Issue 39 - Article 9

Improving efficiency and effectiveness through increased accountability to communities: a case study of World Vision's tsunami response in Sri Lanka

July 15, 2008
Julian Srodecki, World Vision

The need for NGOs to be more accountable to those affected by disaster has been noted repeatedly in major evaluations, including the report of the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition on the international response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. For World Vision in Sri Lanka, the tsunami response provided an opportunity to implement an emergency programme in a more accountable manner and to work with the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership on a trial of their certification procedures. The overall results, particularly for the people we work with, were very positive and generated a great deal of learning, which is gradually being applied to other programmes. This article describes what was new, how World Vision’s work benefited and some of the key factors in making this happen.

For World Vision, the major reason for greater accountability is to help those affected by disaster realise their rights and to improve the quality of the services provided to them. The general benefits of increased participation for communities have been well documented elsewhere, and a participatory evaluation with communities found that they valued World Vision’s new approach in Sri Lanka as well. To complement this work, this article focuses on the benefits of increased accountability to the implementing NGO, with a focus on staff perceptions of the benefits of increased accountability to the implementing NGO. It is based on two weeks of interviews with field staff on site in 2007. World Vision has greatly valued learning on accountability from others and welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the wider debate.

Humanitarian Accountability Team (HAT): an overview

World Vision has a long-term development presence in Sri Lanka, but following the 2004 tsunami a parallel emergency response office was set up to manage relief and reconstruction efforts, called the (Sri) Lanka Tsunami Response Team (LTRT). To promote accountability in LTRT’s programming, a Humanitarian Accountability Team (HAT) was set up to engage with communities to provide information, listen to their concerns, liaise with other stakeholders and give people a greater voice in LTRT’s programming. HAT was established as a separate sector reporting directly to the Programme Director, and was empowered to represent stakeholder (community) perspectives up to the level of the Senior Management Team. Management of technical sectors such as shelter and child protection was done through an operations department, which focused on the implementation and technical management of projects and activities. HAT complemented this by focusing on community engagement, complaints, liaison with other parties (e.g. NGOs and the government) and monitoring the wider community context through tools like Local Capacities for Peace (LCP). This was implemented through a network of Stakeholder Representatives, based in each site office and working closely with communities. District Liaison Officers were also employed in site offices to serve as focal points for inter-agency coordination.

Ensuring that projects and staff are ‘fit for purpose’

The HAT helped to ensure that projects were ‘fit for (community) purpose’, as well as meeting technical standards. Effective projects need to combine both of these elements. For example, in construction it would be possible to build a school that meets building regulations but cannot be used due to other factors such as location, lack of teachers or access difficulties for children. In LTRT, technical sector staff, such as engineers in the shelter programme, dealt with technical standards. Alongside this, HAT staff took the lead in working with communities to ensure that projects were ‘fit for purpose’, strengthening sustainability and increasing levels of community satisfaction. This helped to speed up implementation of the shelter programme as one team carried out technical preparations for implementation while the other worked with communities to lay the foundations for the project. Once projects were underway, this structure enlarged the options for community construction methodologies, removing bottlenecks and freeing up technical staff to spend more time on implementation issues.

This split also enabled technical staff to focus on the technical aspects of the project and on tasks that best suited their skills. This improved productivity and enhanced overall project effectiveness. Such an approach is valuable because hiring good technical staff with community liaison skills can be very difficult, particularly in large emergencies such as the tsunami, where there was significant demand for staff.

Reduction in organisational risk

Having a function mandated to collect and represent community perspectives and complaints at all levels of the programme acted as a kind of internal nervous system for the programme, keeping decision-makers informed and reducing organisational risk. Senior managers valued having a community-based information system because it improved the information available to them and allowed them to tackle issues as they arose. Across the programme, it was found that being able to listen to communities and act on their concerns helped to reduce the number of disputes that had to be dealt with by senior management. As of September 2007, despite a large operation with over 700 staff at its peak and a budget of $112 million over three years, there were no court cases relating to project implementation.

Quality saves money

Over the course of the two years of operation, the HAT helped save over $5m by preventing unsuitable or unnecessary construction. For example, in Hambantota, World Vision was asked to build 400 apartments. Through its work with communities, World Vision found that the accommodation was not needed and was inappropriate, and no building took place. Savings were also made through better coordination with implementing agencies, which meant that over 175 houses went unbuilt in areas where housing supply was outstripping demand. Further savings were made through more robust community processes to refine beneficiary lists. In one example, World Vision was to donate a fishing boat to one family who had already received a boat through other means. This only came to light when other community members complained, and HAT staff were able to confirm that this was the case. In cases like this, the resources saved were reprogrammed in other areas or directed towards other beneficiaries.

Increased staff motivation and responsiveness to community needs

Having a function mandated to represent community perspectives within the programme helped busy staff to reconnect with their original reasons for joining World Vision, strengthening their commitment to organisational values. Greater knowledge of community priorities and concerns helped expatriate engineers and technical specialists to contextualise their work, and national staff deployed to new areas adapted to their new locations more effectively. For example, in field locations with a large Muslim population, cultural requirements for housing were different to other areas of Sri Lanka. Having a HAT team enabled these issues to be flagged up early, and led many District Managers to hire staff who were more representative of the locality.

Critical success factors

Staff in Sri Lanka learnt a great deal about what it takes to make a humanitarian accountability function work at field level. Rather than an isolated tool or a stand-alone function, senior managers worked closely with the entire office to develop an overarching approach to accountability that cut across teams, functions and departments. This approach required significant support from senior management, an enabling structure and a change in the culture of the organisation.

Senior management support

A key factor in the impact of accountability in Sri Lanka was the decision of senior management to prioritise quality and accountability. This took two forms: the allocation of significant resources to the HAT, and giving the team the time and space to focus on quality. The HAT team cost about 3% of the total programme budget and had very capable staff. (Monitoring and evaluation costs connected to grant compliance and output tracking are not included in this total.) Senior managers maximised the impact of this investment by giving HAT a mandate to prioritise a single high-risk, high-impact sector, rather than spreading the team too thinly. Sectors involved in construction were chosen as the focus because they posed the highest organisational risk and potentially had the highest impact on beneficiaries. This was because of the high unit costs for housing and other types of construction and because individual families rather than whole communities would receive them. This meant that beneficiary selection processes needed to be fair and that any problems had to be resolved before construction was completed.

Senior management support also enabled HAT to hold others parts of the programme to account. This gave the HAT a clearly defined mandate to establish clear relationships with other teams and advocate internally on behalf of communities.

An empowering structure for accountability

HAT was separate from operational and grant compliance functions and reported directly to the Programme Director.

Representation on the Senior Management Team (SMT) enabled the internal advocacy of community perspectives in a reasonably independent manner and made it easier for HAT to resolve community complaints. First, it facilitated a collaborative approach to resolving community complaints as HAT could participate in the search for solutions. Second, it enabled HAT staff to take complaints to the top when necessary. Where possible, community concerns were addressed at the field level, but this structure facilitated a graduated response, first to the line manager, then to the Operations Director and finally to the SMT/Programme Director.

A further benefit of this structure was that HAT staff at each project site were part of a management chain that insulated them from internal pressure to avoid raising or pursuing community complaints. Having an expatriate team leader can help to empower staff and encourage them to raise issues in non-confrontational or highly relational cultures, where talking about problems is not the norm or where there is a fear that long-term relationships might be harmed.

An organisational culture that supported accountability

A key factor in HAT’s success was the development of an organisational culture that promoted accountability. All staff working in a field office were sensitised to the need for increased accountability to beneficiaries, and learned to see complaints in a positive light, as a way of improving World Vision’s work. This was important because accountability field staff needed excellent relations with communities and colleagues. This was achieved through a combination of good leadership and the adoption of a collaborative approach to handling complaints. The HAT team leader had strong influencing and coalition-building skills, and was able to develop collaborative relations between departments, sectors and sites. Second, HAT worked alongside implementing staff to resolve problems, making it a helpful ally rather than an external critic. Having HAT staff in each field site meant that problems could usually be resolved at site level. HAT staff were able to raise community concerns, strengthening trust and building good relations with community members. HAT staff were also able to offer practical community engagement services, facilitating assessments, refining beneficiary lists, managing community complaints and dealing with government liaison and coordination issues, and as such were seen as a useful component of the team rather than an external threat.


During the tsunami response, World Vision invested in a Humanitarian Accountability Team at a level that was new for the organisation. This enabled projects to be more responsive to community needs, but also yielded substantial benefits for the organisation. For busy field managers, under pressure to perform in difficult circumstances, the experience of World Vision in Sri Lanka shows that investment in accountability can make a substantial contribution to the internal running of NGOs, allowing them to work more efficiently and effectively in large-scale emergencies.

Julian Srodecki is Associate Director, Humanitarian Accountability Unit, World Vision International. For more information the following documents have been posted on, or are available either from or Julian Srodecki, Why Do Accountability? A Business Case from Sri Lanka, World Vision, April 2007; and Alexandra Levaditis,Humanitarian Accountability Team Lessons Learned: Perspectives from Communities and Staff, World Vision Lanka Tsunami Response Team, September 2007.


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