Accountability in action

DUBAI, 4 July 2012 (IRIN) - Accountability has become a buzz word in the aid industry in recent years, but in the eyes of many aid workers, it remains a luxury they cannot afford given the pressures and constraints of working in the field.

For Maria Kiani, senior quality and accountability adviser at the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP), “the debate isn't about principles versus pragmatism. It is about an approach that can be a principled pragmatism… It’s not about trying to fix the context; it’s how you work within that context.”

Here are some initiatives that have tried to make accountability a reality, even in the most difficult circumstances:

SMS/social media pilot, Somalia: The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) is piloting a new feedback mechanism in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu in which complaints or other feedback sent by text message are plotted onto an online map and filtered by theme and location. Affected people, partners, government or outside observers can search the site and track the response to each complaint, or subscribe to receive emails about specific topics. Some complaints are then shared on Facebook, Twitter, and a blog for further discussion.

“It’s a bit risky,” says the DRC director for Somalia, Heather Amstutz, “but it has shown us that it is possible.”

Humanitarian Communications Programme, Pakistan: What started as an experiment to find out why relief items given to displaced people in northern Pakistan were being sold on the open market has become a nationwide inter-agency humanitarian call centre, hosted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). It receives feedback and complaints on any aid operation in the country, whether delivered by the UN, NGOs or the government, and refers the complaint to the cluster or agency in question, which must try to resolve the issue within a specific period of time.

The programme has developed a “yellow pages” service directory for people in need, based on the 3W (Who is doing What, Where) model shared among humanitarian actors, and uses it to refer people to the right agency.

As part of the programme, IOM created a document with Frequently Asked Questions by beneficiaries like “Where should I get food?” or “What kind of documentation do I need to get assistance?” which was translated and distributed to field workers who then explain the answers to communities.

The HESPER Scale: The Humanitarian Emergency Settings Perceived Needs Scale is a free, user-friendly 15-30 minute questionnaire developed by King’s College in London and the World Health Organization. It combines survey research methods with qualitative interviews to assess the perceived needs of communities affected by natural disasters or conflict in a representative and scientifically sound way. World Vision has started using it in the field and is also considering turning it into an application for the iPhone.

Humanitarian Media Roster: Aid agencies have sometimes struggled to find “humanitarian communications” specialists in the midst of an emergency. In January, Internews launched a humanitarian media roster to try to fill the gap. As part of its so-called Transformative Agenda, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is also establishing a roster of senior experienced humanitarian leaders who can deploy within 72 hours to an emergency. The Assessment Capacities Project (ACAPS) is also building a roster of experts in needs assessment and preparedness, for quick deployment.

Accountability Working Group, Dadaab: When a multiplicity of actors asks the same communities for feedback in an emergency, affected people can experience “accountability fatigue”. To try to address this and other challenges, HAP helped create the Dadaab Accountability and Quality Working Group, where agencies working in the field can discuss issues relating to accountability and plan joint activities.

Anti-Fraud Hotline, Pakistan: The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has established a hotline for people to report corruption in any USAID-funded projects in Pakistan to Transparency International Pakistan and track the complaint.

In the Eyes of Others: Pushed to action by the killing of Médécins Sans Frontières (MSF) staff in Afghanistan and a confusion between MSF and the UN peacekeeping force in the Democratic Republic of Congo, MSF recently made an effort to understand how it was perceived by the people it was trying to help. The result was a book, published in April, called In the Eyes of Others. MSF says it has learned many lessons and changed its modus operandi since. For example, patients complained that MSF focused on neglected diseases, while malaria was the biggest killer, or that in places like the Middle East, it needed to focus on chronic diseases like diabetes instead of vaccinations and epidemics.

“This research has opened a lot of Pandora boxes on various aspects, from HR to medical management to security management to identity issues - redefining the principles of independence, neutrality, impartiality,” says Caroline Abu-Sada, MSF’s research unit coordinator in Geneva and editor of the book.

Dadaab Humanitarian Information Service: The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and other humanitarian partners are supporting the creation of a community radio station to be operated out of Dadaab refugee camp and run by Star FM. Internews will identify and train refugees and members of the host communities as reporters. As part of the effort to close the information gap between aid workers and affected people, other media have sprung up in Dadaab, including a small newsletter called The Refugee.

Communication project, southeast Kenya: World Vision and infoasaid are using text messages and a sponsored 45-minute monthly radio show to spread information about things like livestock prices, contents of food aid packages, and aid delivery dates. The radio show also allows World Vision staff to be available live on the show for questions.

“It works really well because… it creates space for communities and staff to have this ongoing dialogue,” says Madara Hettiarachchi, associate director for humanitarian accountability at World Vision International. “The community demands it.”

Solar chargers, central Kenya: ActionAid and infoasaid gave out 250 phones and solar chargers to drought-hit communities in Isiolo, central Kenya. Using technologies like Frontline SMS and Freedom Fone, they provided them with information about livestock prices and food distributions. But the equipment also saved aid workers trips into the field with 4x4s, allowing people to get in touch with aid hubs 24 hours a day by mobile phone.

“Obviously face-to-face is necessary, but this made communication more flexible,” says infoasaid’s Robert Powell, who helps aid agencies develop two-way communication with the people they are trying to help.

Humanitarian Crisis Map, CAR: In the Central African Republic, Internews and the Association of Journalists for Human Rights have launched a humanitarian crisis map, in which local journalists verify crowd-sourced information, plot it onto a map, and share it in real time with humanitarian actors, who can then share information on the map about their response.

Camp Committee Assessment Tool: Aid agencies often designate camp representatives as interlocutors for feedback and complaints - but they are not always representative, experienced or ethical. HAP has developed guidelines - including questionnaires and discussion guides - to help aid agencies assess the quality and representativeness of their camp committees.

UN Global Pulse: Started by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, this initiative aims to find ways to detect and aggregate digital signals in order to better understand people’s lives in areas that may not be accessible by aid workers, but where people are leaving behind a trail by using mobile phones or accessing digital services. Adding money to the mobile accounts could be a sign of good economic times. Selling off livestock could be an early predictor for a food crisis. “The true effects of a global crisis only become clear years later… when the damage is already done,” the Global Pulse website says. “Much of the data used to track progress toward the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), for example, dates back to 2008 or earlier - before the onset of the current economic crisis.” Giving humanitarians faster access to real-time information about people’s lives on the ground could enable faster decision-making and response.

The Listening Project: A project of the Collaborative for Development Action, a consulting agency, the Listening Project spent four years visiting 20 countries to speak to grassroots community members, government officials, religious and traditional leaders, teachers, health workers, business people, staff of local organizations, youth and children, women and men about their experiences as recipients of aid. Some of the lessons they learned can be found here.

ACAPS: The Assessment Capacities Project, an initiative of a consortium of NGOs, has developed a number of tools to help the humanitarian system carry out better needs assessments in a crisis, including background sheets with detailed steps to follow in different types of disasters. For example, what kind of technical information should you obtain following an earthquake? What is the likely impact of a flood?

Ground Truth project: Led by Nick van Praag of the charity Keystone Accountability, which aims to make non-profit organizations more effective, the Ground Truth project tries to bridge the gap between listening to affected communities and taking action. It is encouraging a new methodology for asking “the right questions” and organizing feedback in an actionable way. It is also trying to develop an index, by which aid agencies’ performance would be publicly rated based on the perceptions of affected people.

For more stories on humanitarian accountability, please visit our In-Depth

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