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Humanitarian Stakeholders

The Code’s emphasis on two-way accountability focuses on two major types of stakeholder: sometimes known as upward accountability (to donors) and downward accountability (to people who receive aid).19 This vertical imagery is unfortunate because it implies a hierarchy; it is therefore best avoided. It might be better to talk simply about investor and recipient accountability.

The binary bias of current thinking on accountability in the Code is not entirely realistic. Humanitarian organizations certainly have to be accountable to investors and recipients of aid, but not only to these groups. They also have to account to local and national authorities that are responsible for governing the areas in which they work. They have to account to people they have decided not to help. In practice, explaining why some individuals and groups are not getting aid takes up quite a lot of the day job of many frontline humanitarian workers. Agencies also need to be accountable to one another as they plan complementary programmes and develop collective action. In reality, humanitarian accountability is a more 360-degree responsibility than is currently presented in Article 9.

Nevertheless, there is a particular moral and operational intimacy in the relationship between an agency and its investors, and between an agency and the people it helps. It is right that both relationships receive particular attention in matters of accountability. Ideally, investors, agencies and recipients will all share deep humanitarian goals, as they are described in humanitarian principles, and they should be able to speak openly and transparently with one another in verbal and written monitoring and evaluation reports. To do so requires honesty and cooperation on all sides; but frankly, this is hard to achieve.

Institutional donors, humanitarian agencies and people in need of aid are often defensive and struggling with hard problems of self-interest alongside wider concerns for how the overall programme is performing. In my experience, donor government officials are seldom content to be as transparent as they ask others to be. UN agencies are also notoriously selective about what they report, because they are seeking to protect turf, careers and reputations. NGOs are wary of a bad report that may dramatically affect their income and organizational survival. People affected by conflict or disaster find it hard to treat any assessment or evaluation interview at face value, naturally concerned that it may have an influence on what they receive now or in the future. The humanitarian sector is not alone in these problems of honesty. But this big dose of political realism makes humanitarian accountability difficult, and explains why its significance is still token rather than transformative within the international system of humanitarian action. Accountability and evaluation are usually hived off to social scientists and smooth-talking accountability bureaucrats in UN agencies and NGOs. They tend to obscure the ethical importance of taking responsibility by reframing accountability as technically complex, so obscuring the simplicity of its greater political problem of truth-telling.

Even within such entrenched truth-telling problems, there are important things that can be achieved in humanitarian accountability. Because these are feasible, they must be achieved. Finances can and should be tracked and audited to high standards. Certain key humanitarian outcomes can be agreed in every programme along the chain of stakeholders, starting with recipients and agencies (who, together, can best define positive outcomes) and including local authorities, national government, other cooperating agencies and donors. These may be as simple as clear food security measures, health status targets, levels of safety, dignity indicators and numbers of people reached. From a clear identification of targeted outcomes, judgements about the efficiency of inputs and outputs can be made, and an overall view of effectiveness becomes possible.

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