A decade in the trenches of accountability – and so much still to accomplish

Relinquishing the leadership of Ground Truth Solutions (GTS) to Meg Sattler got me thinking about what we have achieved in trying to forge a humanitarian system that is more responsive to the real needs of people it’s meant to benefit. 

My first thought was that it’s quite something the organisation still exists. Ten years ago, as GTS was just getting off the ground, some of my best friends advised against creating such an NGO and I was unsure I had the entrepreneurial ability to carry it off. Looking back, it’s been the most satisfying and challenging period of my career. I will miss an amazing team and I am grateful to the many colleagues, partners, and donors who not only made it a reality, but who daily engaged to make a difference to so many affected people. I’m particularly appreciative of our first funders, the Swiss Agency for Cooperation and Development (SDC) and the team at the IKEA Foundation. Without them taking a bet on an unproven idea, GTS would not have come about.  

If parting is a sweet sorrow, it’s good to look back at some achievements over the past decade.  The most satisfying dozen:

  1. Shifting the focus from the supply side to the outcome side of accountability. Before GTS, the focus was on standards, statements of intent, and codes of conduct – the tenets of accountable humanitarian assistance. GTS’s emphasis, by contrast, is on how affected people experience humanitarian aid; the way they see things is becoming the critical test of what works and what doesn’t.
  2. Making affected people’s perceptions count. Early on, there was scepticism about tracking perceptions. “That’s just what people think,” was a frequent refrain. Indeed, it is – which explains why perceptions are now widely accepted as a good way to better understand community views, to measure effectiveness, and an important tool of accountability.
  3. Focusing attention on response wide performance.  Our emphasis on the way affected people experience the collective impact of all humanitarian players across a response underlines the importance of coordination and shared responsibility.  Impact requires every link in the humanitarian chain to work. But to succeed, it must be driven by the experiences and perspectives of affected people. If their views don’t matter, then what’s the point of it all?
  4. Multiplying accountability. Unless individual agencies play their part, broader accountability won’t happen. Our work advising leading agencies across the humanitarian space – from the Red Cross movement and the United Nations to international NGOs and national bodies – has influenced their policies and their practice.
  5. Championing the quality of relationships. Quality aid is not just about delivering goods and services. Equally important are things like fairness, respect, inclusion, and agency that build trust and support feelings of dignity. Our data shows that if you get these things right, dire circumstances can look less hopeless to crisis-hit people.
  6. Calling out accountability gizmos. Half-hearted approaches to accountability that focus on the relatively easy stuff like helplines and working groups are no substitute for the real thing, which is about listening, learning, and acting on what people have to say about every aspect of humanitarian action when – proactively – you ask them. We have hammered home this message and increasingly people get it.
  7. Influencing donor policies. GTS has encouraged donors to require their grantees to listen to affected people and report on how they respond to what they learn. The US government was first out of the blocks on this legislative approach and others have followed. Two caveats: First, grantees are good at the reporting game, and second, donors focus too much on the accountability of NGOs and not enough on United Nations agencies.
  8. Providing high quality data (which is as critical as it is hard). There’s a lot of data out there but it won’t drive change unless the quality is high. Our stats team works hard to make sure GTS findings are based on careful testing of survey instruments, rigorous sampling, and often tedious controls on data quality during data collection. We learn something new every time, and our approaches get stronger. Beware the “methodology” that claims to know it all.
  9. Combining quantitative data and qualitative inquiry. Good quantitative data is necessary, but not sufficient. It must be paired with the backstory. Our work on user journeys – a method borrowed from the private sector – and careful qualitative follow-up to our quantitative surveys gives us an edge in converting potentially dry statistics into more powerful “anecdata.” 
  10. Winning recognition as a voice worth listening to on voice. We may be annoying at times, but we’ve stuck to our message on putting people first and, by developing a robust methodology and providing credible data, we have won the ear of decision makers across the system – even if they don’t always do what we’d like. 
  11. Checking the resilience of climate-vulnerable communities. The literature on adapting to climate change underlines the urgent need to encourage greater local participation, yet practice lags far behind. To bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality, we’ve partnered with the International Institute for Environment and Development and the International Centre for Climate Change and Development to apply GTS’s methodology to the challenge of including the priorities of people on the frontlines of the climate crisis in adaptation policies and programmes.
  12. Keeping the funding flowing. It’s axiomatic that none of this would be possible without our donors. We love them, especially our core funders and those who leave us a fairly free hand – like Switzerland, The Netherlands, Norway, and Germany.  Trying to flip power relations in the humanitarian system is a heavy lift for a tiny organization like GTS. Greater predictability and quicker decisions on funding would help – a lot. 


I could go on… There is progress on accountability to affected people and we are proud to be part of it. That said, people affected by crisis are still mostly cast as extras rather than given speaking parts. Catalysing bigger change in the system remains the goal and we believe that incentivized humanitarian leaders and empowered affected people can make it happen. Back in 2015, a woman we interviewed after the earthquake in Nepal said she was pleased someone was listening to her. In 2021, another woman, this time in the Central African Republic, told us she was fed up with interviews that led to nothing. So are we, and I know the GTS team under Meg’s fine leadership will take our work to the next level.