Accountability to affected people is not a solo act

Source: ICRC, South Sudan

More often than not, I bristle when asked whether Ground Truth Solutions (GTS) makes a difference in improving the lives of crisis-affected people. The implication seems to be that we have failed to deliver if our efforts have not yet put them in the driver’s seat of humanitarian action.

That sets a high bar for one small organisation and ignores a bigger collective action problem that has slowed progress towards community engagement and accountability to refugees and displaced people.

Right now, the onus for using feedback is mostly placed on the shoulders of a small cadre of people with accountability or community engagement in their job titles and on organisations like GTS that champion a more client-centric approach to humanitarian action. Their efforts provide the building blocks of accountability – by finding out what affected people think and putting their perspective on the decision makers’ table – but they cannot ensure programmatic adjustments happen in response, or that entire agencies change their ways sufficiently to make the system accountable.

Slow progress on accountability is a stain on all humanitarian actors

We have always maintained that greater accountability to affected people (AAP) can help drive more effective and inclusive humanitarian action. But the monkey needs to be put on the back of all the players, especially operational organisations and donors, and not just on those trying to help them to do the right thing.

There are many examples where accountability specialists have the potential to beat the odds. Take the cash and voucher programme in Northeastern Nigeria, where a GTS survey in late 2019 found that a whopping 89 percent of respondents did not understand how decisions were taken about who receives cash or vouchers. As a result, agencies providing cash and vouchers there have committed to ensuring that they explain programming decisions more clearly, especially the criteria for selecting recipients. Soon, through follow-up surveys, we will discover whether this has done the trick.

For the most part, though, the efforts of accountability service providers – whether independent players like GTS or AAP departments within large aid organisations – are dismissed as insufficient if they cannot easily demonstrate a causal link between the feedback they collect and the action taken in response. This places disproportionate responsibility on the people providing insight from communities while giving those responsible for operations a free pass. Too often, the latter get away with doing nothing, or next to nothing, while the accountability specialists are told to up their game if they are to justify their existence and secure further funding.

We’ve tried all sorts of ways to increase the odds that humanitarian agencies will follow through on feedback. Long ago, we thought simply providing evidence of the way affected people see things would trigger action on its own. It did not. Next, we focused on presenting the feedback in ways that were easier to digest, using compelling visualisations of the data. We also tried better storytelling, to bring out the human dimension that gets lost in dry statistics. A little progress…

Presenting the findings from our perception survey in Logone Oriental, Chad in June 2019

Then we pushed donors to require their grantees to both demonstrate that they seek out the views of their clients and explain how they act upon them. Donors are the ‘market’ in the humanitarian space and aid agencies pay attention to their requirements. Pressure from donors is important but with more focus on accountability frameworks than results, it has probably done as much to swell the ranks of report writers, who are good at describing progress even when the reality on the ground falls short, as to enhance accountability.

Independent verification is a safety rail on self-reporting by aid agencies

We’ve also emphasised the importance of independent verification of the way affected people see things, as a safety rail on self-reporting by agency staff. Staff’s take, our findings show, is quite often at variance with that of their clients. And we have promoted response-wide perception tracking to look at the way those supposed to benefit view the humanitarian operation as a whole rather than the performance of each agency, which only tells part of the story.

Fortunately, GTS is not the only actor pushing for change. In many responses, there are now specialist communication and community engagement working groups focused specifically on this agenda.  While they share information and talk coordination, they remain for now on the periphery of operational decision-making, limiting their influence.  At the global level, there are positive signals from the inter-agency body charged with accountability and from donors and agencies promoting the so-called Participation Revolution. Both groups are pushing for tracking of the community experience as the touchstone of performance, although translating that into operational practice may be a long and winding road.

Tracking success from the perspective of people supposed to benefit from aid

A promising new performance assessment method offers a short cut. It involves matching the goals of humanitarian action with the experience of the people supposed to benefit. This is now happening in several humanitarian contexts, from the Central African Republic and Chad to Iraq and Somalia, where the high-level strategic objectives in the 2020 Humanitarian Response Plans (HRPs) are matched by indicators based on people’s perceptions. This makes it possible to track whether, from the user perspective, there is progress towards meeting the strategic goals over the course of the year – and to keep monitoring performance in this way over successive annual cycles.

It’s not a foolproof monkey-transfer device, but using metrics based on the way affected people see progress on the ground comes closer than ever before to building accountability to affected people into the bedrock of the humanitarian architecture. Accountability players, like Ground Truth Solutions, have a role but responsibility must be collective and should include all those with the power, resources, and operational rationale to make the difference. If they do, affected people will be a step closer to decision-making, and my bristling will be a thing of the past.

A version of this post was first published by The Geneva Observer.