Unfortunately, the answer to this question is no, we don’t. As a community engagement and accountability advisor within a humanitarian agency, I can’t tell you how much this answer pains me.

If I were to ask, “SHOULD humanitarian agencies be accountable to communities?” the answer would be an emphatic yes.

So, what’s the difference? Believe it or not, I’m still not tired of explaining why we SHOULD we be accountable.

    1. When we involve people in designing aid interventions and listen to their feedback – and then act on it – our projects are better quality and more likely to be of real assistance to communities. I’ll never forget the shocking statistic collected for the World Humanitarian Summit: nine out of ten Syrian refugees in Jordan received aid assistance, but only three in ten found that assistance useful.
    2. People affected by disasters and poverty are not helpless victims and might actually know what they need to get out of crisis better than we do. We should be past the stage of seeing ourselves as the knights in shining armour who roll in to save the helpless.
    3. When we put people in charge of the projects designed to support them, they take ownership of them. This builds community resilience and means the impact of the project might continue after we’ve moved on to the next disaster or community. This has been a key finding from an operational case study by CDA Collaborative Learning into Kenya Red Cross’ efforts to mainstream accountability to communities.

So why don’t we NEED to be accountable to communities? Well, because there is too little accountability for poor accountability: in reality, there are very few tangible consequences if an agency lets people down in this way. For example;

  1. It doesn’t stop us receiving funds from donors. We can still report how many hygiene kits we delivered or people we trained in community health. While some donors are starting to ask agencies to explain how they will ensure community participation and feedback, they still don’t commonly ask for a copy of the feedback and complaints log or check how satisfied people were – meaning these requirements often lack any teeth. After all, the donors also need to justify to their donors (often taxpayers not overly keen on seeing their hard-earned cash being diverted to other countries) what a great job they’re doing, so the money keeps flowing for all of us.
  2. The heads of humanitarian agencies generally don’t ask. Senior management are often more concerned with the implementation rate (or, more accurately, burn rate) to avoid the cardinal sin of having to return funds to a donor. Even when leadership does signal that accountability to communities is important, often this doesn’t go much beyond paying it lip service.
  3. Communities have little choice about where to get their aid. People on the receiving end of aid may not be very happy with how we’re treating them, but what can they really do about it? Communities don’t often have a choice in who they get their aid from. They cannot simply decide to shop elsewhere if they become unhappy with the way their current supplier is treating them, or with the products on offer. Ironically, poor accountability also usually means there is no feedback system in place where people can raise their concerns with the agency in question. There’s no independent aid regulator who can investigate issues on their behalf and punish poorly-performing agencies. Many communities don’t have options that would allow them to raise concerns publicly through social or traditional media. People continue to take what they are given and can only complain to each other about aid agencies who don’t understand them, treat them like passive recipients, and break their promises.

The real consequence of this failing in accountability is that organisations continue to waste time, money and human effort on aid interventions that simply do not work. However, for now, that consequence is still well hidden enough to allow it to continue.

But things are changing. What happens when communities can be more vocal about poorly-delivered and inappropriate aid interventions?

In the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in Haiti, Haitians took to Twitter to tell the world not to waste money donating to foreign aid agencies but rather give to Haitian organisations directly. We are seeing an upsurge in people donating directly to communities through sites like Kiva and Give Directly. Canadian Red Cross now have a community engagement social media advisor just to manage public questions and feedback received through Facebook and Twitter following domestic disasters. As more communities become globally connected, people affected by disasters and poverty are demanding better accountability from humanitarian agencies, who after all, only exist because of them. The traditional hierarchies are (slowly) disappearing.

So sure, for now, humanitarian agencies still don’t NEED to be accountable to communities to survive. But, sooner rather than later, those of us who aren’t seriously working to design our interventions with communities, to share information regularly, to listen and act on community feedback, will be held to account – in a very public manner and in front of our donors.

I, for one, can’t wait for that day to arrive.

By Sharon Reader, Community Engagement and Accountability Senior Advisor with IFRC Africa

To find out more about one organisation’s journey to improve accountability to communities throughout all their programmes and operations, read the Kenya Red Cross Operational Case Study by CDA Collaborative Learning Projects. Or join the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities Webinar “Eliminating Barriers to Meaningful Participation” with International Rescue Committee, Kenya Red Cross and CDA Collaborative Learning Projects.