Issue 52 - Article 2

United we stand? Collective accountability in the humanitarian sector

November 30, 1999
Andy Featherstone
Independent consultant
A Haitian Red Cross volunteer delivers first aid to a 1 month old whose mother died in the quake

With recent high-profile humanitarian crises providing a very visible picture of global humanitarian need, the capacity and competence of the humanitarian system have been the subject of considerable debate. Much has been written about the importance of strong leadership and a commitment to partnership across the humanitarian community as a foundation for effective and timely humanitarian action. While this is undoubtedly true, an issue which is of equal importance but which has received less attention is the need for collective accountability to act as a cornerstone for humanitarian action. This article examines the vexed issue of collective accountability in the humanitarian system and argues that the needs of those affected by disasters requires a step change in how the diverse elements of the humanitarian system account to each other for their actions.

Identifying humanitarian challenges

The response to recent crises, such as the Haiti earthquake in January 2010, the Pakistan floods in August 2010 and the current drought in the Horn of Africa, have pushed the capacity of the humanitarian system to its limits, and seen the launch of the largest-ever UN Consolidated Appeal, which for 2011 targets 50 million beneficiaries at a cost of $7.4 billion. At the same time as the scale of humanitarian need is growing, there is also a perception that the environment in which humanitarian assistance is delivered is becoming more complex as a result of the growth and increasing diversity of humanitarian actors and the politicisation of humanitarian assistance, with for-profit contractors and foreign militaries rubbing shoulders with ‘traditional’ humanitarian actors. While the impact of this continues to be the subject of significant debate, there is broad agreement that the dilution of humanitarian principles in certain countries has reduced the space for agencies to provide humanitarian assistance and has made it more dangerous for agencies to intervene.

While the sector has a far from stellar record at communicating with those that it is seeking to assist, the complex environment has served to further distance those in need of aid from those providing it with the widespread adoption of deterrence strategies as a means of protecting staff. Several recent perceptions studies suggest that many people receiving assistance either cannot or choose not to distinguish between different organisations, See for example A. Abouzeid and A. Featherstone, It’s the Thought that Counts: Humanitarian Principles and Practice in Pakistan, Actionaid International, 2010.  and it is becoming evident that in some contexts the failings of a single agency often count as a mark against the humanitarian community more broadly. In these places humanitarian agencies risk being collectively judged based on the actions of the weakest member. In such a crowded marketplace, operational independence can often only be achieved by those willing to stand out from the crowd and aggressively communicate their brand, an approach taken by ICRC and more recently by MSF, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the organisation has suffered attacks against its staff.

Collective challenges require collective action

To address the challenges of scale and complexity, efforts have been made to strengthen leadership, partnership and accountability in the humanitarian system through the reform processes that followed the publication of the 2005 Humanitarian Response Review.

  • Leadership. Responding to big disasters requires talented and effective leadership. A growing number of initiatives are being taken to develop, attract and support capable leaders. There has also been an important recognition that responsibility for humanitarian action cannot rest in the hands of a single person but should be shared, leading to the formation of broad-based Humanitarian Country Teams (HCT) tasked with supporting humanitarian leaders and improving the delivery of humanitarian assistance.
  • Partnership. Underpinning the work of the HCT and the broader humanitarian community has been the development (in 2007) of the Principles of Partnership (PoP), which outline a core set of commitments to bring together UN and non-UN humanitarian organisations on an equal footing and in theory provides a platform for joint problem-solving and delivering a more coherent humanitarian response.
  • Accountability. The predictability of humanitarian response has been addressed through the development of the cluster system for coordination and accountability and the identification of providers of last resort for each sector. The cluster approach to coordinating sectoral responses has further enhanced collective and coordinated humanitarian action.

Recognition of the importance of collective action in meeting contemporary humanitarian challenges is also evident in the growth of interagency initiatives. Established forums such as the Emergency Capacity Building Project (ECB) aim to improve the speed, quality and effectiveness of the humanitarian response, and the Humanitarian Accountability Project (HAP) is mandated to make humanitarian action more accountable to beneficiaries. Newer initiatives such as the Consortium of British Humanitarian Agencies (CBHA) and the Communicating with Disaster-Affected Communities (CDAC) Initiative take a collective approach to increasing the speed, coordination, efficiency and transparency of the humanitarian system. Implicit in each of these initiatives is the recognition that the humanitarian community is strongest and can have greatest impact when it acts collectively.

Identifying the accountability deficit

Given the significant efforts made to strengthen collective humanitarian action it is curious that there has been such little thought given to collective accountability. This gap is most glaring at the level where it is most urgently required: the most senior levels of humanitarian leadership in-country. In humanitarian hubs such as Port au Prince, Islamabad and Addis Ababa, where heads of agencies plan the delivery of millions of dollars of assistance to those in urgent need, it is of considerable concern that there is no single person or collective entity accountable for achieving humanitarian goals or leading humanitarian action:

  • While the HC leads and chairs the HCT, s/he does not have formal authority over it; while the HC is accountable for the process of leading and coordinating humanitarian action, s/he cannot be held accountable for the results as s/he has no authority over the agencies responsible for service delivery.
  • The members of the HCT are usually senior UN agency or NGO staff, and as such are accountable to their Regional Director or Head of Office for the delivery of results in the sector or geographic area where their agency works. However, they are rarely held accountable for process (such as participation in the HCT or clusters) unless they have specific cluster leadership responsibility. Furthermore, while the terms of reference for the HCT speak to its accountability for both processes and results, it is unclear who should hold it accountable – and so no one does.

It is this accountability deficit that needs to be urgently addressed. For the humanitarian system to work effectively and to meet new challenges and defend its values, a means is required to make the promise of shared leadership and equal partnership a reality – in other words, through a system of collective accountability.

Towards a model of collective accountability

Efforts to strengthen collective accountability should start at the highest levels of country humanitarian leadership, between the HC and the members of the HCT, and must be founded in the recognition that collective action and ownership of humanitarian response must be a shared responsibility.

Basic steps could include the following:

  • Ensuring that HCTs reflect the diversity of the humanitarian system and include members from international organisations, local and international NGOs and government representatives (if possible).
  • All HCT members should formalise their responsibilities in their respective ToRs to allow them to be held accountable within their own organisation for their performance in the team. Currently it is no surprise that, when time is short, members put their agency before their HCT responsibilities. Reworking ToRs may ensure that busy country managers make time for HCT business.
  • Mutual accountabilities should be reinforced through the use of formalised work plans linked to the Common Humanitarian Action Plan (CHAP), with specific expectations and outcomes.
  • Formal feedback mechanisms should be established between members of the HCT and the HC. The important issue here is the need to ensure that feedback can go in both directions: from HCT members to the HC for the delivery of his/her compact, but also from the HC to HCT members for their engagement in and delivery of tasks associated with the HCT workplan.
  • Joint objective-setting between HCT members (including the HC) would be the ultimate goal, as it would allow the team the greatest possible opportunity to work towards common objectives.

However, mutual accountability can only go so far, and it will only be through strengthening collective accountability for humanitarian action that it will be possible to make a step change in the effectiveness of humanitarian response. In addition to the potential benefits for those affected by disaster, strengthening collective accountabilities also has far greater potential to make progress in some of the more thorny aspects of humanitarian assistance; concerns about diminishing humanitarian space have been an agenda item across HCTs in a number of countries for some time, although a unified response across the humanitarian community has been difficult to broker. While a system of collective accountability should not be seen as a panacea, it would certainly provide a more conducive environment in which to negotiate agreement and hold agencies to account for their actions.

The challenge this presents to the humanitarian community is how to move from rhetoric to reality. While discussions on the issue remain in their infancy, the establishment of regional IASC teams and the growing number of international NGOs setting up regional management structures may offer the potential to trial innovative ways to strengthen team accountability to a regional management mechanism.

Conclusion: united we stand, divided we fall?

A move towards greater collective accountability for humanitarian outcomes will be a significant step for the humanitarian community; while it has the potential to make assistance more effective, it will also raise complex questions of agency independence and power relations between diverse partners. However, with the cracks caused by the politicisation of humanitarian assistance proving difficult to paper over, one result of the failure to find a collective response may be that the aid community becomes increasingly fragmented, which would be to the detriment of those in need of assistance. The humanitarian community has never been afraid to explore and embrace new ideas – given the continuing scale of humanitarian need and the increasing complexity of the operating environment, exploring ways to strengthen collective accountability for humanitarian action seems too good an opportunity to miss.

Andy Featherstone is an independent consultant specialising in humanitarian policy and research. This article draws on an earlier paper written by the same author, entitled Fit for the Future: Strengthening the Leadership Pillar of Humanitarian Reform, NGOs & Humanitarian Reform Project, 2010.


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