January 26, 2012

The accountability gap just got a whole lot smaller

Accountability. These days it seems to be an issue on everyone’s mind.

It forms part of the holy development trinity of results, transparency and accountability, so key to many donors’ agendas these days.

For a long time, the focus for donors on accountability was largely on the mutual accountability between themselves and partner governments – à la Paris Declaration. Since Busan, the focus has officially expanded to “the intended beneficiaries of our co‐operation, as well as to our respective citizens, organisations, constituents and shareholders.” It now makes up a central principle of all future development cooperation.

It has also long been a central tenet of the work of civil society organizations – who have long been pre-occupied with the mutual, multiple and multi-directional dimensions of accountability, as articulated most recently in the International Framework on CSO Development Effectiveness.

So it was with great interest that a couple of weeks ago I attended a presentation by members of the Policy Action Group on Emergency Response (PAGER) on beneficiary accountability in humanitarian situations.

Since the mid 1990s – and in response to the Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda – humanitarian organizations have established a range of codes of conduct to inform their actions – the Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response (the “Sphere Project”), the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership, and the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement Code of Conduct, among others.

All were developed with a view to both enhancing the quality of humanitarian practice and the accountability of humanitarian actors to their constituents, donors and affected populations.

Within this context, the issue of really targeted beneficiary accountability is a relatively new one.

In humanitarian disasters, where hundreds of thousands of lives may be at stake, one might think that rights and obligations take less precedence. Not so. Groups firmly acknowledge that all communities and citizens are entitled to principled, quality, informed and appropriate services, regardless of the situation they are in.

But providing accountability in the context of a humanitarian disaster – with massive flooding, displacement, starvation – certainly poses tremendous challenges.

Oxfam Québec has been working with other Oxfam affiliates to introduce an innovative set of initiatives to get feedback on how their humanitarian interventions are rolling out and being perceived by their beneficiaries – with a view to improving their practice based on feedback and ultimately reporting back to complainants about what has been done to address their concerns.

In Haiti, where 85 percent of the population own a mobile phone, Oxfam set up a free phone line, “Line 400”, to receive complaints or feedback. They set up focus groups discussions, complaint boxes, information boards and community meetings, and encouraged interaction with staff.

Based on an evaluation of how the process went in the first phase – for example, “Line 400” was challenged by insufficient human resources to staff the call-line; the complaint boxes had no clear procedure for defining how complaints would be addressed; and it did not always prove easy to provide feedback on how complaints had been resolve – the project has moved into a second phase.

This is establishing clear guidelines for each of the accountability initiatives in terms of transparency, standards, and complaint handling, training to staff to be able to implement the initiatives, pursuing processes to actively engage beneficiaries in the design and implementation, and constant evaluation with a view to continual improvement.

The Canadian Red Cross is also in the process of designing and piloting its own beneficiary accountability framework.

It has hired a Beneficiary Accountability Advisor to do three key things:
·         map what work other NGOs and Red Cross National Societies have done already in terms of developing accountability frameworks;
·         recommend an accountability framework and set of guidelines for the Canadian Red Cross to pilot; and,
·         identify and develop tools to implement the framework, and integrate it into the project cycle.

In terms of project cycle this means assessing situation specific needs through participatory tools, planning and designing projects that correspond to these needs, validating the project design through local beneficiaries to attest to the appropriateness of the design, implementing the design, and monitoring and evaluating outcomes with a view to continually improving their projects.

Since disasters challenge how easy it is to engage affected individuals in the process, the Red Cross has also thought through different levels of engagement (from information sharing and consultation, to delegating authority and controls to the communities over implementation and assessment) that are appropriate to the stage of the disaster (emergency, recovery, development).

And their approach to informing the communities about their programs is also creative, from posters and community theatre, to texting, community meetings and call-in radio.

We all know how essential accountability is to development. Who thought it could be so interesting and exciting as well?

This blog post was written by Fraser Reilly-King, Canadian Council for International Co-operation.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of CCIC or its members.

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