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Accountability to Humanitarian Principles

Essential to any humanitarian accountability is a sense of a programme’s alignment with humanitarian principles. The conduct of humanitarian ethics in any operation must itself be an essential measure of effectiveness to gauge how far the programme was humane, impartial, neutral, independent, dignifying, capacity-building, participative and sustainable. It is amazing how seldom specific ethical accountability is demanded in humanitarian evaluations; more often they tend to be obsessed with agreeing a narrative of events, estimating timeliness, connectedness and efficiency, but ignore ethics.20

Another unacceptable bias in humanitarian accountability is its predominant focus on donor accountability. This is not surprising because, at the moment, donor demands come with more political pressure, more financial risk and much more bureaucracy than accountability to recipi?ents. So far in humanitarian history, the risk of losing a major donor is much more likely to keep a humanitarian chief executive awake at night than the likelihood of an uprising by dissatisfied recipients or a community boycott of agency aid. This is not the case for the chief executives of mining companies, and it may soon change for humanitarian executives too. However, this paper bias may also suggest that many humanitarian agencies are already good at recipient accountability and are doing it all the time, if not actually writing about it. It may be in their DNA and come more naturally than donor accountability.

Good humanitarian professionals spend a lot of time explaining what they are doing and why. Most frontline workers have to give a constant running commentary on their project’s rationale to individuals and community leaders to justify decisions and explain aid objectives and criteria. Humanitarians are getting better at formalizing this information-sharing as they now develop appropriate reporting methods for local communities and set up routine grievance procedures. Much of this more formal accountability practice has emerged from the Sphere Standards, which explicitly and openly set humanitarian outcomes and accountability procedures on the ground. Two of Sphere’s Core Standards (1 and 5) insist on people-centred programming that involves aid recipients in managing programmes and monitoring performance and evaluation.21 The seven accountability principles of the Humanitarian Accountability Project (HAP) demand recipient accountability from its member agencies by similarly focusing on explicit standards, strong communications, participation and complaints procedures.22

The accountability principles in the Code, Sphere and HAP are sound. Yet, all this leaves humanitarian professionals and commentators still thinking that there is an unethical “accountability deficit” in humanitarian action, in the words of journalist Michael Jennings; or a profound “cognitive dissonance” between what aid says and what aid does, according to academic Zoe Marriage.23 If this is so, then there are two structural weaknesses in the current architecture of humanitarian accountability that render it ethically vulnerable.

The first weakness, as Alice Obrecht points out, is that humanitarian evaluation and accountability are dominated by the principal-agent model, whereby the principal (usually government donors) evaluates the agent (humanitarian agencies). Much better and more ethical would be a system of reporting and evaluation that made a “moral appraisal” of humanitarian operations as a whole and of particular interventions too.24 This idea of "mission accountability” stressed by Obrecht and by Nicole Bieske should be the main emphasis of humanitarian accountability, with its focus being the experience of the people who need humanitarian help.25 At the end of the day, mission accountability is essential to the humanitarian legitimacy of agencies. Humanitarian operations will only be legitimate if they are actively and effectively pursuing the ethical goal that they claim for themselves. This kind of mission-centred moral appraisal has only really been done well once, in the system-wide evaluation of the response to the Rwandan genocide.26 It needs to be done much more. Humanitarian action can then be rightly appraised on how well it has met its humanitarian goals, how well it has lived its values in the process and how it has decided on and reacted to particular ethical challenges like indirect harm, complicity, moral entrapment and others identified in Chapter 9. In short, humanitarian accountability should be more focused on principles than principals.

The second structural weakness in humanitarian accountability is regulation. Humanitarian action is essentially voluntary and self-regulating. No party, whether donor, agency, local authority or recipient community, is under real external scrutiny to see if and how they are making the most of aid and are abiding by humanitarian law and principles in its application.27 This situation is increasingly untenable for a sector that continues to expand, that is now vital in many countries and is an important component of international relations and global governance. There is evidence from other areas of human rights, and in commercial sectors that run public utilities, that an independent rapporteur, ombudsperson or official regulator can bring higher levels of accountability and improvement to a sector. Some such mechanism should be adopted for humanitarian action. People need some form of official public mediator to oversee the political contract around aid that is emerging between people, governments and agencies.

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