Concerning accountability of humanitarian action

by Austen DavisApril 2007

One of the most frequently heard criticisms of humanitarian action is that it is unaccountable and unregulated. In response, a wide range of initiatives has been launched to improve quality and accountability. Reformers argue that, if actors are held to account, they will behave better and fulfill their responsibilities. They also contend that being accountable for one’s actions has moral value.

This paper asks whether initiatives designed to improve accountability really are the solution to the problems humanitarianism faces today. It does not aim to dismiss accountability; rather, it seeks to show that accountability is a procedural phenomenon, not a moral one. Imposing it in the absence of a more specific understanding of what it means is dangerous, and subject to instrumentalisation and manipulation.

Accountability is not inherently a good thing, but simply a characteristic of relations of power. If we accept this argument, we will avoid moral imperatives and demands for compliance, and will be able to work towards a deeper understanding of the reasons behind the structural failures of humanitarian action, and their potential remedy.

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