Photo: ICRC

Agent Provocateur is the oped section of Global Insights.

At the core of the problem is that we can’t decide what accountability to affected people (AAP) means. The result is a plethora of ill-fitting initiatives that don’t get close to doing the needful. Simply put, what’s required is a practical approach to humanitarian action that listens to the perspective of affected people, and then lifts barriers and takes advantage of opportunities so that humanitarian programmes become more relevant to those they are supposed to serve. 

That may sound uncontroversial, yet more than half the people we surveyed last year in Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Chad, Somalia, and Uganda said the aid they received did not cover their most important needs. In Chad, only 10 percent of people we surveyed were positive about the aid they got.

Does aid cover your most important needs?

These are salutary numbers for humanitarians whose primary responsibility is to meet the needs of people affected by crisis. They are the reason our institutions exist. And the way affected people experience our work is the most relevant measure of our performance. Success is not about hitting arbitrary targets based on what we pre-planned to deliver.

Nor is it about attaining perfection. It is about responding conscientiously and systematically to the evolving needs of people amid immense complexity to achieve the best possible outcomes through careful prioritisation of scarce resources.  If we are to make progress, we need to stop talking about ‘doing’ AAP. This is not about technical skills and discrete mechanisms. It’s about actually being accountable.

The ubiquity of the acronym AAP, with its emphasis on the relatively low hanging fruit of communicating with communities and putting help lines in place, provides an easy-out. It reduces what should be the touchstone of humanitarian action to a subset of relatively minor activities. Ironically, it also risks compounding the barriers to accountability because it has become associated with more paperwork, more coordination structures, and more reporting – with insufficient impact on the lives of affected people to justify new demands on overstretched field staff.  

We’re not doing down all activities done in the name of AAP. Carefully conceived community engagement plans should be the norm in every humanitarian programme. But it is a mistake to conflate what the growing cohort of accountability staff do with the larger task of accountability. How, then, to accelerate uptake of the real thing?

As we’ve argued before, a good start would be to extend the Humanitarian Programme Cycle from its annual rhythm to two years or more. This would remove a major structural barrier by allowing sufficient time to listen to affected people, to plan, to implement, to track progress by listening some more, and then to assess results against strategic objectives using feedback from those supposed to benefit.  

It is not enough to simply go through the motions of listening to the perspective of affected people, which is now happening in several crises from Burkina Faso to Somalia. It demands close attention by aid agencies to how they can improve their performance by considering and then acting on what they hear. Experience suggests that independent verification of how humanitarian action is experienced by aid recipients can serve as both control mechanism and driver of action. 

Remember, this is not about the ticking of accountability boxes to give the false sense that the job is done. Rather, it is about achieving better outcomes for affected people. When agencies take that on board, the blank stares we get when we urge humanitarian teams to respond to feedback may be replaced by clear-eyed action.  

Getting it right entails doing three things:  

  1. Identifying specific barriers, both programmatic and systemic, that need to be overcome so that managers can adapt their plans.
  2. Working to overcome those barriers through re-prioritisation, programmatic shifts, and advocacy. 
  3. Telling affected people and system authorisers what has changed. Where things can’t change, for whatever reason, we must explain why.  

In the name of improving accountability to affected people, we have seen the piling of process upon process, guidance upon guidance, and activity upon activity, plus all manner of platforms and working groups. Yet, let’s be honest, it hasn’t worked. That’s because it’s a leadership issue. If humanitarian action is to deliver for the people that are its raison d’être, those in authority must deal with the underlying challenges of power, politics, money, bureaucracy, and control. That is the route to accountability, not rhetoric and mechanisms.

Nick van Praag and Meg Sattler are both with Ground Truth Solutions based in Vienna. Ground Truth Solutions, an international non-governmental organization, seeks to provide the humanitarian sector with tools to systematically listen, learn, and respond to the views of affected people.

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