A series on Accountability. Part I: Introduction

This series looks at the implementation of the accountability to affected people (AAP) framework within the humanitarian response to the more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh following the 2017 violence in Rahkine state, Myanmar.

This series looks at the implementation of the accountability to affected people (AAP) framework within the humanitarian response in general, using as case studies the response to the more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh following the 2017 violence in Rahkine state in Myanmar.

Because I think that the actual situation on the ground in Bangladesh highlights the wide gap between the stated intention of the international community to be more accountable, and their ability to truly understand and implement AAP, I have divided this series in an introduction, this one, and 5 sections that will address one of the 5 commitments to accountability, as codified by the The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Task Force on Accountability to Affected Populations (AAP).

When looking at the application and use of accountability as a concept in humanitarian emergencies, the tension between what the humanitarian community say it wants to do, and what it actually does, suggests that AAP is still seen as a technical activity that can be implemented within the framework of ‘business as usual’. My theory is that, without addressing the endemic issues rooted in power relationships between responders and the local population (including local NGOs and CSOs) AAP will not become a real operational framework.

A bit of History

In December 2011, the international community endorsed the following five commitments to affected people (or ‘CAAPs’): 1) leadership, 2) transparency, 3) feedback and complaints, 4) participation, and 5) design, monitoring and evaluation. Under the CAAPs it was agreed “to incorporate the commitments into organizations’ policies and operational guidelines and to promote them with operational partners, within the HCT and among cluster members”.

The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Task Force on Accountability to Affected Populations (AAP) was created by the IASC in July 2012 as part of the Transformative Agenda to take forward the action plan developed, steer the implementation of the CAAPs, and further develop and roll out the Operational Framework. The draft framework was designed to assist implementing agencies both individually and in groups to find practical entry points for improving AAP across the project cycle.

Since then, aid organizations have increasingly incorporated AAP into their programming and more and more donors have requested that AAP be embedded in program design, sometimes even making it a criterion for grant applications. The importance of accountability to affected people has also been highlighted and prioritized within other global initiatives including the Transformative Agenda, the Grand Bargain and the Core Humanitarian Standards (CHS).

What is accountability?

The IASC dos not in fact defines accountability, it simply codifies it into a set of principles. So, what are they talking about?

So, in economic terms, the word ’accountability’ is defined as ’The obligation of an individual or organization to account for its activities, accept responsibility for them, and to disclose the results in a transparent manner.’   

In contractual relationships between two or more parties,  the signatories are accountable for implementing the activities or fulfilling the conditions assigned to them within the contract. Failure to meet contractual obligations, usually results in penalties.

Business Dictionary

In legal terms, “political accountability refers to the responsibility or obligation of government officials to act in the best interests of society or face consequences. Public officials should be held responsible for their actions. Legal accountability concerns the mechanisms by which public officials can be held liable for actions that go against established rules and principles.”

In ethics and governance, accountability is answerability, blameworthiness, liability, and the expectation of account-giving. As an aspect of governance, it has been central to discussions related to problems in the public sector, nonprofit and private (corporate) and individual contexts (Dykstra, Clarence A. (February 1938). “The Quest for Responsibility”. American Political Science Review. The American Political Science Review, Vol. 33, No. 1. 33 (1): 1–25.)

In leadership roles, accountability is the acknowledgment and assumption of responsibility for actions, products, decisions, and policies including the administration, governance, and implementation within the scope of the role or employment position and encompassing the obligation to report, explain and be answerable for resulting consequences (Williams, Reyes(2006) Leadership accountability in a globalizing world. London: Palgrave Macmillan).

In governance, accountability has expanded beyond the basic definition of “being called to account for one’s actions” (Mulgan, Richard (2000). “‘Accountability’: An Ever-Expanding Concept?”. Public Administration. 78 (3): 555–573. and Sinclair, Amanda (1995). “The Chameleon of Accountability: Forms and Discourses”. Accounting, Organizations and Society. 20 (2/3): 219–237.) It is frequently described as an account-giving relationship between individuals, to justify them, and to suffer punishment in the case of eventual misconduct” (Schedler, Andreas (1999). “Conceptualizing Accountability”. In Andreas Schedler; Larry Diamond; Marc F. Plattner. The Self-Restraining State: Power and Accountability in New Democracies. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers. pp. 13–28.)

The point that all the definitions above have in comment is that

accountability cannot exist without proper accounting practices; in other words, an absence of accounting means an absence of accountability.

But how do we apply accountability in humanitarian contexts? Affected populations do not choose or elect the humanitarian organizations, which operate in their areas and do not sign contracts with them. How, therefore, can they hold humanitarians accountable?

Accountability to Affected Population in Humanitarian Contexts

The Humanitarian paradox when it comes to AAP is very simple: we have no accountability because there is no way to hold us accountable. If I think that the WFP distributed food is bad and I do not want it, I have no means to tell WFP, “please give me something else”, or “let’s talk about what we can buy with the same amount of money” or, “thanks I want someone else to give me food”.

The Humanitarian community de facto acts like a government, and regulates almost all aspects of the life of affected communities (down to where they shit, in fact!), providing state-like services, and acting as a government. And while on one side, the humanitarian community tries to desperately create a state like system, for example by imposing elected community leaders to communities that have never even considered the idea of election so a way to select their representatives; on the other side it does not have the check and balances that a state has, like elections; courts; etc.

The problem of what we define as accountability in theory is debatable and yet, it appears clear that all definitions point to the fact that what we call Accountability is in reality impossible in the humanitarian system because there are no accounting means.

Despite all of this, the practice of accountability has been evolving. Here we have a situation where the humanitarian community is desperately trying to artificially create a self-referential accountability system, based upon a political, economical and organizational structure that is not accountable by definition (to make this clear: we do cannot vote out the countries with veto power in the Security Council, even if they perform badly!).

Let’s put aside for a moment the theoretical questions, and focus on the current practice:

Problem one: Accountability is (also) Engagement and Engagement is not happening. There is a general lack of technical expertise and experience of how to engage with communities effectively. One example is the number of times the CwC Working Group Coordinator in Cox’s Bazar has changed in the first 12 months of the crisis (hint: not 12, but close!). The same consultants hired as CwC experts jump from organization to organization, and they keep doing that simply because there is a handful of them, and too many organizations that now want to have that expertise on call. Plus, as Engagement is not yet a clear concept, most Engagement projects are simply two-ways communication system (Info-points) or even one-way communication systems (radio programs).

Problem two: multiple ways to listen and no way to act. Ninety-three percent of the organizations in Cox’s Bazar have established some sort of feedback mechanism enabling communities to provide feedback via information hubs, face-to-face meetings, or radio programs. Only 23% of these organizations, however, have standard operating procedures on how to handle feedback, and only 40% have formal systems to share feedback with other agencies. The continuous push to collect more feedback and more data is obscuring the fact that aid organizations are unable to process and respond to the feedback and complaints they currently receive. Unaddressed feedback undermines trust and renders any future efforts to step up feedback collection useless. While a lot of attention is being dedicated to set up systems to collect and process feedback for humanitarian organizations (like the Collective Feedback Mechanisms), almost no attention has been dedicated to how organizations need to structurally change internally to become adaptable and able to incorporate long-term methodological changes as well as ad-hoc real time adaptation to sudden problems.

Problem three: Lack of skills and technical media expertise. Little information is really being shared with communities about the overall humanitarian response. Most of it, is still in the form of messaging campaigns where communities are bombarded with information about what to do and how. Little is being done to involve information and communication experts who can create engaging, accurate and culturally appropriate two-way mass communication strategies. Local media are still heavily underused, often hiding behind the excuse that local journalists and media are not providing balanced reporting – which is true often and it is the very reason why we should more closely work with them.

Problem four: no regulatory or standardized system in place. While donors have put pressure on aid organizations to establish common mechanisms and internal feedback mechanisms, very little ideas are being discussed on how these mechanisms can work in practice, and to really look at the what these mechanisms are actually achieving. In the overall tentative to create one big pie for CwC and AAP funding, donors are contributing to create these Common Systems that take ages to be created, because they require a long fight in between agencies to agree upon who will “own” it (it took 4 months in Bangladesh for the donors to consult all of the partners to agree on one common mechanism); have no structure to be build upon within the humanitarian system (cluster or no cluster? Working Group? specific sector?); no policies to actually work data sharing (in Bangladesh the Common Mechanism endorsed by everyone took 3 months to get some data by agencies because they had to go through their internal mechanisms for data sharing); and are supported by little technical expertise (often there is one data analyst in these structures, or none at all). Even when they work, their speed and efficiency are heavily undermined by political fights (what is, for example, the relationship between IOM and UNHCR in Bangladesh? and what is their relationship with the government? and how does that affects the delivery of aid?).

The reality is that until the overall humanitarian community re-thinks its own operating system, they will not manage to achieve AAP. From the political angle, the humanitarian system is an oligarchy made of international donors and organizations that decide what is best for the people they serve without considering their needs, preferences and expertise.

AAP is supposed to work here as moral duty that we, as organizations, have to take on as an “obligation”. To become truly accountable to affected people we have to change the way we think about our role. The overall question we are left with then becomes “If the community is really at the center, where are we?” Until we are ready to answer to that question, the road towards a better AAP will only be slow and painful.

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