funding targets, which at best is only weakly linked to improving performance on the ground. At worst, it can weaken performance by diverting energy and resources away from the qualities and actions most likely to deliver an effective humanitarian response. In the words of one interviewee from the ALNAP study: ‘you don’t change the world and the [lives of affected people] with more monitoring on paper’. The extent of this clash between a culture of control and compliance and programmatic good practice is clearly laid out in Andrew Natsios’ essay on ‘The Clash of Counter-Bureaucracy and Development’. Natsios concludes that the bias towards compliance ‘threatens program integrity… The compliance officers often clash with the technical program specialists over attempts to measure and account for everything and avoid risk’. A. Natsios, ‘The Clash of Counter-Bureaucracy and Development’, Center for Global Development Essay, Center for Global Development, Washington DC.  This finding is echoed in the ALNAP leadership study.

This intensifying yet stifling culture of compliance is not unique to the international humanitarian sector. It has been a growing trend affecting the public sector in most Western countries. A commentator on the ALNAP study cited the example of the UK’s National Health Service: ‘an organisation whose progressive politicisation and accompanying bureaucratisation have produced a managerial culture of compliance which has all but extinguished the fundamental value of human compassion on which good healthcare is based’. Many humanitarian organisations have also become more bureaucratic and corporate, further restricting the space to lead. For example, a strongly role-oriented culture that emphasises leadership based on position rather than ability rarely encourages innovation, risk-taking and innovation. There is often an inherent resistance to change in such bureaucratic cultures and a corresponding aversion to risk. This can inhibit even those in designated leadership positions. The courageous leader who takes action despite this stultifying culture may be even more ‘alone’ in their risk-taking and even more lacking in support from their organisation.

What does this mean for accountable leadership?

If the compliance culture is stifling operational humanitarian leadership, does this mean that the drive for accountability is counter-productive and we must drop our accountability demands and standards? Or does it mean that we must revisit and redefine some of those demands and standards? This throws up two key questions: how can leadership qualities that are essential to courageous decisions and to well-judged risk-taking be incentivised, and how can leaders be given the space to lead and be held accountable?

Experienced mavericks in the aid business recount nostalgically how much freedom they were given by their organisations to lead, design and run humanitarian programmes in the 1970s and 1980s, with only the occasional report back to head office. A huge amount of trust was placed in their hands and in their abilities. But we also know that many mistakes were made, mistakes which gave rise to concerns about the widely varying performance of humanitarian organisations in that era. Turning the clock back is not an option. However, where mistakes have been made, or where there is uncertainty in how to respond to a humanitarian crisis, there has been a growing tendency in the sector in the last 15 years to try and nail down how it ‘should be done’. The ever-increasing corpus of standards and guidance materials that has resulted may have inadvertently discouraged the initiative and innovation associated with leadership.

Can we create an alternative and much simpler accountability framework, one that opens up the space to lead, that incentivises the qualities that make the difference between ‘competence’ and ‘excellence’ in humanitarian response and that reflects and encourages the qualities we know are key to effective operational humanitarian leadership, such as  risk-taking, innovation  and political acumen? This requires us to rethink what is important, indeed essential, to improved humanitarian performance. It also means simplifying the procedures associated with ‘upwards accountability’ to funders, and creating the space for greater engagement with the context and with the affected population, encouraging responsiveness to the realities of the humanitarian crisis on the ground. It may also mean relaxing the current obsession with the quantitative measurement of results, and accepting more qualitative approaches that are more appropriate to assessing leadership qualities. In ‘The Clash of Counter-Bureaucracy and Development’ Natsios remarks that ‘those development programs that are most precisely and easily measured are the least transformational, and those programs that are most transformational are the least measurable’. The same argument applies to humanitarian programmes and to leadership qualities – the most transformational are the least measurable.

The way forward

The ALNAP study suggests a number of ways in which the space and incentives for effective humanitarian leadership can be created. First, it recommends that many of the current accountability initiatives and compliance mechanisms in the humanitarian sector be carefully reviewed to assess the extent to which they discourage risk-taking and effective leadership. Such reviews could provide opportunities to modify and simplify these frameworks and mechanisms to make them more ‘leadership-friendly’ – opening up space and incentivising the qualities and approaches that we know are key to effective operational humanitarian leadership – without abandoning accountability altogether. Second, it asks chief executives of humanitarian organisations and their senior management teams to review their organisation’s appetite for risk and how this encourages or holds back their field managers. Chief executives and their teams need to encourage and give organisational backing to managers and leaders so that they feel able to take necessary risks, and to identify and learn rapidly from mistakes. Third, the study recommends that humanitarian organisations and their senior management teams reassess their incentive systems and look again at what is being valued. They must ask themselves how they can achieve a better balance between incentivising compliance (with reporting requirements and agency procedures) and incentivising effective operational leadership. Fourth, the study suggests learning from organisations that have successfully instilled risk-taking cultures, and exploring how such cultures can be replicated.

These steps, combined, will help us to find new and more appropriate accountability frameworks that enable us to hold humanitarian leaders accountable to what really matters – delivering an effective response that meets humanitarian needs – while encouraging and supporting them to take the courageous decisions and risks necessary to achieve this.

Margie Buchanan-Smith is a Senior Research Associate with ODI. She was the lead researcher and author of the ALNAP study on humanitarian leadership.


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