Issue 52 - Article 1

Reflections on the accountability revolution

November 30, 1999
Paul Knox-Clarke and John Mitchell
Internally Displaced Persons receive emergency food aid

In 2003 HPN published an edition of Humanitarian Exchange focused on humanitarian accountability, to assess what was known at the time as the ‘accountability revolution’. The issue looked at why accountability had become so important to the sector; which actors should be accountable; what they should be accountable for; and what actions were being taken. Nine years on this new issue gives us a chance to review the current state of affairs. Has our understanding of accountability changed? Is it still as important as it was? Where have gains been made, and what are the challenges we face now and in the future?

Nine years ago the system was still coming to terms with a massive expansion in the number of humanitarian actors. It was also attempting to address the findings of the Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda (JEEAR). Although there was explicit recognition that the responsibility, and therefore accountability, for humanitarian response rested with the state, it was also understood that, in many crisis situations where state capacities were weak, accountability also rested at an individual, operational agency and donor level. Within this context, agencies and donors undertook to become more professional, to use their power more responsibly and to be more accountable for what they did.


The underlying rationale for this commitment had two main elements. First, there was a moral argument informed by humanitarian principles and a rights-based approach. The core of this focused on the ‘legitimate rights of the claimant’ and reflected the ideology of the time that ‘the recipient knows best’. The Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) was established to help agencies realise this vision through compliance with standards; other approaches, such as that of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), focused on solidarity with the claimant. There were debates about which was the most appropriate approach, but most in the sector agreed that accountability had an essentially moral centre. Second, most people believed that improved accountability would also bring about better results, performance and impact. It was also assumed that working closely with affected communities would have the added benefit of improving security for operational staff in insecure environments. There was little or no evidence to support the argument that better accountability would lead to more effective, secure programming at the time, but good sense told us it surely must be true.

While the rationale for improving accountability seemed clear, deciding how to do this was not. Agencies had a diverse range of options to choose from, resulting in a rich, but sometimes confusing, array of approaches. One commentator categorised these into three main types. The first, which was rights-based, focused on involving claimants in the planning and implementation of aid programmes. The second was based on humanitarian principles, codes of conduct and legal instruments. The third adopted methods from public management, including technical standards, performance indicators, impact assessment and results-based management. These categories were not exclusive and different agencies adopted elements of each. New initiatives were established to assist agencies in building their capacity to be accountable, including ALNAP, Sphere, People in Aid, HAP and the Good Humanitarian Donorship Initiative.

This dual rationale for accountability – based both on moral and practical considerations – remains important today. At the same time, the need to account for funds has become ever more pressing. Humanitarian spending has risen significantly, reaching almost $17 billion in 2010, and this against the backdrop of the global economic crisis. Development Initiatives, GHA Report 2011, 2011.  As always, much of this money is spent in chaotic circumstances where financial infrastructure and systems of government tend to be weak and levels of corruption high. At the same time, the media has become more critical and its reach wider. It is not surprising therefore that donors – both public and private – are holding humanitarian organisations to account for using funds as efficiently and effectively as possible. Alongside the growing concern about value for money there is also a resurgence of interest in demonstrating results and impact. While these aspects of accountability have always been important, there have been concerns that overemphasising them could undermine the moral rationale for accountability.


In the past decade, there has been real progress in accountability to beneficiaries, evidenced by a growth in member-led initiatives relating to different aspects of accountability, an increase in the number of agencies operating complaints mechanisms, an increase in the number of evaluations and a greater degree of consultation with beneficiaries. As a result, humanitarian workers feel that accountability – and particularly accountability to beneficiaries – has improved. See Paul Harvey et al., The State of the Humanitarian System: Assessing Performance and Progress – A Pilot Study, ODI/ALNAP and HAP, 2010; ‘Perceptions of Humanitarian Accountability – Annual Survey’, in Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International, The 2010 Humanitarian Accountability Report, 2011.  Progress has, however, been patchy, and is not necessarily recognised as such by beneficiaries themselves. Helen Baños-Smith, The Right to a Say and the Duty To Respond, Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International, 2009.

We should not underestimate the challenges humanitarian practitioners face in trying to take account of beneficiary opinions and be responsive to their needs. The humanitarian context makes accountability important, but it also makes it very hard to achieve. Even when humanitarian workers have the ability and time to listen to affected people, the inherent power imbalance between aid worker and beneficiary often prevents honest communication. Given these constraints, we may have to accept that it will always be difficult to achieve full accountability to beneficiaries, and that there will always be scope for improvement.

Many of us wonder if the hard-earned gains of the last decade have led to improvements in performance. What we do know is that there have been incremental improvements in many of the components of system-wide performance over recent years. But we do not have a precise understanding of the relationship between improved accountability to clients and improved performance. We believe there should be a mutually supportive relationship, but evidence from the field sometimes suggests otherwise. We have had even less success in measuring results and impact. Despite the gradual embedding of evaluations within the system over the last decade, the ALNAP Evaluative Reports Data Base shows that, in practice, there are still too few evaluations of impact. While new guides and frameworks have been written and new initiatives set up, humanitarian impact assessment is still ad hoc, rather than systematic. There are good reasons for this, including genuine difficulties around methodology, but there is also a lack of incentives for agencies to tackle this seriously.

The role of humanitarian donors

Donors have always had an obligation, not only to ensure that the agencies they funded were accountable, but also to demonstrate their own accountability to taxpayers. With regard to the latter, the establishment of the Humanitarian Response Index, which ranks donors in relation to their adherence to GHD principles, is an important development. The report has now become part of the accountability landscape and is an excellent (and rare) example of civil society taking action to make governments more accountable. In relation to the former, donors have come under increasing pressure to demonstrate that funds are spent well.

There is an inherent tension here between allowing operational agencies as much independence as possible and ensuring quality control. Many humanitarians feel that, in practice, the quality control function is overwhelming operational independence and making it more difficult for agencies to listen to affected communities, take what they say on board and change programming accordingly. It also prevents humanitarian actors from taking risks and introducing innovations that – if successful – would greatly improve the lot of disaster-affected people, but which – if unsuccessful – would not represent good value for money or the efficient use of funds. In other words, the control element of this exercise may inadvertently mitigate against the types of innovative thinking and action which have often formed the basis for successful humanitarian action.

Emerging challenges

In some ways, humanitarian accountability is becoming the victim of its own success. The multiplicity of accountability mechanisms and initiatives are now in danger of creating confusion, adding to the load on operational staff and potentially damaging the performance of humanitarian organisations. Many humanitarians – and particularly those working at the field level – are confused by the variety of approaches and frustrated by the burden of form-filling and reporting.

This begs the question: are there now too many reporting requirements, accountability frameworks and forms to fill in? The perception is that many systems overlap and create unwanted duplication. If this is the case, the challenge will be to develop simpler, common mechanisms, which retain the rigour required to ensure that humanitarians are using resources in the most valuable ways, but which are also flexible enough to include the voices of disaster-affected people, and accommodate opportunities, innovation and justifiable risks. As our accountability mechanisms become more sophisticated and effective, we find ourselves balancing the requirements of different stakeholders, and taking into account the sometimes conflicting opinions of disparate groups.

We have noted already that there is potential tension between being accountable to donors and being accountable to beneficiaries. But the experience of many agencies suggests that this is not the only tension caused by multiple accountabilities. There are also tensions between one set of beneficiaries and another: beneficiaries have different and sometimes competing needs and aspirations. Increasingly, agencies may have to find ways to balance the desire to use existing, culturally appropriate mechanisms for accountability (which risk overlooking and further marginalising beneficiaries who are excluded within that culture) and the desire to include the most vulnerable (which may lead to external agencies challenging culturally accepted norms or the political status quo). This tension – between the imperative to be neutral and impartial and the imperative to support the needs of the most vulnerable – is not new, but it is amplified by successful approaches to beneficiary accountability: the more we take the voices of affected populations into account, the more we are confronted by diverse needs and expectations. We can also expect to see increased tension between accountability to beneficiaries and accountability to the state. In the absence of alternative channels of communication marginalised people often use agency accountability mechanisms to complain about things outside the agency’s remit, including issues related to government policy or performance. In the future, agencies might well find themselves challenging criticism of governments at the same time as they become increasingly engaged in areas such as cash interventions and Disaster Risk Reduction, which require closer cooperation with government entities.

Humanitarian organisations will need to become more skilful at balancing accountabilities to donors, beneficiaries and the governments of crisis-affected countries. In addition, they are increasingly recognising that they need to be accountable to one another. This is largely a result of the growth in the number of humanitarian actors, and of a general move towards multi-sectoral responses. Humanitarian organisations are finding that the failings of one agency can tarnish the reputation of the community as a whole. Addressing this will require improvements in collective accountability.


The accountability revolution has delivered some real gains in accountability to donors and to claimants. We have learned from experience that, while the latter is often very difficult to get right, it remains at the centre of the humanitarian imperative. In other areas less progress has been made. The systematic demonstration of results and impact still seems to be beyond the capacity of the humanitarian community, and a realistic appraisal of what is possible may be required. As the humanitarian system expands, so the web of accountabilities grows larger and more complex, and agencies will have to find ways to demonstrate accountability to a growing number of stakeholders, and to balance their competing claims. The biggest challenge appears to be achieving the rigour required for donor accountability, while being flexible enough to include the voices of affected people. This may require some harmonisation of the current instruments.

Although frameworks and mechanisms are necessary to make agencies accountable, it is the culture of the organisation as a whole, and the behaviour of individual staff on the ground, that ultimately counts. As yet, there are perhaps too few incentives for staff working in pressurised and chaotic environments to display accountability, and many disincentives: mechanisms are time-consuming, are seen as constraining action and make people feel judged. If the humanitarian system wants to fully incorporate the multiple accountabilities required by today’s emergencies, this will need to change.

Paul Knox-Clarke is Head of Research and Communications at the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP). John Mitchell is the ALNAP Director.


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