Issue 17 - Article 9

The Humanitarian Accountability Project: A Voice for People Affected by Disaster and Conflict

June 5, 2003
Deborah Doane
4 min read

This autumn, the Ombudsman project is set to embark on a new phase. Soon to be launched as the ‘Humanitarian Accountability Project: A Voice for People Affected by Disaster and Conflict’, the project will move to a new home in Geneva, where it will be guided by an International Steering Committee and staffed with a small secretariat tasked with implementing the new programme. The new phase will aim to develop and carry out a programme of field trials and stakeholder research to test the effectiveness and viability of an accountability function for, and on behalf of, beneficiaries of humanitarian aid.

The new direction follows three years of research and consultation, which culminated in a meeting on 16 March 2000 at the IFRC in Geneva. Fifty senior representatives from key humanitarian organisations and international networks attended. At the meeting, many of the concerns that have been expressed about certain aspects of the Ombudsman idea were discussed. There was, for example, concern that the mechanism should not have a policing function, because a consensus does not exist within the humanitarian community regarding common concrete standards by which the quality of response can be judged. Furthermore, concerns have been raised over the danger of reinforcing the use of codes or standards, as some argue that this could limit the scope for free and independent action.

It was also acknowledged that the obligations and responsibilities of specific humanitarian actors are not clearly defined. Although the group felt that the state is ultimately responsible for accountability to its population, the extent to which the international humanitarian community should and can temporarily assume these responsibilities in current emergency practice warranted further investigation.

Despite these concerns, there was still a strong consensus that accountability to the rights of beneficiaries must be strengthened. A large majority thus expressed an interest in embarking on a phase of field trials to gain a better understanding of how, and whether, such a function could be made to work.

The Geneva meeting concluded that the pilot should aim to provide a mechanism with a primary focus on the concerns of the affected populations, but that a ‘policing’ or compliance mechanism was not appropriate. The word ombudsman was perceived as partially the source of some preconceptions and confusion in this regard.

New directions: the pilot project phase

The pilot project has been designed to answer some of the most frequently asked questions that have emerged in the debate, through a programme of field trials, stakeholder research and evaluation.

These questions include:

  • How will such a function adapt to natural disasters versus complex emergency situations? Most importantly, how will it be able to quickly deploy in a rapid-onset emergency situation?
  • How will the office function differently in either weak or stronger states, and how will it work with local institutions?
  • What will be the best method of differentiating between issues related to specific projects, as opposed to questions that apply to the overall sector or a geographic area?
  • Can such a function operate without requiring a large bureaucracy?

The International Steering Committee is set to lead the project over the next two years. This committee now represents a wide range of senior executives and individuals working in humanitarian assistance, both northern and southern. The group will be co-chaired by Niels Dabelstein, chairman of the OECD/DAC Working Party on Aid Evaluation, and Dr Alvaro Umaña, the former chair of the World Bank Inspection Panel. The first full meeting of the new committee takes place on 17 October 2000. Following the completion of recruitment of a new director and project manager, Phase III will officially be launched.

Still an open debate

The project acknowledges that there will be some who disagree either with the overall aims of the initiative, or with its specific approach. However, the intention of the pilot phase is not to close the debate and simply institutionalise an office. Rather, it is to undertake a thorough research and evaluation programme in order to facilitate a more informed debate about the merits and workability of improving direct accountability to beneficiaries of humanitarian aid.

Deborah Doane is Project Manager, Humanitarian Accountability Project, Geneva.

For further information on Phase III, and the background to the project, see: <>.


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