Nick van Praag sends this piece on the exceptional work achieved by US senatorial aide Tim Rieser regarding the reciprocal release of prisoners and the thawing of relations between the United States and Cuba.

Tim to the Rescue is one of my favorite children’s books. Written and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, it tells of the courage and determination of its hero as he battles the odds on the salty main.

I was reminded of that tale by the role played by another Tim – Tim Rieser – in the events leading to the reciprocal release of prisoners that was central to the recent thaw in relations between the US and Cuba.

The non-fiction Tim is a long-time aide to Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and a staff member on the appropriations subcommittee for the Department of State and foreign operations. Senator Leahy’s brokering of the prisoner exchange had Tim’s fingerprints all over it – and the Senator was generous in his public praise of his staffer’s efforts.

What has received less public attention, but could have far-reaching consequences in the humanitarian space, is Rieser’s work on a provision in the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act 2015 (see pages 1223-24, Division J). The provision, which is further described in the Explanatory Statement, requires agencies that receive US humanitarian funds to collect feedback systematically from the people who are supposed to benefit from the aid.

“The provision included by Senator Leahy that requires implementing partners to obtain regular feedback from beneficiaries of U.S. humanitarian aid is long overdue and could be a model for other U.S. foreign aid programs,” said Tim Rieser, who persuaded both houses of Congress to include the provision. “What better way to determine if we are making the best use of resources than to ask directly the people we are trying to help?” he says.

To avoid burdening aid workers with additional form filling, aid groups will monitor their responsiveness to beneficiaries in their regular reporting. According to the bill’s report language, this must be based on a methodology that ensures beneficiary views are “representative and accurate.” Implementation is subject to spot checks by USAID and the Department of State that administer US humanitarian funds.

The new legislation is a concrete way to keep the pressure on a humanitarian system that has not yet truly embraced the accountability agenda. It goes beyond mandating the collection of beneficiaries’ views, which is relatively easy, and requires aid providers to produce evidence of how they follow through on the feedback to “maximize cost-effectiveness and utility of the aid.”

The new rule provides a missing piece in the accountability architecture that remains dominated by supply side initiatives. Even the new Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability (CHS), which is a significant advance on the previous smorgasbord of standards, codes of conduct and certification schemes, does not fundamentally change things.

The CHS grounds accountability firmly in humanitarian principles and points aid providers in the right direction, but it shares a shortcoming common to other supply side approaches: essentially it is a set of voluntary guidelines and has no mechanism to ensure beneficiaries get to say whether programs are accountable to them or not.

“Carrots are great and can often work to change behavior but sometimes people and organizations need a stick to nudge them in the right direction’” says Dayna Brown, Director of the CDA Listening Project. It is easier for those with the money and power to demand accountability than those whose lives are most affected. “Yet affected people need to be seen as equal stakeholders in the outcomes and impacts of aid efforts for accountability to be truly improved,” says Brown.

The language in the new US law is an opportunity to begin to address these unequal power relations. In US-funded programs accountability is no longer an optional extra. “Embedding accountability in a contractual agreement can be a powerful incentive when it is properly resourced and resonates with organizational values,” says David Loquercio,HAP’s head of policy and external relations.

If other donors begin to include similar provisions in the conditions of their aid, the “disappointing pace of progress on accountability” may pick up speed. That last quote is from a letter signed in July 2014 by Valerie Amos, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, and Jasmine Whitbread, CEO of Save the Children International. The letter was addressed to their fellow members of the IASC, the club of humanitarian top guns.

It is not just Amos, Whitbread and the US Congress that want to see action. There is growing frustration in other quarters at the slow pace of change. The Swiss have long been on this case. The EU is also keen to move things forward. And DFID is making engagement with affected people a priority as preparations for next year’s World Humanitarian Summit get into their stride. Meanwhile, beyond the ring of bilateral donors, the IKEA Foundation, which makes major grants to big players like UNHCR and UNICEF, is pushing the sector to innovate its way forward.

Erik Johnson, Director of Emergency Response at Danish Church Aid, puts it well: “When the next disaster strikes what matters are not our logos, our Land Cruisers, or our standards but whether we succeed or fail in the eyes of those we claim to help.” I have heard these sentiments echoed by ICRC, the IRC, PLAN International, Mercy Corps, OXFAM, Concern Worldwide and other agencies we are working with.

The bottom line is that organizations are more likely to invest in listening and responding to their beneficiaries when donors start systematically looking at whether they are indeed listening and responding. This is not about painless change. Once beneficiary feedback becomes a performance driver, humanitarian organizations will be forced to become more responsive, less bureaucratic.

This is where Tim comes to the rescue. Legislating accountability is crucial in a sector that has amply demonstrated the limitations of self-regulation.

Nick van Praag directs the Ground Truth programme and leads Keystone’s work in the humanitarian space.