Issue 34 - Article 15

The accountability alibi

July 7, 2006
Nicholas Stockton, Humanitarian Accountability Partnership

For accountability enthusiasts, Jan Egeland’s article ‘Humanitarian Accountability: Putting Principles into Practice’, published in Humanitarian Exchange in June 2005, promised much. Here was a good opportunity for the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator to show how the process of UN reform might enable international humanitarian action to become more accountable to ‘the peoples of the United Nations’, rather than just beholden to the very mixed company that is the governments of the UN’s member states. After all, OCHA must know as well as any institution that most humanitarian crises are provoked or exacerbated by bad governance, and that the most egregious failures of humanitarian protection, disaster preparedness and mitigation are both perpetrated and, where they can get away with it, concealed by governments. And while the performance of the international humanitarian system invariably disappoints its supporters, very often its failures can be attributed to deliberate acts by governments to frustrate humanitarian access to, and sometimes even deny the very existence of, ‘peoples’ in urgent need of protection and assistance. Indeed, because of its nature as an inter-governmental body, the idea of ‘United Nations humanitarian coordination’ was rejected as oxymoronic by many humanitarian agencies during the Cold War.

It was only the hubris generated by ‘the end of history’ that assuaged those fears, when the ‘international community’ was entrusted with humanitarian coordination under UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182 in December 1991. This wrested the humanitarian leadership function from ‘neutral’ Geneva to the political hothouse of New York, from where the discourse of ‘coherence’ has represented a kind of Orwellian doublespeak, obfuscating the simple reality that UN humanitarian coordination is a tool designed to integrate humanitarian resources into the wider political objectives of the Security Council, for good or ill. The Rwanda genocide and the humanitarian disasters in Sudan, the DRC and numerous other human wastelands remind us that entrusting humanitarian coordination to the United Nations has indeed proven to be no panacea. The carelessness demonstrated by so many governments with the lives of peoples near and far has found neither remedy nor prevention in this form of inter-governmentalism. So, was Egeland about to issue a much overdue clarion call for the United Nations to bend more to the humanitarian interests of the suffering peoples of the United Nations, and less to the strategic interests of its constituent governments?

Well, if that is what you hoped for, then you were in for a major disappointment! He begins well enough with the high-minded assertion that ‘the first thing people in crisis need to know about humanitarianism is that we will treat them as human beings, with dignity and respect’. But somehow this excellent principle is to be achieved, according to Egeland, through ‘building a more predictable response capacity and providing for more predictable and flexible funding’. Apparently, greater accountability is to be achieved through ‘greater impact on the ground’, and for this to be realised, the United Nations needs more flexible money and more trained staff. Ergo, humanitarian accountability is a function of UN funding. So, the Darfur tragedy is presented as a by-product of ‘initially slow’ humanitarian response with ‘too many gaps’, and the four million deaths in the DRC are attributed to ‘woefully underfunded’ appeals. Somehow, accountability, or rather a lack of it, has become an alibi for humanitarian failure, and a polite way of asking for more money.

But Egeland also opines that ‘accountability is about more than getting programmes funded and trucks rolling. It is about means as well as ends … 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’. Yet, in a crucial semantic twist, he says ‘accountability is about these intangible (my emphasis) but essential qualities’. However, it seems that accountability only suffers from this problem of ‘intangibility’ when it comes to disaster survivors. Egeland acknowledges that ‘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’. Tellingly, this duty is not extended to disaster survivors. (Might we call this ‘the tangibility alibi’?) Of course, this could be excused as a simple oversight, but other evidence suggests that it is in fact a systemic condition of OCHA’s own stakeholder map. For example, Egeland’s Humanitarian Response Review (HRR) consulted over 400 members of the humanitarian system, but not one ‘beneficiary’. Likewise, there are no standard operating procedures that require Humanitarian Coordinators to make themselves accountable to disaster survivors.

If the exclusion of disaster survivors from the list of those to whom humanitarian agencies should be accountable is due simply to the ‘intangibility’ of suitable accountability practices, then help is at hand. In the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP), we believe that there is nothing essentially intangible about consultation. Dialogue can be recorded and transcribed. It can demonstrate the existence of informed consent, and it can establish a clear contract about an agency’s duty of care towards its intended beneficiaries. It can produce binding distribution schedules and security agreements. It can record complaints and commitments to offer redress. HAP has described such tangibles in its ‘Principles of Accountability’, from which we are now deriving verifiable standards and performance indicators that will be used as the basis for agency certification: another tangible manifestation of respect for the dignity of beneficiaries and of humanitarian accountability in practice. In due course, this might lead to an ISO 9000 or SAI 2000 accredited system of certification. These internationally recognised quality management standards are expressly concerned with making accountability to stakeholders measurable and verifiable. Making accountability to disaster survivors tangible.

But surely, the reader might say, Jan Egeland was making the more important point that, in the final analysis, humanitarian assistance has to be effective? Is that not the best way for humanitarians to achieve accountability? Well, not quite. This argument suggests that Egeland sees accountability as a one-way street, in effect a synonym for transparency. But accountability is also concerned with taking account of the views, interests and capacities of stakeholders in a manner that leads to substantive changes in programme design and delivery. And this dimension of accountability is not about political correctness. Ask Toyota how they became the world’s largest car manufacturer. Listening to customers is what made the difference for them. But how might this lesson be applied to humanitarian action?

Since Barbara Harrell-Bond’s ground-breaking study of the impact of international aid on Ugandan refugees in Southern Sudan, many researchers have noted that people affected by disasters rarely sit down and simply wait for external help to arrive. The biography of a ‘disaster victim’ precedes the stage where aid agencies designate the situation as an emergency, and while survival strategies may get ever more desperate, these are invariably pursued after a pragmatic weighing up of opportunities and risks, balancing the need for short-term welfare against the desire for long-term sustainability. Researchers have seen that peasant farmers almost never eat their seed reserve. Migration (or voluntary displacement) is usually ‘rehearsed’ or tested by some members of the family before the whole household moves. ‘Coping strategies’ as diverse as wild food foraging and writing letters to the diaspora for financial support are all undertaken with reasonably well-informed expectations about returns on the effort involved. In other words, although in absolute terms the income derived may be small, effort is nevertheless expended upon activities that yield the optimum economic returns available from the opportunities available. So the disaster survivor knows that the ‘opportunity cost’ of time spent on foraging is the value foregone of the ‘next best’ activity, which may indeed be writing a letter to a distant relative.

It is into this mixed, often battered, but very real economy that international relief aid is pitched, with the latter usually constituting a small proportion of the former. Alex de Waal’s classic study of the 1984 Darfur famine discovered that international relief aid amounted to less than 10% of the domestic income of most ‘famine victims’. Yet the procedures and risks associated with obtaining international famine relief involved waiting for hours or even days in scorching and incipiently violent queues, with no guarantee of achieving a return on the time invested that would be as productive as the ‘beneficiary’s’ next-best survival activity. Yet relief workers all too often behave as if ‘disaster victims’ have nothing better to do than silently, patiently and gratefully wait for international largesse to reach them.

Once the opportunity costs of queuing are more fully understood, so too is the anger of disaster survivors when relief agencies treat them as if they had nothing better to do. Such feelings are often exacerbated by the venues chosen for relief aid transactions. Often people have to walk for hours or even days to get to a distribution point, only to find that the distribution schedule has been changed, that they have missed a vital registration event, and that all their effort has been in vain. It is at these moments when we can properly speak of disaster victims, where the opportunity costs of choosing to depend upon an unaccountable relief agency can be truly deadly. Trying to understand the opportunity costs for survivors of ‘participating’ in relief work is one very tangible exercise that not only operationalises the concept of respect for the dignity of people affected by disasters, but can also encourage an approach to consent and disclosure that can greatly assist the survivors to make better-informed decisions, often of a genuine life or death nature. This is accountability working, as Toyota would recognise it.

In April 2006 HAP polled its contact list, consisting mainly of staff of aid agencies, to ascertain their perceptions about the quality of humanitarian accountability practices during 2005. The survey confirmed that most experts believe that the quality of humanitarian accountability declines in direct proportion to the relative power of the stakeholder. Humanitarian agencies are perceived to be good at accounting to official donors, fairly good at accounting to private donors and host governments and very weak at accounting to beneficiaries. This goes to the very heart of the challenge confronted by those who wish to promote humanitarian accountability. The people whose welfare is meant to be the object of the exercise have the least say (indeed, often none at all) in designing policy or shaping operational practices. Indeed, even odder, the institutions that deliver the service are also paid to judge the quality and effectiveness of their own delivery mechanisms. Put in other terms, this describes a system where the client is deemed to be the least able to define his or her own utility and to judge his or her own satisfaction. This lends support to HAP’s contention that humanitarian accountability has to address a fundamental paradox. Powerful stakeholders – in this case donors – can all too easily contribute to the disempowerment of less powerful stakeholders through monopolising the demands placed upon, and the outputs of, agencies’ accountability mechanisms. So, while we would not dispute that donors and governments have the right to demand accountability from humanitarian agencies, this must not be achieved at the expense of accountability to the principals – the intended beneficiaries. In the final analysis, ‘humanitarian accountability’ must surely be firstly to those in need, not those in power. Only when this has been achieved by OCHA will we be able to speak properly of United Nations humanitarian coordination.

Nicholas Stockton is the Director of the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership ( His email address is:


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