The Question of Accountability

This article that featured on the Guardian Development Poverty Matters blog yesterday triggered a long discussion in our office. Written by a former lecturer of mine when I was at SOAS, Michael Jennings controversially suggested that NGOs should be held legally accountable for their actions and projects implemented in the countries they work in.

The principle of accountability is incredibly important, ensuring that the needs of beneficiaries are met, improving transparency and working alongside communities to design projects that are culturally appropriate and beneficial.

However there are unintended consequences of many well-intentioned interventions, either due to cultural misunderstandings or a variety of other factors that often arise in complex disaster settings. There are indeed no legal frameworks holding NGOs to account, and whilst there are many guidelines and codes of conduct that organisations can choose to sign up to, none of these are legally binding.

Therefore Jennings suggests that: ‘New legal frameworks are needed to hold NGOs to account for the unintended consequences of development interventions’.

But should communities be able to legally hold NGOs to account? Under a legal framework this could leave international organisations wide open to abuse, and create a compensation culture – as Jennings rightly points out. NGOs who take the risk to respond in difficult and dangerous situations in order to help vulnerable people might be discouraged from intervening if any problems or mistakes (almost inevitable in disaster situations) could be construed as grounds for litigation.

I wholeheartedly agree that the motivation for NGOs should primarily be to the beneficiaries, and accountability should be bottom-up (feedback from communities) as well as top-down (being accountable to donors). However, in cases where interventions are not successful, or where errors are made in implementation causing damage or even loss of life there needs to be stricter guidelines to avoid this happening in the future.

Yet implementing a legal framework may cause more problems than it solves. How would such a framework be enforced? Who has the right to take legal action under such a framework; the community? As I have seen this week, if the communities are given the power to take legal action against NGOs when they are not satisfied with the project this would bankrupt many organisations. One group were unhappy with the design of a project – a wooden structure proposed instead of concrete, another community complained there were not enough houses built in their area. They are all genuine needs and requirements, but not always possible to respond to due to donor budget constraints. Communication with the communities can be improved, to avoid making promises or raising expectations, and feedback from the communities can help enable project delivery to be done to a high standard.

Perhaps governments should be given the power to vet and hold NGOs to account, although in countries where government administration has been weakened by conflict or a natural disaster such as inHaiti, this may lead to abuses of power.

Taking Haiti as an example can demonstrate both the failures, and successes of accountability. The influx of hundreds of NGOs after the earthquake meant coordination was almost impossible, with over 900 NGOs arriving into the capital within a few weeks of the disaster. In the emergency response, the priority was to get food, shelter and water to those who needed it most. Now that the situation inHaitiis calmer, the longer term consequences of such actions are revealed. There is still a deep culture of dependency, focusing on rights to something rather than taking responsibility for it.

We received a request for more financial support from a local business we supported this week, instead we gave them more financial management training to demonstrate how they can use their existing profits to expand and grow their business, encouraging and empowering them with the skills to build the business long after our organisation leaves. Was this wrong not to give them what they wanted? In the future could this be used as grounds for not having responded to their needs? It is a difficult call, and a blurry line that would not be any clearer even with legal guidelines in place.

Suggesting a legal framework as the only possible way to ensure that NGOs are held to account undermines the valuable work that organisations such as the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership do in certifying and auditing NGOs that sign up to their standards, ensuring that high levels of transparency and beneficiary accountability are prioritised across the organisation. Again, this is a voluntary scheme that invites NGOs to join rather than enforcing universal principles of accountability upon humanitarian organisations. Yet donors are beginning to follow suit, and over the past ten years there has been a definite shift towards improved accountability across humanitarian organisations.

Yes, development and humanitarian responses need to change and I believe there is evidence of an increasing momentum towards improved levels of accountability. Donors are more likely to support organisations who can demonstrate a grassroots level of accountability, consultation with beneficiaries and participation in projects. I don’t believe the only way to ensure greater accountability to beneficiaries is through implementing a legal framework. There is a paradigm shift taking place, and organisations are increasingly called to account for their actions, encouraged to learn from their mistakes and pushed to improve accountability mechanisms.

The millennium saw the World Bank launch their series of ‘Voices of the Poor’ reports, giving voice to people in poor communities. That is what beneficiary accountability is about, listening to the voices of those we are seeking to help, and taking into account their needs for a more effective humanitarian intervention. Over a decade later, the discussion is still ongoing, with some NGOs such as Engineers Without Borders bravely publishing their mistakes made in a bid for greater transparency. As we seek to improve humanitarian interventions, let us not forget the voices of the poor, giving them a rightful place and according them dignity in response to their needs.


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