How Accountable is the Humanitarian Sector Today?

Michel Dikkes

This essay deals with the concept of humanitarian organisations being accountable to communities affected by natural disasters, armed conflict, or any other type of humanitarian crisis. It looks at what accountability means, what has been done about it, and the remaining challenges.

Accountability: more than a buzzword?

Accountability to crisis-affected populations is now well embedded in the humanitarian sector. A large majority of humanitarian organisations endorse the concept, recognising its positive impact on humanitarian action. The recent emergency responses in the Philippines and the Central African Republic were the first for which the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) – the primary mechanism for inter-agency coordination of humanitarian assistance – created a position of Inter-Agency Coordinator for Accountability to Affected Populations and Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse. On top of that, a substantial number of donors have adapted their funding policies to include accountability to affected populations.[1]

So, does all this mean that we can finally tick the accountability box? After a quick reminder of what we mean by accountability in the humanitarian context, I assess how much the humanitarian sector has really changed.

A quick reminder: accountability in the humanitarian context

In simple terms, accountability is the means through which power is used responsibly. It is a process of taking into account the views of, and being held accountable by, different stakeholders, and primarily the people affected by authority or power. Accountability is particularly necessary for organisations that assist or act on behalf of people affected by (or who are prone to) natural disasters, armed conflict, or any other type of humanitarian crisis. Such organisations exercise significant power in their work to save lives and reduce suffering, while crisis-affected people have no formal control and often little influence over these organisations. As a result, it is difficult for crisis-affected populations to hold organisations to account for actions taken on their behalf.[2]

In practice, accountability to affected populations is supported by the sharing of key information on the humanitarian response, involving community representatives in key decision-making processes, and soliciting feedback and complaints about ongoing programmes and projects. Such accountability mechanisms, which need to be context-sensitive to be respectful of the local culture, help develop and maintain a dialogue with the local population and foster an environment of respect and trust.

Being accountable to crisis-affected people also helps organisations develop more relevant and effective programmes, and reduces the likelihood of mismanagement, abuse and corruption.[3] A modest investment in accountability mechanisms, in terms of financial resources and staff time, brings a significant return – not only in the satisfaction of project participants, but also in the tangible success of projects, namely their relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, and sustainability.[4]

Furthermore, the use of accountability mechanisms is one way to ensure that the most vulnerable people receive the assistance that they most need. Mismanagement and corruption can be raised and tackled at the same time as efficiency and value for money is strengthened. In insecure environments, accountability mechanisms can increase the acceptance and operational security of humanitarian programmes. Last but not least, accountability mechanisms contribute to the empowerment of communities in relation to other institutions such as governments, and in so doing have an impact that goes beyond the immediate objectives of humanitarian action.[5]

Is it just talk, or is there concrete action on the ground?

The number of policy discussions around accountability and the popularity of quality and accountability initiatives have steadily increased over the last years. However, this does not automatically guarantee that practice on the ground has improved.

Implementing accountability and quality management standards such as the HAP Standard in Accountability and Quality Management, the Sphere Project’s Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response or the People In Aid Code of Good Practice at field level has proven to be challenging. High staff turnover, the need to quickly train new staff in an emergency, and the wide variety of humanitarian organisations, from small community-based organisations to global federations of humanitarian organisations, make it difficult to apply standards consistently across the humanitarian system. Application of standards is also inconsistent due to competing priorities and a lack of accessibility to, and awareness of, key standards.[6] With an ever-increasing number of frameworks, some argue that accountability is the victim of its own success and that the proliferation of standards has resulted in duplication and an information overload for humanitarian practitioners.[7] Others consider the problem to be that standards are becoming more and more aspirational as aid workers and their organisations have to deal with increasing demands and priorities.[8]

The Commitments on Accountability to Affected Populations (CAAP), adopted by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) in 2011, articulate a shared vision of what an accountable humanitarian system should look like. However, effective communication of this vision is lacking, the roll-out is slow and few UN staff have noted change in UN action or even heard of these Commitments at field level.[9]

In addition, reports such as Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid confirm that from the perspective of most recipients of international aid, as well as many providers, the system of international assistance is still “deeply flawed” the way it is set up today. It “turns [local] people into ‘objects’ of others’ decision-making and planning, rather than engaging them as subjects in their society’s progress […], and the resultant top-down direction of goods and services violates the principles of participation, ownership, and sustainability essential for effective aid”.[10]

Why are we not getting there?

Besides all of the practical issues mentioned above, why is the humanitarian sector struggling to be more accountable? The reality is that the dominant incentive structures in the humanitarian system do not reward more time spent with communities. Indicators used in funding proposals, work plans or staff performance reviews focus on outputs rather than the quality of relationships that are built with communities, the processes that are chosen to achieve goals or the satisfaction of project participants.[11] As a consequence, it is difficult for organisations to really know if they are achieving what they are intending to achieve, which is to give appropriate, context-sensitive humanitarian assistance to people in need.

Furthermore, evaluations frequently point to high staff turnover as one of the main reasons for shortcomings in major humanitarian responses since this has a negative impact on institutional memory as well as the relationships forged with local communities. The high turnover of expatriates is also cited by local partner organisations and staff as being demotivating and having a negative impact on the quality of the intervention.[12] Turnover in the sector has often been at least partly blamed on short funding cycles and the resulting job insecurity.[13] Some donors have tried to address this, in line with the Good Humanitarian Donorship commitments[14] towards longer term funding arrangements.[15]

While donors have improved policy, humanitarian workers still cite time-consuming reporting requirements, financing constraints and tight deadlines for proposal submissions as factors which impede the participation of crisis-affected people. Even though some donors have incorporated flexibility of grants into their funding approaches, it is not always easy for organisations to enact programme changes that may emerge as a result of discussions with crisis-affected communities – especially in conflict situations, where needs can change very quickly.[16]

Another key issue is linked to the growing trend for humanitarian organisations to work through partners rather than directly implementing programmes themselves. While such a strategy has obvious benefits, many organisations tend to lose their proximity to communities, but at the same time retain decision-making power over important programme issues. As a result, they do not have to face the consequences of their decisions – the implementing partner, however, does – hence becoming less accountable and undermining essential relationships with local communities.[17]

More generally, what needs to change is that humanitarian organisations and their staff often focus on efficiency, as equated with speed, which gets funded, rather than respectful relationships, which do not help produce a proposal or a report on time. Of course speed is essential when it comes to saving lives, but an ill-conceived emphasis on it reduces the time spent on exploring options with local communities, and this often results in mismanagement that, with stronger participation by local populations, could have been avoided.[18]


Despite much progress on the inclusion of accountability elements in humanitarian action, key players in the sector, and especially those agencies and organisations providing funds, need to step up reforms to ensure they become more accountable to crisis-affected populations – through their implementing partners as well as directly at field level. The irony of today’s situation is that while “effectiveness” and “efficiency” is apparently what everybody wants, the current system limits the potential of humanitarian programmes to have a positive impact: Instead of incentivising context-sensitive, accountable programming, it pushes humanitarian organisations to focus on the agenda and priorities of their donors.

Finally, local communities say they resent the disrespect for their ideas, abilities and concerns that they see coming from hurried work. They describe the mistakes that have been made in projects that could have been avoided with just a little more time spent on understanding the local context.[19] Taking the time to conduct interventions together with local people, especially the intended project participants, shows respect for people’s ideas and opinions, and at the same time increases the relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, and sustainability of humanitarian action.


[1] Among those donors are some of the world’s largest such as the US, the European Union, the UK, Sweden, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Denmark. For more on this, see: HAP International (2013): “2013 Humanitarian Accountability Report” (p. 30). (accessed 02.05.2014); Global Humanitarian Assistance (2013): “Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2013” (p. 23). (accessed 13.05.2014)

[2] HAP International (2010): “The 2010 HAP Standard in Accountability and Quality Management”. (accessed 29.04.2014)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Featherstone, Andy (2013): “Improving impact: Do accountability mechanisms deliver results?”. (accessed 02.05.2014)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Schofield, Robert (2012): “Joint Standards Initiative: Introductory materials for JSI Consultation”. (accessed 02.05.2014)

[7] Knox-Clarke, Paul, John Mitchell (2011): “Reflections on the accountability revolution”. (accessed 02.05.2014)

[8] Austin, Lois, Glenn O’Neil (2013): “The Joint Standards Initiative: Global Stakeholder Consultation Report” (p. 7). (accessed 08.07.2014)

[9] HAP International (2013): “2013 Humanitarian Accountability Report” (p. 28-29). (accessed 02.05.2014)

[10] Anderson, Mary B., Dayna Brown, Isabella Jean (2012): “Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid” (p. 135-136). (accessed 13.05.2014)

[11] CDA Collaborative Learning Projects (2008): “The Listening Project Issue Paper: International assistance as a delivery system” (p. 6). (accessed 13.05.2014)

[12] People In Aid (2013): “The State of HR in International Humanitarian and Development Organisations” (p. 17). (accessed 02.05.2014)

[13] Loquercio, David, Mark Hammersley, Ben Emmens (2005): “Understanding and addressing staff turnover in humanitarian agencies”. (accessed 08.07.2014)

[14] 23 principles of good donor practice which provide a framework for strengthening quality and accountability. For more, see:

[15] HAP International (2013): “2013 Humanitarian Accountability Report” (p. 41). (accessed 02.05.2014)

[16] HAP International (2013): “2013 Humanitarian Accountability Report” (p. 28-29). (accessed 02.05.2014)

[17] Loquercio, David (2014): “Accountability to Affected Populations (AAP) and Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) in the Central African Republic: End of Mission Report” (p. 7). Internal document.

[18] CDA Collaborative Learning Projects (2008): “The Listening Project Issue Paper: International assistance as a delivery system” (p. 4-5). (accessed 13.05.2014)

[19] Ibid

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