On accountability’s frontlines: lessons from South Sudan and Syria

Nick van Praag • 9 September 2016

The International Rescue Committee is making a thorough job of looking at feedback and accountability mechanisms through its CVC programme. Ground Truth is a partner in this exercise that over the past year has been piloting responsive approaches to managing humanitarian programmes in a range of crises. The first case studies came out this week focusing on lessons from South Sudan and Southern Syria. More will follow. My quick take-aways are these:

• Local buy-in or ownership is key. Unless accountability is hard wired into programmes from the start, humanitarian teams tend to push back. Finding out what clients think must become the new normal – not an add-on. This finding underlines the centrality of including provision for collecting feedback - and acting on it - in job descriptions, budgets and project monitoring from the outset. This goes for partner organisations too.

• Avoid mechanistic approaches. Accountability and responsiveness are as much art as science. Structured and systematic systems are good but the key to success is respecting the underlying principles rather than slavishly and laboriously implementing every stage in the feedback cycle, from data collection and analysis to dialogue and course correction. Templates should be a handhold, not a straightjacket.

• Timing is key. Regular surveying and follow-through keeps constituents’ perceptions on the agenda. It can also create additional stress for field workers with a lot to do. Stretching things out can slow momentum, so it is important to get the pace right. Implementers must take the time they need to process what they learn without leaving clients hanging. It’s about balance.

 Third parties can help – but not always. In some places collection and analysis of feedback by implementing agencies works without provoking ‘courtesy bias’. That’s when respondents answer politely - but less candidly - so as not to offend. It also costs less. But our cases studies show how involving third parties in data collection and follow up can make it harder for agency staff to explain away uncomfortable findings and ignore the consequences.

• Language matters. It’s not about asking questions louder. In places like Greece, migrants speak many different languages depending on where they are from. In South Sudan it is Arabic and Dinka, but there are multiple dialects.  Any attempt at capturing feedback must cover the necessary language bases.

• Action’s the thing. Responsiveness is not just about capturing the perspective of clients, but ensuring these perspectives inform programming decisions. The links between feedback and response are still too loose in most places.

• Facts vs. perceptions. For field staff used to getting hard facts about clients, the idea of asking about their perceptions can be a stretch.  Over time they seem to get the usefulness of this softer side of inquiry – and find themselves learning from questions, on issues like trust and empowerment, they initially thought were not that important.

• Don’t stop asking about tomorrowGiven the vagaries of humanitarian funding and programming, it is crucial to keep communicating with clients. This responsibility does not end when a programme is about to close. In Juba, we learn, IRC’s clients were the last to know when a protection programme there was defunded and wound down. Nothing erodes trust more quickly than being left in the dark.

These as well as many additional findings are available here. Further case studies on our work with the CVC programme in Kenya and Greece will be available later in the year. You can also learn more about IRC’s experience of how to make the leap from listening to clients as worthy idea to acting on what they say in Alyoscia D’Onofrio’s blog.

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