Accountability Redux

I feel bad for the concept of accountability.  Must be hard for such a serious concept to get so little respect. At ALNAP’s annual meeting last month – a 2-day discussion of how change works in the humanitarian ‘system’, and why it so often doesn’t – poor ol’ accountability was stuck in the role of sectoral punching bag.  Need an example of how the system overcomes agreement, well-funded initiatives and 20 years of effort in order to resist change?  Then accountability is your man.  We even have trouble even changing the way we think about accountability (see e.g., my last blog), with system-led development of a downward accountability mechanism more or less occupying the entire space.

My mother says I am always too negative, so I will stop right now and change hats.   As a humanitarian motivated solely by compassion for the suffering of the downtrodden (and certainly not even nudged by the Oedipal pleasure of critiquing the aid establishment), perhaps I can rally to the aid of that punching bag?  In the spirit of a few but not exactly earthshaking ideas:

  1. Think smaller. As I have written before, there “is a danger that we ask too much of accountability”; invest too much in the search for a magic bullet. Our internal efforts, long guilty of greater promise than reward, have nonetheless delivered improvements. To do it better requires framing these efforts within a more honest and explicit understanding of their limitations, diminishing their outsized sales claims reducing the risk that they pre-empt or displace other, dissimilar efforts. In particular, that they do not function to dissuade external efforts aimed not at bequeathing accountability to people, but empowering them to take it.
  1. Make existing accountability work better. Nobody ever talks about the demonstrated accountability most NGO executives show to their boards/trustees. We talk incessantly about accountability moving upwards to donors, but almost never mention boards. Why? Humanitarian NGO boards are filled with the great and the good, titans of the private sector, masters of communication, big shot directors of non-sector NGOs, noted academics and venerated politicians (or even royal family). What they are not filled with are titans, masters or even relatively knowledgeable persons when it comes to humanitarian action. Fiduciary responsibilities, market share, communications and duty of care receive dedicated, expert attention. Do operations comply with the dictates of impartiality? Independence? What about operations? Do boards ask hard questions as to their effectiveness or luxuriate in the sense that they are “great, really really super”.  Would it not be a relatively straightforward affair to insist that boards receive training in humanitarian action, and that Trusteeship more explicitly requires challenging the executive to deliver on downward accountability (not to mention the humanitarian imperative) rather than battle for higher fundraising results and profit efficiency? (Hint: I already have a day-long training mostly ready).
  1. Untick the box. Some donors now routinely require aid agencies to establish some form of accountability to local pops.   Donors have power and the system dances to their tune.  As with all such measures, though, certain features of accountability will soon become a tickbox exercise.  And there is a moral hazard here, as both donor and agency share an interest in having the project look good, a current weakness of upward accountability to donors (i.e., the fudge factor).  But we can still promote donor pressure as a good move. We should only require that we maintain clarity on one thing: This is not downward accountability to people, it is accountability to donors. Box not ticked.
  1. Paradigm shift. It is a mistake to ground downward accountability in the discourse of effectiveness. If accountability is justified because it will make aid more responsive to the needs of people and hence more effective, then avoidance of downward accountability can be justified on the same grounds. The sector has long reduced downward accountability to an option in service to effectiveness rather than allow it to function as a control borne in ethical obligation. Effectiveness allows avoidance via the domineering idea that taking time to involve people affected by crisis is outweighed by the humanitarian imperative to act now now now. Let’s be clear: some of these downward accountability measures appear awfully burdensome in terms of time and resources, especially at the early stage of a emergency response. They will slow humanitarians down. Loud voices will complain about bureaucracy killing people. Doors will be slammed. This is what the clash of paradigms will produce. Anger and self-righteous indignation. A new normative framework needs to be explicit: ethical obligation trumps effectiveness. So the response to complaints needs to be “So what!?” or “Don’t worry, we’re looking into that”, the same responses that the existing paradigm has produced in answering those who have been looking for greater ethical accountability. The trick is to dismantle this effectiveness-based critique prospectively, not wait for it to dismantle the momentum for change.

[Dear Reader: Please insert here a clever summation] [21 March: This post was updated (edits to mistakes and unclear phrasing)]


3 thoughts on “Accountability Redux”

  1. What’s missing here is a recognition of rights. For me, accountability is necessary to hold back the likelihood that humanitarian action will undermine self-determination.

    At the end of the day (and at the beginning), you can’t think you’re helping people if they themselves don’t feel helped. Can you?

    I do agree that accountability can be much simpler. Someone asked me once how to get the staff of a large organization to be more trusting of their employer. I answered: “By being more trustworthy.” So while there’s no shortcut to accountability, it’s really not rocket science.

  2. Marc,

    Could I suggest ‘5. Transparency?’

    Charities, NGOs and IOs engaged in humanitarian aid don’t tell the truth, whole truth and nothing but… because if they did they’d never raise any funds, either private or institutional. From the ratio of funds actually spent on real assistance to that spent on administration, including long narrative tick-box reports to donors, to the differential between salary levels of directors and workers at the sharp end; the truth never emerges. We who work in the sector all know what goes on, but with a few exceptions nobody speaks about it for fear of self-harm.

    You mentioned governance – lack of transparency drives the choice of trustees – a select group of the great and good are put on boards specifically because they’re not embarrassed about this kind of deception; they move in orbits not populated by those who actually give assistance. So they don’t ever have to face up to the reality that they’re paying their HQ staff a hundred times more than the worker who actually distributes the food or teaches the children or nurses the injured.

    And we lie about what our beneficiary (politically incorrect term, as you pointed out – sorry) really wants. People I’ve met in war zones generally want for the fighting to stop so they can sort their own lives out. If we were truly transparent about the demands of the people, when we appeal to the public for funds to pay us to distribute aid, we (and our trustees and banks and governments – all the same thing – no?) would stop doing business with the perpetrators of the harm… fat chance! Business and truth just don’t go together that well. ‘We can’t stop your suffering because, even though it would be far cheaper in the long run, it would be bad for our businesses / pensions / investments’.

    Accountability without transparency – is like rice when there’s no water, building schools when there are no teachers, equipping hospitals without doctors or nurses – they may look good from a distance, but they’re totally useless.

    Sorry for the rant, but right now I feel pretty sensitive (angry, impotent, despairing) about the state of play!

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