A series on Accountability. Part II: Leadership

AAP Principle 1. Leadership: Demonstrate their commitment to AAP to affected populations by ensuring feedback and AAP mechanisms are integrated into country strategies, program proposals, monitoring and evaluations, recruitment, staff inductions, trainings and performance management, partnership agreements, and highlighted in reporting.

AAP Principle I: Leadership/Governance

Leaders of humanitarian organizations will demonstrate their commitment to accountability to affected populations by ensuring feedback and accountability mechanisms are integrated into country strategies, program proposals, monitoring and evaluations, recruitment, staff inductions, trainings and performance management, partnership agreements, and highlighted in reporting.

This definition of the first AAP principle is made of 6 different component:

  1. ensuring feedback and AAP mechanisms are integrated into country strategies,
  2. ensuring feedback and AAP mechanisms are integrated into program proposals,
  3. ensuring feedback and AAP mechanisms are integrated into monitoring and evaluations,
  4. ensuring feedback and AAP mechanisms are integrated into recruitment, staff inductions, trainings and performance management,
  5. ensuring feedback and AAP mechanisms are integrated into partnership agreements,
  6. ensuring feedback and AAP mechanisms are highlighted in reporting
  1. AAP integrated into country strategies

In Bangladesh the Joint Response Program for the Rohingya response states:

” The Joint Response Plan sets out a comprehensive program shaped around three strategic objectives – deliver protection, provide life-saving assistance and foster social cohesion. The Plan covers all humanitarian sectors and addresses key cross-cutting issues, including protection and gender mainstreaming. The Plan will also strengthen emergency preparedness and response for weather-related risks and natural disasters, with a focus on community engagement.Priorities for the coming year include supporting strengthened government leadership and accountability, including in the camps, and the effective participation of the refugee community in decisions affecting their lives.

2019 Joint Response Plan for Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis, January – December

More in details, in the response strategy:

“Enhanced communication with communities and accountability will be implemented in 2019, in partnership with the Communication with Communities (CwC) working group, notably reinforced complaints and feedback mechanisms in the camps, as well as increased community engagement and establishment of a community representation system, in coordination with the Protection Sector, Gender in Humanitarian Action and CwC working groups.”

2019 Joint Response Plan for Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis, January – December

In February 2018 the Communicating with Communities (CwC) Working Group in Bangladesh created an Accountability to Affected Populations Sub-group with the  following goals: ’Affected populations have a clear understanding of their rights related to humanitarian assistance and accessible mechanisms in their own language through which to provide feedback and/or complaints. Humanitarian actors coordinate to ensure that feedback and/or complaints are responded to and complainants are informed of action taken. The feedback and trends underpin evidence-based advocacy that puts the voices of affected populations in the foreground of the humanitarian response and program design.’

In many ways the Rohingya response in terms of AAP and CwC was unprecedented. The CwC working Group established in Bangladesh in 2015 helped to ensure that most UN agencies had incorporated some sort of CwC component in their programming; and AAP was indeed something aid organizations admitted they were struggling with. 

Despite all of this though, and while we can see that Accountability is indeed incorporated into the Humanitarian Country Strategy, two things appear odd in the JRP:

  • Accountability as a specific objective or strategy is ONLY mentioned in relation to the Protection and Gender Mainstreaming section and the Communication with Communities section of the 2019 JRP. The WASH and Food section funny enough mention Accountability by simply stating that they are committed to the principle (Like to say “I do Accountability because I say so”).
  • No mention of the role of AAP in monitoring and evaluation of the JRP itself, for example.
  • No communities seems to have been involved in the drafting of the JRP, de facto making the claims that the Humanitarian Community wants to “increase community engagement and establish community representation systems” a bit empty.

2. Feedback and AAP mechanisms integrated into program proposals

In the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar there are more than 127 information hubs, at least 30 feedback mechanisms, and more than 15 organizations on the ground working with local media, audio systems, etc to inform communities about the response. Donors have invested more than 3 million dollars in the creation of a Common Engagement and Accountability platform that works towards the creation of a system that could harmonize community feedback and the response to them.

Feedback mechanisms are definitely the only part of AAP that we can say have been implemented in Bangladesh. Actually, over-implemented, with a multiplication of feedback mechanisms under each sector, and an unclear structure on how the feedback are actually responded to.

3. Everything else?
This is where Principle one of the AAP IASC definition normally stops to be applied. In fact, when it comes to “ensuring feedback and AAP mechanisms are integrated into monitoring and evaluations; ensuring feedback and AAP mechanisms are integrated into recruitment, staff inductions, trainings and performance management; ensuring feedback and AAP mechanisms are integrated into partnership agreements; and ensuring feedback and AAP mechanisms are highlighted in reporting”, we really have no evidence that any of these has ever or is currently happening in any emergency for what it matters.

Since the IASC Commitments to AAP, there has been a tendency to focus almost entirely on feedback and complaints mechanisms, and what is generally referred to as ‘community engagement’.  A myriad of methodologies and frameworks have been developed, the most recent being common feedback and common engagement and accountability frameworks.  The problem is that the terms ‘feedback’ and ‘accountability’ mechanisms are being used interchangeably, as if they were the same thing, suggesting that if we set up a feedback and complaints mechanism, we are implementing accountability to affected people (I discuss terminology more in depth here).

Experience in Bangladesh shows that the concept of AAP and how to apply it at the leadership level to programs is still not fully understood by humanitarian organizations.  AAP is still considered an add on rather than an integral programming principle. Implementation of AAP still largely takes the form of individual or common feedback and communication mechanisms, with little to no activities at all that assure that communities are involved in project design and evaluation, in between other things. Existing AAP mechanisms need to be improved and orientation on AAP expanded, but nobody seems to know, by whom?.  

Here some of the issues that the Bangladesh case highlights and that I see as common in a lot of other responses:

Coordination = data sharing. As stated above, among agencies operating in Cox’s Bazar, there is an increasing sense of the importance of AAP, with different approaches emerging. With a high number of agencies collecting feedback (Internews 2018) one of the challenges emerging is the improved coordination needed to ensure that the data collected feeds into the meta-analysis that informs response-wide interventions and advocacy at the leadership level.

What does Accountability at the HTC level looks like?. At the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) level, there is a strong push to mainstream CwC and AAP in the Joint Response Plan, as was done in South Sudan three years ago. While creating a common mechanism is a positive move, the South Sudan example demonstrates that ‘mainstreaming’ CwC and AAP usually results in the establishment of feedback mechanisms. No system for implementing AAP in full has yet been created at the field or at the HTC level. In fact, nobody seems to know what that even means.

Lack of Leadership capacity. In Bangladesh, and in many other current emergencies, the majority of CwC and AAP staff are quite junior, with the same (often expatriate) seasoned consultants and staff moving from organization to organization. The lack of highly skilled, professional and experienced humanitarian workers that can set up, manage and coordinate CwC and AAP systems results in a spotty and inconsistent response. At the Leadership level there is no position that is responsible specifically for AAP, except the HCT.

There issue here seem to be that there is no ownership of AAP at the leadership level.

As AAP should apply to all sectors and organizations, it should be incorporated into existing coordination mechanisms, like the cluster system.  However, the tendency has been to create siloes sub-groups like the one in Bangladesh, to which the clusters delegate anything related to AAP and CwC.

This makes the process slow, political and bureaucratic – with the result that the lack of AAP ownership is making CwC much slower, engagement always late, and accountability an after action issue. Rather than rapidly developing data sharing agreements that can be processed quickly by headquarters, or setting up structured referral mechanisms that allow feedback and questions to be directed to the right people, AAP and CwC coordination mechanisms have become slow and disconnected from the overall response, left to produce guidelines and do advocacy work rather than actually make activities on the ground more efficient.

Donors have added yet another problem to this. By creating pots of common funds to fund CwC and AAP under the same umbrella, they have created an incentives to fight for a piece of the pie, not to share it.

In Bangladesh, as in other emergencies, UN agencies are competing over who coordinates CwC activities. In the response to Hurricane Maria in Dominica, for example, there was a CwC coordinator with nothing to coordinate – literally no CwC activity was set up by organizations in that crisis, and the role of the coordinator was simply to try to connect organizations that were doing their own business by themselves, with local information providers.

The net-effect is that rather than developing an agile and adaptable system, we are creating yet another coordination mechanism that is more costly than the activities implemented on the ground.

If we stop for a second to over-obsess about coordination, we may start to focus on the activities we are supposed to do, the methodologies we need to change and adapt and the overall re-shaping of how we do aid.

In the Bangladesh case is the competition over the coordination function that has almost paralyzed the entire system.

While IOM has taken the lead; WFP was “forgotten” in the original concept for the common feedback mechanism; UNICEF decided to fund a parallel evaluation of the same mechanism, already funded by another donor and done by another organization; UNHCR came late to the play and started to scramble to show they are on top of it; CDAC was also left out of the picture so they now advocate for themselves taking the coordination role.

Competition between UN agencies over CwC coordination is directly affecting the phenomenon of Common Mechanisms like the Communication and Community Engagement Initiative (CCEI). On the paper these initiatives aims to organize a collective service to address the need for a more systematic and coordinated approach to communications and community engagement with affected people. The service is envisaged to act as a support function to complement and elevate ongoing efforts in given contexts. In a cluster system, for example, the service would be integrated within the inter-cluster coordination mechanism.

In reality, this system is translating into a bargaining chip, whereby UN agencies on the ground spend weeks debating who will be doing what, while donors require a “all-agreed-all-happy” policy. Examples? In Central African Republic the Common Feedback Mechanism has been discussed and re-framed for over 3 years. No project has started to date. In Yemen, the first report on a common feedback mechanism was shared in 2015. No system has been set up as far as I know. In all the other countries, the vocabulary has been changed to “platform” so that, while no Common Mechanism is in place, the mere existence of a CwC Working Group can be considered as a surrogate! (Common Services for Communication and Community Engagement; National and Sub-National Platforms; A status update, May 2019).

In Bangladesh, since it was an emergency, the process was much faster: it took only 4 months before all UN agencies and clusters could “endorse” the project, and therefore allowing the donor to sign the contact. For 1.1 million refugees, the money invested into this mechanism has been around 3 millions, 2.70$ per refugee. Just to give you an example of how much of a priority this is!

The reality is that the leadership part of AAP is still loosely understood as “trying to get the HCT to pay some attention to it” while nobody seem to have a clear idea of what integrating AAP into leadership even means! No discussion about a possible change in the way the overall structure of the response is handled has ever been done, let alone a discussion about how to integrate affected communities into the way the response is financed and managed.

For AAP to be integrated into leadership we need a re-definition of what leadership is, and possibly of the role of the Humanitarian Country Teams.

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