At a recent event to launch a special edition of Humanitarian Exchange Magazine on the Typhoon Haiyan response in the Philippines, we discussed how aid agencies can be more accountable to the people they serve. The concept of Accountability to Affected People, or AAP, as it is known in the jargon, means, in general, enabling them to influence what we do.
Everyone agrees it is a good idea. Or even a foundation of good practice. In theory, it ensures that the assistance we provide is relevant and respectful to the people we serve.
In the Haiyan response, there’s plenty of evidence that we’re getting better at it. And also that there’s a way further to go. (See also the CDAC Network’s material on Community Feedback Forms, which is practical, powerful and deserves replication.)
Tools for accountability
The organisation I work for, Plan International, along with World Vision and the International Organisation for Migration are collaborating on a project to trial common tools for accountability, funded by the UK’s Department for International Development. It’s a very encouraging area, that’s already been picked up by the UN in Iraq. They are developing a single call centre for people to find out about humanitarian services and lodge complaints.
As ever, it’s more complicated in practice than we hoped. Different agencies are already using their own tools. We are supporting local media and government-citizen accountability, rather than setting up separate systems. Look out for a full report in May/June.
As a sector, we’ve been trying to reform practice for years (e.g. the HAP standard, the Sphere Core Standards, even the 1993 Red Cross Code of Conduct). But progress has often been trumped by other pressures, including overstretched teams struggling to design and run projects fast in chaotic situations.
The new Core Humanitarian Standard, launched last month, provides a chance for a new approach. We need a simple agenda that addresses the core issues that shape field work.
The 5 point plan
How about this initial 5 point plan to improve accountability to affected people?
1. Invest in leadership at all levels
Without consistent leadership, accountability will be washed away by other priorities. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ AAP Coordinators have a crucial role to play, across the whole of any response. Within agencies, leaders need to be identified in head office and field offices with specific responsibility to ensure that accountability gets the attention it requires. And they need to be backed up by resources.
2. Simplify the requirements (and the jargon)
We need to simplify the requirements for transparency and community engagement, and build them into our core practice. This means cutting through the confusing jargon of: Accountability to Affected People, Communicating with Communities, Preventing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse etc. Can we settle on simple, intuitive terms instead? We need staff to focus on talking to local people in ways that work from their point of view, and include marginalised groups, rather than off-the-shelf tools. And we urgently need the international organisations that lead these different areas to work together on a simple, consistent approach.
3. Use collective approaches where possible
The more that different agencies use the same terms and tools, the cheaper and easier for everyone. And the easier for communities and government to understand us and talk to us. The Core Humanitarian Standard provides a common foundation. It may not be perfect, but it’s pretty good and that’s good enough. We should use it. We should collaborate on collective tools like feedback mechanisms, communication campaigns and assessment tools where possible.
4. Adapt project plans
Agencies need to be able to adapt their work in response to what local people tell them. Can we agree with donors (and internally) that we will review and re-plan the activities of all major projects 3 months after work starts (particularly in the first year of a major response); and then also at least annually? More flexibility would be better, but inevitably hard to organise on the ground.
5. Report beneficiary satisfaction
Donors and senior managers should require field teams to systematically report beneficiaries’ satisfaction with their work. This could be done however it makes sense in the context. It has the potential to generate real insights into the work carried out and reinforce a focus on listening and responding to local people.
This agenda is work in progress. I hope it can develop into a contribution to the World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016.
For more on Alex Jacob’s thoughts, visit his blog: ngoperformance.org*
* Plan is not responsbile for the content on external websites.