Challenges of Accountability toward Beneficiaries in Humanitarian Relief

The growing professionalization of the humanitarian sector and the corresponding “accountability deficit” in relief interventions has been the subject of on-going dialogue among international aid agencies and humanitarian professionals. Numerous recent initiatives — such as the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP), the Sphere Project, and the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP) — are devoted to increasing accountability standards and practices. Additionally, agencies such as ActionAid have made a public commitment to improve accountability in crisis response, particularly in view of lessons learned after the Haiti earthquake, as well as other humanitarian emergencies.

Many humanitarian actors believe that the persistent lack of accountability toward beneficiaries represents a key barrier to the field’s continued professionalization. This concern suggests that humanitarian organizations should not only enhance their traditional accountability practices to donors and host states, but also recognize the importance of establishing effective accountability mechanisms toward beneficiaries. Accountability toward beneficiaries entails empowering individuals and communities at the field level to become active participants in the relief and development process, to assert their rights and demand greater transparency from humanitarian organizations, and partnering with them for sustainable community recovery. For some, “by seeking to empower communities to demand quality and effective humanitarian interventions, accountability by default becomes a political project”.

Some critics argue that efforts to strengthen accountability toward beneficiaries are unnecessary, particularly given the fundamentally charitable and voluntary nature of humanitarian assistance. For others, empowering and involving beneficiaries in recovery efforts may affect agencies’ abilities to remain “truly” independent and impartial under international humanitarian law. Indeed, humanitarian organizations constantly struggle — particularly in complex political environments — to adhere to the established principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence. And furthermore, there are few legal frameworks to adequately enforce accountability mechanisms. Thus, the capacity of organizations to effectively adhere to humanitarian principles depends primarily on organizations’ abilities to maintain transparency and clear accountability structures to all stakeholders, including donors, host states, local authorities, and affected communities.

In view of the limited regulatory frameworks for accountability, as the humanitarian field continues to evolve, professionals should engage in strategic thinking geared toward developing a consensus on effective accountability and transparency mechanisms. Such initiatives should apply to all organizations and operations, though each situation may require an additional assessment that examines the best methods of applying these standards on a case-by-case basis. Professionals must also clearly determine a shared vision for their relationships with beneficiaries and commit to fostering on-going partnerships and empowerment strategies that directly engage beneficiaries in processes for relief, development, and sustainable recovery.

Posted by Anaïde Nahikian