Multi-Purposing – World Humanitarian Day
Nick van Praag • 17 August 2015
When, in 2008, the United Nations General Assembly designated August 19 as World Humanitarian Day, the aim was to honour humanitarian personnel and those who have lost their lives working for humanitarian causes. As we recognise their service and sacrifice this year, let us also use the occasion to reflect on the contribution of the people whose plight inspires aid workers to do what they do—and yet are mostly treated as incidental players in the humanitarian drama.
When I read the statements and see what is planned to mark World Humanitarian Day, it feels a bit like a throwback to times when affected people sat at the back of the humanitarian bus. It would be good to use the attention generated by a day set aside for reflection on humanitarian endeavour to reinforce moves towards making the work of humanitarian staff more accountable to those they set out to serve. Here’s my shortlist of how to fast forward the process:
- Providing field managers with a tool many say they now lack – that is, a tested and accepted way of gauging, tracking and acting on feedback from those they are assisting. There are so many competing approaches to accountability that managers find it hard to know which to use or how best to combine them. A common platform bringing together essential features of a range of feedback and communication tools is the way to go—and would be the stronger for donors placing less emphasis on the reporting of often non-essential measures of output and outcome.
- Encouraging affected people to provide more candid feedback by acting on what they say and letting them know, through systematic two-way communication, what has been done with their feedback. It is still rare for survey results and follow-up actions to be communicated back to communities. This makes it harder to create and sustain the trust that is essential if affected people are to engage without suspicion and play a bigger part in finding solutions.
- Getting donors to keep pushing things forward. Some are already funding efforts to build the evidence base on the effectiveness of feedback systems and to promote better understanding of benefits they bring. But aid agencies pay a low price for failing to deliver on the accountability agenda. That is now beginning to change but it is time for donors to crank up the pace by mandating the collection of feedback – as well as evidence of how that feedback is being used – for all humanitarian organisations receiving their funds.
- Encouraging aid agency management to develop internal cultures that prompt staff to become keen listeners to affected people, and equally keen learners. Evidence suggests that the stronger the management buy-in, the more robust the follow-through at the programme level. This means top managers must go beyond the rhetoric of accountability and align rewards and career opportunities with proven commitment to engage with affected people.
Over the last two decades much effort has gone into repositioning people we used to call aid beneficiaries as partners in the design and implementation of relief programmes. But calls for greater accountability have not done enough to make it happen. Still, the evidence is compelling that continuously tracking affected people’s perceptions and learning from their feedback improves performance. It cannot of course be the end of the search for greater accountability in the humanitarian system. That will only come when affected people are accepted as co-managers of aid—and World Humanitarian Day showcases their efforts alongside those of aid workers.