Issue 52 - Article 3

Only as strong as our weakest link: can the humanitarian system be collectively accountable to affected populations?

November 30, 1999
Gwyn Lewis and Brian Lander
Inter-Agency Sub Group on Accountability to Affected Populations
WFP Officer Distributes Food Ration

Many humanitarian organisations are looking at how to become more accountable to affected communities in a more systematic way in order to better respond and meet needs. The humanitarian community as a whole is also trying to be more open and attentive to serious complaints arising during programme implementation, and to adapt to changing needs throughout the programme cycle. As a result numerous initiatives have been developed that identify methodologies, standards and criteria to achieve greater accountability.

If being accountable to affected populations requires individual organisations to develop systems and methodologies, this begs the question of what the humanitarian community working together in a coordinated way may need to do to ensure that it, as a collective, is also accountable. This requires not only greater awareness and, potentially, greater harmonisation of the policies and practices of each agency, but also a willingness to deliver programmes in a way that reinforces collective commitments to accountability.

The purpose of this article is not to prescribe a collective methodology, but highlight some of the issues that individual organisations are struggling with, but which also need to be looked at system-wide.

Working together and being accountable

In April 2011, the Principals of the Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC) See  once again acknowledged the fundamental importance of accountability to affected populations. It was also acknowledged that a significant side-effect of greater accountability and better communication is that programmes are more responsive and the security of humanitarian workers improves. The IASC Principals agreed to integrate accountability to affected populations into their individual agencies’ statements of purpose as well as their policies. Members will report back on progress at the end of the year. They also agreed to strengthen collective accountability within the humanitarian system. It is clear is that individual organisational commitments and practices cannot be divorced from collective commitments and the overall humanitarian architecture. However, it is also clear that improved accountability can only be effective if agencies are willing and able to uphold their responsibilities.

Following on from the IASC Principals meeting, an initial consultation with a number of actors was held in early July. Invitees included organisations directly involved in developing standards and systems to strengthen humanitarian accountability, donor representatives and representatives from UN agencies and NGOs, including those with cluster leadership responsibilities. Participants reviewed the potential elements of an operational framework for implementing agreed commitments to improving accountability to affected populations, using the Sphere standards and the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) or other methodologies as a means of verification. While this remains work in progress, there was general recognition that, as a community, we have a unique opportunity to make significant progress in improving how we interact with and respond to the needs of affected communities.

Being accountable for accountability

During an emergency, the humanitarian community as a collective comes together under the auspices of a Humanitarian Coordinator (HC). The HC draws the different elements of the humanitarian community, the UN, NGOs and the Red Cross and Crescent Movement, together to coordinate rapid responses to crises. To achieve this, the HC can encourage, advocate and cajole, but there are no direct management lines to heads of UN agencies, let alone other organisations working in the country, whether national or international.

In a system characterised by non-hierarchical relationships between partners and competition for visibility and funding, the humanitarian community as a whole cannot be fully accountable either to the HC or to affected populations. To address this, one possible solution is for the system to develop some type of peer review between organisations. This is already happening to some degree within clusters: a cluster member is responsible to their organisation, but is also accountable to cluster peers for commitments made by the cluster. For the humanitarian system to be accountable everyone within that system must have a common understanding of what accountability to affected populations means. This requires a common understanding and set of commitments, as well as a practical way to take these commitments forward. Such commitments would provide a commonly agreed baseline for agencies to then elaborate or enhance an individual organisation’s accountability, to monitor that accountability and to provide coherence and a clear understanding of what accountability to affected populations really means.

How feasible this approach will be is uncertain given that clusters often engage with national and international organisations with very diverse mandates and expertise. The fact that a growing number of NGOs, CBOs and donors operate mainly or in some cases entirely outside of the system is another challenge. Nevertheless, these commitments and related operational frameworks will be the subject of continued development over the coming months, with a view to seeking endorsement by the IASC Principals in December 2011 and possibly the Global Humanitarian Platform in 2012. See

One particular and often discussed component of system-wide accountability to affected populations is joint feedback and complaints mechanisms (such as the one used in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya and those put in place in Pakistan). In order to function well, a feedback and complaints mechanism needs a clear referral system to the organisation that receives the feedback/complaint. If feedback is given on a project or programme, adjustments may need to be made. In the case of a complaint, a clear system for investigating that complaint and taking appropriate action is also needed within each organisation.

If, in the case of a joint feedback/complaints system, one organisation does not respond in a timely and systematic manner, what was initially feedback can become a complaint. If there is no follow-up on a complaint and corrective action is not taken, this can become an even more serious issue, potentially posing a threat to all organisations working in a community, because everyone is seen as equally culpable and confidence in the whole system is weakened. Providing means to draw out sensitive issues from complaints systems is critical.

Ensuring the right policies and commitments is therefore only the first step. Follow-up on complaints is key and appropriate systems to ensure that complaints are addressed need to be established if the humanitarian community is to achieve collective accountability. This will also require support from senior managers, and adequate and consistent resources.

Is it always possible to listen and communicate?

A key activity of any accountability system is to ensure an open channel of communication. It must be recognised, however, that in the height of an emergency assumptions based on expertise and experience are often what save lives. When there is limited information but high urgency, organisations tend to deliver what they know how to deliver well and to anticipate need. In other situations, such as during times of conflict or in areas where access and security problems limit the movement of humanitarian workers, listening and involving communities in all phases of the project cycle may not be feasible.

Nevertheless, it is possible to communicate with affected populations in a more systematic way, even when direct access is a problem. Using local media, new technologies and creative thinking communities can be told what they will receive, by when and what to expect from the humanitarian community. But multiple channels of communication through which feedback or complaints can be submitted can lead to confusion and frustration. The most effective mechanisms are simple and defined by communities themselves. Church World Service, ‘Research Report on Quality and Accountability in Pakistan after the Floods’,’.

Twitter, Facebook and blogs can all be used for communication, though harnessing these real-time but indirect channels, and utilising them in an effective way, remains a challenge. Information communicated through these means can be difficult to verify and may not be consistent or accurately reflective of needs. Often they serve primarily as a means to feed the media, but lack the detail or consistency necessary to check and adjust programmes. For example, although Ushahidi helped identify areas of concern in Haiti, detailed needs assessments and field visits were necessary to identify humanitarian needs. See  The expansion of mobile phone networks is also allowing many communities to exchange information by SMS. This is already being used as a means to provide credit for beneficiaries to buy food, but the technology requires access to computers, mobile phones and networks that may not always be available, especially after a disaster.

Local practices and power structures are significant factors in determining the most appropriate way to communicate, particularly in submitting complaints. Verbal communication can be the preferred means due to fear of retaliation or low literacy rates. Establishing mechanisms that allow for regular and direct contact with communities and individuals, while resource intensive, can be an important means to establish trust, manage expectations and provide regular feedback on programmes.

A paramount concern is ensuring confidentiality in serious cases, in particular accusations of sexual exploitation or abuse. Ensuring that victims know their rights and are adequately protected, and that necessary action is taken to address the complaint, are critical to the implementation of any accountability mechanism. This issue still needs to be addressed and a methodology found for the collective, although some work has been done in Dadaab and Pakistan, and other projects will be piloted in the coming months.

Perceptions and behaviours

The behaviour and attitudes of staff and how they interact with affected communities is a significant factor in building confidence in any accountability mechanism. Humanitarian staff may not always be aware of local customs and traditions, may not be able to communicate in local languages and may appear indifferent or even offensive to populations of concern. Increasing cultural awareness and ensuring that humanitarian workers are well briefed not only on the operation in which they are concerned but also on the broader humanitarian effort and the circumstances in which it is taking place are necessary measures to improve the quality and consistency of interactions with affected communities.

Ways forward

Maintaining regular contact with affected populations can be challenging and time- consuming, but must remain a priority for humanitarian agencies if they are to ensure an effective response. Unfortunately, the system provides few incentives for listening to communities and adapting programmes in accordance with their feedback. In fact, there are more disincentives than incentives. Adapting or changing a programme midway through can attract head office or donor criticism that the project was not well planned, or in some cases result in the donor refusing to fund the proposed changes. This needs to end. Donors and other decision-makers within the system need to encourage and support flexible, iterative approaches to programme delivery based on interaction with and feedback from communities.

It is encouraging that the IASC Principals have recognised the need to improve accountability to affected populations. The work being done to put in place commitments by the IASC (and possibly the Global Humanitarian Platform (GHP) as well) will help to clarify the challenges and how they can be best addressed by the humanitarian community as a collective. These commitments should ensure greater consistency, improve how accountability is measured and therefore improve the overall humanitarian response. But putting these commitments into practice will be the real test. Given competing priorities and limited resources, the question remains as to whether there is sufficient will to move beyond the rhetoric and bridge what many perceive to be a growing divide between humanitarian organisations and the people they aim to help. The IASC Principals have opened up a new and unique opportunity to address this concern: let’s hope that the humanitarian community as a whole is able to capitalise on it.

Gwyn Lewis and Brian Lander are Co-chairs of the Inter-Agency Sub Group on Accountability to Affected Populations.


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