'Participation', 'rights-based' and 'consultative' are all terms associated with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as the paradigm for humanitarian aid has shifted from agencies thinking they know best, to trying to put affected people at the heart of their aid responses. But when push comes to shove, and beneficiaries are unhappy with what they receive, do NGOs listen? And if so, how?
"There is still a huge gap between rhetoric and reality when it comes to beneficiaries actively taking part in informing agencies what their needs are, evaluating if and how they are being met, and how or if projects have changed their lives," said an aid analyst. "When things are not going well, often no one hears about it."
To some extent NGOs are financially accountable to donors, but on many levels they are forced to regulate themselves or each other, which has led to a panoply of accountability initiatives, codes of conduct and certification schemes, including, the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International (HAP-I), which certifies agencies that comply with six accountability benchmarks including information-sharing, beneficiary participation and addressing complaints; the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP); and the International Sphere Standards, which set minimal standards in disaster response.
Most experts say NGOs have made progress, but they still place far more emphasis on reporting back to donors than they do on evaluating their impact on beneficiaries, particularly when things go wrong, according to John Mitchell, director of ALNAP.
The same can be said for UN agencies, all of those consulted told IRIN, but this report focuses primarily on NGOs, which carry out most of the face-to-face work with beneficiaries in emergencies, and draw their legitimacy mainly from accountability to them.
Is the donor the client?
One of the reasons for the emphasis on donors, said Mitchell, is that NGOs have no choice but to be funding-driven. "Agencies collect the vast amount of information, including from beneficiaries, at the beginning - assessment stage - of an intervention, and put fewer resources into collecting feedback during and after, and it is the financial imperative that drives this," he told IRIN.
So many unforeseen external variables can affect a response - politics, price fluctuations, security - that it is often easier to excuse away the bad, and emphasise the good, particularly where donors are concerned, said one agency staff member.
Why is feedback so hard to organise?
|...Assessing the impact of a programme over time is complicated, time-consuming and expensive...|
A major constraint is that emergencies demand speed. In fast-changing situations, assessing the impact of a programme over time was "complicated, time-consuming and expensive" said Mitchell, and NGOs did not necessarily prioritise this over other activities.
"It is very difficult for agencies that parachute in and are in a hurry to get operations started as quickly as possible; they lack the understanding to appreciate the social context and don't have the time to discuss the situation in depth," Mitchell pointed out.
There are also cultural barriers. In a study by HAP-I, ‘To complain or not to complain: still the question’, conducted in emergency-affected areas of Kenya, Namibia and Thailand, researchers found that communities in Namibia and Kenya would complain at will, while refugees on the Thai-Myanmar border felt they would 'lose face' if they did so.
"So we had to redesign our feedback so that the Karen refugees [on the Thai-Myanmar border] didn't have to frame it in terms of 'complaining' per se," said Katharina Samara, regulatory services director at HAP-I.
Feedback systems have often been cast in Western moulds, which do not necessarily translate globally. Christian Boehm, adviser with the Danish Refugee Council's (DRC) programme and policy support unit, told IRIN: "We set up a complaints box system in Chechnya, which worked well because they are literate and entitlements-focused, but it fell flat in Uganda, where people cannot read or write and had no idea what they could expect from an aid response."
And complaints threaten agency staff. When the NGO, CARE International, set up complaints mechanisms during their Peru earthquake response, staff were reluctant to support it, fearing they might lose their jobs if beneficiaries complained about them or their projects.
Photo: Abdullah Shaheen/IRIN
|Food delivery in Afghanistan|
Complaining about aid worker misconduct
When it comes to complaining about the misconduct of aid workers themselves - for instance, if they are directly involved in sexually exploiting and abusing beneficiaries - NGOs often underestimate the difficulty these people may have in coming forward, according to HAP-I's Samara.
"It's amazing that we ask people about the most egregious failures of accountability they may have ever encountered - such as sexual violence and abuse - when they're uncomfortable even telling us they don't like the food we're distributing, or if an aid worker has been rude to them," she said.
In a study by Save the Children, ‘No one to turn to’, it became clear that victims were reluctant to complain about the abuses taking place because they feared losing future aid, they did not want to create problems for their fellow beneficiaries or be seen as trouble-makers, and they were scared of retaliation.
Because of such concerns, indirect complaints mechanisms often work more effectively than direct ones, as the Danish Refugee Council's Boehm learned in Uganda. "When we formalised our complaints system there, the complaints stopped coming in altogether, so we had to shift our strategy to make it more indirect," he said.
Encouraging beneficiaries to complain
Some NGOs are already fairly adept at putting beneficiary-feedback centre-stage. CARE International has been working on the issue for years and has set up response mechanisms in a number of emergencies, including Cambodia and Peru; it is now working on toughening the standards.
After the 2007 earthquake in Peru, CARE set up a free complaints telephone line for villagers, advertising it on radio, leaflets and posters, and in workshops. It received 300 complaints over a period of four months.
"Families who have received tents from CARE are on my land," said one recorded telephone call. After verifying that the land was private, CARE helped negotiate an agreement.
"We cannot sleep at night because delinquents are damaging the tents," said another caller, so the NGO convened a meeting with community leaders to agree on security measures.
The NGO developed a better programme as a result. "Strengthening our accountability in Peru enabled us to reach populations we may not have reached, and resolve problems we may not have otherwise been aware of," its lessons-learned document commented.
The Danish Refugee Council is currently developing culturally-specific complaints mechanisms in Iraq, Chechnya and Uganda that include text messaging, free phone lines, community feedback sessions, and complaints boxes, among other mechanisms.
NGOs and their UN counterparts may still have a long way to go, but many are
showing a willingness to improve their accountability to beneficiaries: 22 organisations, including three donors are members of HAP-I, and three NGOs - the Danish Refugee Council, MERCY Malaysia and the Senegalese NGO, OFADEC - have already achieved the HAP-I certification standard.
Broadening the scope
Save the Children is expanding the idea, using complaints about sexual violations as its starting point, to call for umbrella complaints mechanisms to be set up across agencies, NGOs and the UN to encourage accountability.
It is calling for UN agencies and NGOs to set up joint grievance mechanisms on sexual abuse and exploitation perpetrated by aid workers, with a global watchdog to ensure that individual agencies follow up on each complaint.
"This could go wider, to discuss any kind of grievance ... this should be standard as part of every humanitarian response," said Corinna Csaky, Save the Children's protection advocacy adviser.
Going beyond complaints
|...A stand-alone complaints system is not going to lead to a good accountability system...|
But listening to complaints is just the start. "A stand-alone system is not going to lead to a good accountability system. You need to be able to follow up on the complaints," Jock Baker, quality, standards and accountability coordinator at CARE International told IRIN.
Before you put in a complaints structure, you need a strong communications system in place, so people know what they are supposed to be receiving, and know to complain when they don't receive it," he continued.
This can be a burden. "In Chechnya, one in two refugees was complaining that the food wasn't good enough, the tents weren't good enough, the boots were the wrong size - it was very burdensome to process all of these complaints," said Boehm.
And it costs. While donors are increasingly pushing for better accountability and quality programming in agencies and for themselves they are not always willing to fund feedback mechanisms, Mitchell noted.
However, they are starting to incorporate the accountability principle more centrally in their own guidelines and assessments. The European Commission's humanitarian funding body, ECHO, now includes beneficiary accountability in its risk assessment guidelines to auditors, and accountability features in the 2007 NGO humanitarian funding guidelines of DFID, the UK development agency.
Some donors, like the Danish development agency, DANIDA, are willing to create separate funding streams for beneficiary complaints. "Donors are starting to learn from experience that unless you put in good accountability systems, you're wasting their money," Baker pointed out.
"Yes, it costs," he added, "but my question is not, 'What is the cost?' but, 'What is the cost-benefit?' My sense is: if you invest adequately in quality and accountability, then you'll always get a good return."