This piece contributed by Nick van Praag was published by The Essential Edge 22 March, 2012.

How good are really the humanitarian agencies that claim to respond to the needs of the people – the so-called ‘beneficiaries’ – they are supposed to be helping? To what degree are they doing it for genuine social impact? Or for fund-raising? And are they making a sincere effort to coordinate their efforts with other organizations in order to have more effective humanitarian response?  For Nick van Praag, the performance of humanitarian agencies in meeting the needs of their presumed beneficiaries needs systematic improvement, including better accountabilty. In other words, drastic change is needed if aid agencies are to do a better job.

We live in an age of accountability. This key dimension of 21st-century public policy is now catching up with organisations that provide protection and assistance to millions of people affected by humanitarian crises around the world. These agents of our collective conscience, which were once beyond reproach as long as they seemed to do good, are now asked to account to people at the receiving end of their aid. How well they do so is crucial to improving the quality of mercy.

The inadequate relief effort that followed the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti accelerated the trend towards greater accountability to affected populations. A recurring lesson of evaluations is that making the people described (often optimistically) as “beneficiaries” the unit of account of humanitarian programmes will go a long way towards making aid more effective. This message has registered with the United Nations humanitarian agencies, the big NGOs, the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, and among donors. The high command of this cadre is the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), which coordinates humanitarian-assistance agencies. In December 2011, it agreed on a framework that places new emphasis on accountability to affected populations.

This is an important step forward. It marks the end of a mindset which held that beneficiaries, like children in 19th-century Britain, should be seen but not heard. It is, however, too early to declare victory. There is a big difference between listening to beneficiaries, which has been an aspiration for quite a while, and acting upon what they say, which does not automatically follow.

The new tools

Here is the key potential sticking-point. For, as humanitarian leaders underline, agreement on a new approach to accountability will only be as effective as the willingness of individual organisations to live up to their responsibilities. The new IASC framework draws heavily on the playbook of accountability pioneers like SPHERE [8] and the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership [9] whose focus is on the “supply side” of accountability in the form of charters, standards and certification of compliance. But after years spent urging the humanitarian community to recognise their accountabilities to aid recipients, these organisations and others in the so-called “quality and accountability community” still struggle to get traction.

The road to accountability is paved with good intentions. But little is likely to change unless practical and powerful tools are introduced that help beneficiaries overcome the odds stacked against them. This means building the missing “demand side” of the accountability equation; going beyond exhortation to implementation, and providing the incentives that are indispensable in encouraging aid providers not just to listen to beneficiaries but to act on what they say.

The framework approved by the IASC is a move in the right direction. But translating that high-level commitment into new ways of doing humanitarian business will require an independent third party to act as a reality-check. This means asking beneficiaries directly if what they are getting matches what they want, whether they trust the people assisting them, and if they feel their feedback makes a difference. Moreover, their answers must be recorded in consistent, comparable and compelling ways so that agencies can use them for performance management and improvement.

But, again, getting robust data from beneficiaries is one thing; changing organisational cultures in a sector not known for willingly embracing change is another. To turn good intentions into better practice on the ground, we need to hold them publicly to account for improving their performance.

The age of accountability requires new tools as well as new attitudes. These include beneficiary surveys modeled on those used in the customer-satisfaction industry and a published index that compares the performance of aid agencies across the system based on beneficiary feedback. It is only with independent instruments like these that the cycle of accountability will be completed and the voice of beneficiaries raised to a level that can’t be ignored.

Nick van Praag is director of the accountability project Ground Truth. He formerly worked for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Bank. This piece was first published by Open Democracy.