Moving humanitarian accountability from a tickbox to a turning point

As part of a series examining the crucial ‘sticking points’ for humanitarians, a new ALNAP paper From tickbox to turning point explores what it takes to create a more accountable humanitarian system. These 'sticking points' – localisation, the humanitarian-development-peace (HDP) nexus, and accountability to crisis-affected people (AAP) – are all areas where the system has struggled over the past few decades to go beyond commitments and policies to create meaningful change for people affected by crisis. 

By framing accountability to crisis-affected people (AAP) within this critical narrative, I am certainly not downplaying the work done by the diligent AAP community towards those aims. I have seen firsthand how hard many people in that part of the humanitarian sector work. This includes several who have become burned out by caring so much about the views of people affected by crisis, yet feeling increasingly helpless in efforts to get a meaningful response to those voices. 

I was not surprised our research identified a growing frustration from AAP practitioners and from people affected by crisis at the proliferation of feedback mechanisms with no meaningful response. We see this in low satisfaction figures coming from ALNAP’s State of the Humanitarian System and multiple surveys by Ground Truth Solutions. We hear it in the voices of people affected by crisis in different contexts:  

‘I don’t think that we can influence decisions about aid because we are only beneficiaries [sic], and the international organizations are the ones that decide this matter.’ (Yemen) 

‘When we complain to them about something, it takes up to six months to receive the response, people get tired of waiting, so they just don’t give any complaint and feedback.’ (Bangladesh) 

The frustration stems from the reality that no matter how professionalised and technically efficient people working on community engagement and feedback mechanisms have become, their efforts are frequently cut off from a broader system not set up to support adequate responsiveness and agencies for people affected by crisis. As one practitioner warned: ‘We have fought for the integrity of the narrative to keep a space for AAP. But it will be our death if we now don’t look at it in an integrated manner.’ 

Three main challenges threaten the accountability of the humanitarian system and require leadership level attention and influence. 

  1. Embedded skills, structures and incentives perpetuate a supply-driven system. This makes it hard to listen and – importantly – to respond flexibly to community perspectives. A focus on delivering donor priorities at speed means there is limited investment in time, skills and the people needed to really understand contextual social dynamics and listen to the diverse individuals we typically refer to as ‘communities’, reaching the most marginalised within them and ensuring a better consideration of their individual dignity. The embedded system is inflexible too, with rigid management systems, low flexible funding, and lack of pass through to local actors to allow them to better use their contextual understanding. Even if community engagement staff hear what people are saying, the supply-driven structure of the systems means ability to meaningfully change programming in response to that feedback is low. 
  2. Shifts in the external context threaten the system’s accountability. The system hasn’t kept up with two key shifts in the external context that are threatening its ability to deliver in line with people’s changing priorities. Firstly, the increasingly protracted nature of crisis alters the priorities of crisis-affected people beyond basic lifesaving to resilience, and beyond. If the system sticks to a narrow humanitarian view without improving its links beyond the sector, it becomes increasingly unable to respond to the more holistic priorities crisis-affected people are expressing. Secondly, the increasing scarcity of funding in the face of growing humanitarian needs is forcing hard prioritisation decisions. The role for people affected by crisis in the what, where, who of those choices is unclear. Yet their opinions could be critical to supporting the improved relevance and legitimacy of assistance, especially when evidence indicates a disconnect between community values of equality or sharing and the system’s focus on equity and measurements of vulnerability. 
  3. Unequal power restricts accountability. Inherently unequal power relations between humanitarian agencies and crisis-affected people mean the standard accountability relationship doesn’t really work. Most accountable relationships have a duty bearer providing services and a rights holder who can hold that duty bearer to account if they do wrong with some sort of sanctioning mechanism – for example, citizens vote a bad leader out of office. Such incentives are lacking in the humanitarian system. That relationship also assumes an empowered service user. Yet, the research indicates a continued underlying conception of assistance as a ‘gift’ that people should be grateful to receive rather than question. Overlapping with debates on localisation and decolonisation, it also finds an international system that doesn’t always see people affected by crisis as actively in control of their own lives and decisions. This lack of trust in their ability to engage in decision-making can sadly be further amplified by considerations of race, age, gender, sexual identity and physical ability, and intersections between these identities. 

Unless the system engages more directly with these challenges, it is not going to witness the kind of progress people affected by crisis and conflict deserve. To move this long-standing sticking point forwards, accountability needs to be released from a silo to be embedded into responsive structures and upheld by changes in mindsets and culture across organisations. The kinds of shifts that require engagement and drive from leadership level decision-makers in donor and operational agencies.  

The seemingly entrenched nature of these challenges can seem daunting. But several organisations are working inventively on these issues. Our new paper From tick box to turning point draws inspiration from promising practice and provides recommendations to humanitarian decision-makers for overcoming the challenges outlined here, providing a range of practical examples and resources.  

While there is more learning to be done and shared across the sector on overcoming these issues – including learning from local organisations close to communities – our contribution hopes to provide a starting point for more targeted conversations and actions driving forward meaningful and integrated accountability for people affected by crisis. 

See more in the full paper or the summary brief

Explore more resources about accountability to affected populations

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