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Broadening the Concept of Humanitarian Accountability

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Anstorp, Henrik Buljo & Cindy Horst (2021)

​How is accountability practiced and conceptualized among different humanitarian actors? The humanitarian system has long been understood as the sole domain of Westernized (I)NGOs, and yet, a range of civic actors are crucial providers of humanitarian aid. Civic actors are embedded in local contexts, engaged in long-term reciprocal relationships, and thus understand the need to mutually negotiate the distribution of responsibilities and expectations. These realities require us to ask different types of questions on the particular power relations and accountability mechanisms that may be of relevance in such contexts. Understanding accountability as a two-way street of responsibilities that can be anchored in several institutional and relational frameworks, this report argues for the need to expand our understandings of humanitarian accountability in terms of “upwards” and “downwards” legal and moral dimensions to include the concept’s relational and contextual dimensions.

1. Introduction

Since the 1990s, Western humanitarian organizations have increasingly been concerned with developing tools to assess the efficiency of aid delivery, to establish minimum standards and benchmarks for development and humanitarian aid projects, and to convincingly communicate their organizational transparency and accountability to stakeholders (Barnett 2005; Egeland 2005). Within discussions around these issues, accountability has developed into a buzzword among professional humanitarian actors. The concept is debated at regular intervals, especially in the aftermath of so-called “humanitarian failures”, like the Rwanda genocide in 1994, and the belated responses to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the Haiti earthquake in 2010 (Roberts 2018, p.1). As an extension of these debates, humanitarian and development organizations have joined forces across the professional humanitarian system to carve out common guidelines for how to better conceptualize and operationalize accountability.

Yet the concept remains disputed and, while being much discussed and sought after on a policy level, has caused little systemic change for aid recipients and practitioners working on the ground (Knox Clarke 2018; Winters 2010). Moreover, discussions of accountability usually center on major international and Western organizations, thus eclipsing the multitude of smaller and more informal “civic humanitarians” operating across the Global South. The latter group, which can be loosely defined as a heterogenous set of civil society actors who provide assistance in complex humanitarian crises, receive little interest from academics and are rarely included at the negotiating table when professional humanitarians develop their policies (Knox Clarke 2018). This has left a lacuna of scholarly knowledge on how civic humanitarians and their funders understand and practice accountability, which is dwarfed in comparison to the expansive “gray literature” and policy documents discussing accountability practices for professional humanitarians (Fechter and Schwittay 2019).

As a contribution to this research gap, this report seeks to provide an overview of the different components of accountability as they are understood and practiced among both professional and civic humanitarians. By first describing how accountability is most commonly understood, and then discussing the multilayered nature of accountability as it is understood and practiced by civic humanitarians, we aim to point to communalities and differences in an attempt to develop a more holistic understanding of accountability that is relevant for both professional and civic humanitarians. The report relies on a literature review combining academic sources and policy documents. It seeks to provide an overview of key discussions on accountability in both the academic and gray literature and identify some of the concept’s key components and challenges. By unpacking humanitarian accountability, as it is discussed in the literature on professional and civic humanitarians, the report aims to improve the concept’s analytical clarity. Ideally, this effort can contribute to the development of a framework through which accountability can be approached by academics and humanitarian practitioners alike, while also highlighting the overlapping practices of professional and civic humanitarians. To initiate this investigation, the report asks: What components does humanitarian accountability consist of?

The report begins with an exploration of the semantic and moral dimensions of accountability. Next, the report introduces the traditional typology of humanitarian accountability, namely upward (to funders and policy makers) and downward (to recipients). Then a discussion follows on how we can understand accountability in relation to the work of civic humanitarians. These actors might operate with an altogether different perception of accountability, one that is inherently relational and embedded in a combination of social, moral, legal and religious sources. Finally, the report discusses how humanitarian accountability can be understood in a way that is relevant for both professional and civic humanitarians.