Children's feedback committees in Zimbabwe: an experiment in humanitarian accountability



One of the major developments in the last few decades in the work of international and local charities is the increasing focus on the rights of beneficiaries in relation to the assistance delivered to them. In effect a change has taken place in the way in which individuals as 'objects of charity' have come to be regarded. People who receive aid have become increasingly transformed in the minds of their benefactors into real, live subjects who are entitled to inform the nature and extent of the programmes delivered on their behalf. The case for greater beneficiary participation is not only a moral but a practical one. Involvement of people in projects has consistently led to better programming results, particularly around the sustainability of interventions and the avoidance of excessive dependency that can arise if participation is minimized.

While the right of individuals to participate in charitable interventions is now widely respected as a key operating principle in development projects, the practice in terms of humanitarian work seems rather more murky. Pressures of time and the urgency to respond have often meant that beneficiaries targeted in emergency situations are not consulted about the appropriateness of aid or the mechanism of its delivery to them. The perception of people as passive victims continues to predominate in the media coverage of emergency situations, in the marketing strategies of the agencies that seek to respond, and in the minds of many of the staff who are in the front-line of delivery assistance. Despite the fact that accountability to beneficiaries is a recognized humanitarian principle, research has indicated that there is still considerable institutional ignorance about the nature and role of such standards in emergency programming. Claimed one report in 2003,

Anecdotal evidence from evaluations of humanitarian action suggests that despite great efforts at promotion and dissemination over the past decade, a significant proportion of field workers are still not aware of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Code of Conduct.1

The failure to adequately promote accountability of humanitarian programmes to beneficiary populations has several negative consequences. Assistance delivered in emergency situations can often be inappropriate if time has not been taken to find out what is required and what is acceptable to local communities. We have all read about or personally observed situations where, for example, inappropriate delivery of food aid has sometimes undermined local production through the distortion of markets or where the introduction of a food commodity through aid programmes has subsequently created a demand for something which cannot be locally produced. At the same time, if communities are marginalized in terms of decisions around emergency interventions they begin to manifest a culture of dependency that can be difficult to change when the intervention is over. When this happens agencies often blame local culture or 'the laziness' of the population for a problem which they in fact have helped to create. When Save the Children (UK) investigated the reasons as to why communities in the Zambezi Valley region of Zimbabwe were unwilling to participate in the control of a recent cholera epidemic, the lack of previous community engagement in decisions around a foodaid programme were cited by some as a reason for their subsequent lethargy.

But perhaps one of the most serious consequences of the inadequate promotion of accountability to beneficiaries in humanitarian work is evidenced in the kinds of abuse perpetrated on communities by aid workers themselves. The 2002 study on sexual exploitation of young girls by aid personnel in West Africa on the back of an emergency intervention was disturbing, not only because of the nature of what it revealed, but because of the clear evidence of its widespread manifestation in many other emergency situations.2 Quite clearly inequitable power relations can develop between those who give and those who receive in an emergency context. This can create a situation of extreme vulnerability for the latter unless a system is introduced to control it. Referring to the exchange of sex by young girls with aid workers in order to receive desperately needed humanitarian assistance in the camps in West Africa to which they had been relocated, one young woman claimed,

They (aid personnel) change girls so much and none of them marry the girls and if she becomes pregnant she is abandoned, with no support for herself and the child. Most of us used to just look at them and wonder, "Our brothers, they have a problem".3

Such behaviour of course would rarely be tolerated in the home locations from which aid workers themselves originated. Both community and legal sanction would prevent it from significantly occurring. Yet one wonders if the temptation to engage in such abusive behaviour would also be lessened if the perception of people as passive victims, as mere recipients of charity, were also changed. In other words the promotion of humanitarian accountability is not only about creating the systems through which such behaviour can be detected and prevented. It is also about transforming the perception of people from objects into subjects, of creating a realization in the minds of those who work in emergency environments that the beneficiaries we target are individuals with lives every bit as complex and significant as our own. Referring to the setting up of an Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) to promote the elimination of sexual exploitation and abuse in humanitarian situations, one author concluded,

The creation of an environment that is conducive to the prevention and elimination of sexual exploitation and abuse is key. Such an environment will include, at a minimum, enhanced beneficiary participation in all aspects of humanitarian programming, improved delivery mechanisms to reduce their potential for exploitation, and dissemination of information on beneficiary rights, entitlements, responsibilities and complaints procedures. Accountability to beneficiaries is a necessary step towards creating an environment that discourages sexual exploitation and abuse.4

This publication chronicles the attempt by Save the Children (UK) to set up an accountability project, related to the agency's food aid intervention in Zimbabwe that would address some of the issues raised above. From its conception in mid-2003, to the setting up of the project and final evaluation in May 2004, a key intention was to set up a mechanism that specifically included children in the process of creating better accountability towards communities. The focus on children was informed by several considerations. Despite the fact that food aid interventions were meant to address the needs of vulnerable children there had been little attempt to solicit their constructive involvement either in the design, implementation or evaluation of the programme. In other words the agency was largely dependent on the community leadership having the interests of children at heart, despite previous evidence that this could never be taken for granted. In an evaluation conducted some years previously by the organisation in the same operational areas where food was being distributed, children had previously complained that the siting of wells and boreholes donated by the agency had often been prioritised in terms of their proximity to beer halls rather than to schools, clinics and homesteads. This was a decision, they claimed, motivated by a desire among some influential community members to have a regular supply of beer rather than have clean water for women and children to wash with and maintain proper family hygiene.5

Another reason for this focus on encouraging feedback from children was also prompted by previous experience in Zimbabwe of involving young people in assessing the value of the agency's work. This had often yielded information that was either deliberately concealed or simply not seen by adult informants. Despite discussions and debate with men and women in the Zambezi Valley concerning the value of the water programme, it was only when children were consulted that a different perspective of partisanship and bias within communities was revealed, one that was never noticed before. At the same time the extent of the role of children in water collection and management only came to light when the organization made an effort to find out from them directly how much time they spent on this activity. 'Our work is often invisible,' lamented one child during the study referred to above.

As the title of this publication indicates, the project was largely conceived as an experiment. This partly reflects the fact that there seems to be so few examples of setting up genuine accountability projects in humanitarian situations. SC's own search in Zimbabwe for replicable models revealed very little that it was able to choose from. Where feedback mechanisms had been established, both by our own programme in the past and by other agencies, there was a weakness in terms of setting up a mechanism that communities could genuinely call their own, that reduced the risk of potential perpetrators of abuse being in a position to conceal their behaviour, and that adequately informed beneficiaries of their rights and entitlements so that meaningful and constructive dialogue could take place. As for children, there was no evidence of their systematic involvement in any community complaints channels that had been set up. As is the nature of all experiments, mistakes were made and the project went through several modifications and changes during the course of its establishment. We would not do justice to the complexity of the endeavour if these problems were not revealed and appropriate lessons shared. This publication, therefore, is not offered as a blueprint or model to be rigorously followed. But we believe that there are sufficient and significant positive results to hopefully encourage other agencies to make the attempt at putting into practice a key humanitarian principle that to date has largely remained theoretical rather than concrete.

Chris McIvor
Director: Save the Children(UK). Harare.

January, 2005


1 Humanitarian Exchange, 2003. No. 24, July. London: Overseas Development Institute.

2 Naik, Asmita, 2003. 'West Africa Scandal'. Humanitarian Exchange, No. 24, July. London: Overseas Development Institute.

3 Ibid. p. 2 of 5.

4 Op. cit. ft. 2.

5 SC (UK), 2000. 'If We Were Properly Consulted - A Review of the Save the Children (UK), Watsan Programme in the Zambezi Valley'. Harare: Save the Children (UK).

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