Since the late 1990s, as the aid sector has matured, agencies around the world have grappled with the challenge of becoming more accountable to their intended beneficiaries. IRIN spoke with aid watchdogs and NGO staff to assess the fruitfulness of these efforts in Sierra Leone, where a weak government has left NGOs with a central role.
Accountability has come to the fore as governments and disaster survivors increasingly demand greater answerability from aid agencies, using new technologies to communicate their views. Aid agencies have also recognized the perils of not prioritizing accountability; poor accountability weakens aid effectiveness, muddies adherence to humanitarian principles and can in some cases do overt harm, such as when aid agencies housed and fed killers in Congolese camps following the Rwandan genocide.
Here, IRIN focuses specifically on NGOs, who are responsible for the bulk of aid implementation in Sierra Leone, and not on UN agencies and other development actors. This focus is not intended to brush over the UN's own accountability efforts and challenges.
By the time Sierra Leone's 11-year civil war drew to a close in 2002, state institutions were shattered, corruption was endemic, and healthcare and basic services were sparse. In the face of weak government capacity, NGOs and UN agencies became major providers or supporters of the services usually considered the responsibility of the state. To a great extent, this has continued.
But a key difference separates the two service providers. If unhappy with the performance of the government, Sierra Leoneans can vote their leaders out of power, or at least try to. When NGOs fail to meet their responsibilities to the people they serve, there is no option to remove them.
Instead, it is hoped that efforts to increase transparency, community participation and feedback mechanisms will be a safeguard against poor performance.
Immediately following the war, when NGOs flocked to Sierra Leone, there was chaos, said Ibrahim Tommy, director of the independent Sierra Leonean non-profit Centre for Accountability and the Rule of Law (CARL). "Especially just after the war, there were a lot of [NGO] projects that did not do anything for anyone. But donors just wanted to fund anything that made them sound like they were involved in Sierra Leone. There was that period of madness," he told IRIN.
Since then, NGOs have made a lot of progress when it comes to accountability and effective programming. "There are gaps, there are challenges, but for the most part I think there is a shift towards NGOs asking themselves questions of accountability," said Tommy.
Voluntary accountability initiatives are flourishing: transparency has improved and NGOs are increasingly setting up feedback mechanisms to gather information on poor performance.
Increasingly strict accountability requirements are also being imposed by donor agencies."Every stage of the implementation cycle now has to have some level of community participation... and, of course, the monitoring and evaluation,” he said.
The NGO Save the Children, which has worked in Sierra Leone for decades, sees accountability as an essential part of its operations. "The best people who can tell us how we're delivering our services are the people who are benefitting from them," explained Kharifa Kamanda, the monitoring, evaluation, accountability and learning (MEAL) coordinator for the NGO in Freetown, the capital.
Save the Children is now testing a community feedback and response mechanism in 16 communities across the country, with plans for further expansion. The NGO held workshops and discussions with communities to examine the best ways of giving feedback, explained Kamanda. These consultations led to the creation of multiple lines of communication, including suggestion boxes at project sites, phone lines, and designated liaisons and contact groups in the community.
Staff publicized the system through posters and meetings, making sure they included women and children, whose voices can be stifled in Sierra Leone's male-dominated society. Save the Children also piloted a system for obtaining information from children too young to give it themselves, asking their older siblings to provide feedback.
They are currently applying for funding for a programme to obtain feedback via mobile phones from Sierra Leoneans involved in its teenage-pregnancy projects.
Culture of silence prevails
But Patrick Foday, a spokesman for Accountability Alert, a local NGO set up to promote accountability in the humanitarian and development sector, said that despite NGOs reaching out, there is a widespread reluctance to criticize.
"Very few people are complaining. There is a culture of silence in this country… But we are trying to sensitize people," he told IRIN.
Residents of Freetown's Kroo Bay slum, the target of many NGO projects, are largely unwilling to criticize NGOs helping the community, said Thonkla Koroma, a member of the local Ward Development Committee and the chairman of Kroo Bay's water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) committee.
"If someone is being good to you, you only praise that person," he told IRIN. He says the community would only complain about serious staff misconduct, in which case they would also approach the family support unit of the police.
When the NGO Concern drew down its operations in Kroo Bay, community members were disappointed but nobody complained, says Koroma.
"Back in the war, people were desperate for relief. Why would they question how it was delivered?" said CARL's Tommy. "And then inadvertently, by default, that became the modus operandi of NGOs. People just say, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you.' To them, it is a gift, a favour."
There is little awareness that NGOs receive external - often government - funding to run their projects. "The posturing of NGOs is something that has to change," notes Tommy. "Deliberately or inadvertently, NGOs create this impression that 'We are doing you a favour; it is from us'."
Koroma knows about feedback mechanisms in place in Kroo Bay, but says many others do not.
Turay, a Kroo Bay teacher, said he did not know of any complaint boxes that had been set up. He told IRIN he is only able to contact NGOs when their representatives visit the school twice a term. Neither did people seem to know what numbers they could call to lodge complaints.
"Information cannot reach everybody at the same time," Koroma told IRIN. "The reason why some might not understand is that all their energy is focused on just getting through the day. This is a deprived community." High levels of illiteracy pose further challenges to disseminating information, he said.
The physical maintenance of feedback systems is also a problem. Posters do not last long in the tropical humidity, and are often removed or obscured. Complaint boxes are removed or destroyed in the slum's annual floods.
In practice, strong existing networks in the community and regular community-NGO interaction seem to supersede many accountability initiatives. People are aware that connected figures like Koroma will always have access to the NGOs, and so communicate their concerns to him. And regular visits, meetings and assessments by NGO representatives offer further opportunities for the community to offer feedback.
Rebecca Benjamin, whose daughter, Isatu, attends a school supported by Save the Children, has little awareness of the feedback structures in place. Even so, she is confident that she would be able to register her complaints through teachers or other individuals in the community. She says she also has full confidence her grievances would be acted upon.
Responding to feedback
But collecting feedback is one thing - responding to it is another.
Save the Children has a team of staff dedicated to evaluation and feedback issues. "The response depends on the type of feedback," said Kamanda. Some queries can be quickly dealt with by the MEAL team. Complaints are referred to the relevant programme team, where they are assessed and appropriate action is taken.
Examples of complaints and improvements are often simple. Recently, for instance, two people contacted Save the Children to complain that they were not being given enough notice before trainings or workshops in their communities. Save the Children started to give more notice, and ultimately participation in the events increased.
But although some NGOs, ActionAid and Save the Children among them, have devoted significant time and resources to developing comprehensive feedback policies, they acknowledge there remains a gap between theory and practice, and that transparency does not go far enough.
Concerns over financial transparency
While feedback mechanisms are making headway, information about the financial expenditures and budgets of NGO operations remains largely hidden.
Save the Children shares basic budget figures at community meetings in the initial stages of a project, and they hope to start publicizing this information on billboards in communities soon, said Kamanda.
But while they and other major NGOs may outline broad organizational costs or wider budgets, they rarely give breakdowns on how they spend donor money. Aid professionals confirm that communities are rarely, if ever, informed about how much was actually spent on the construction of their local school or health centre, and how much on the salaries and living allowances of expatriate consultants.
In Freetown, one day's spending allowance for UN staff (US$249-290) can be more than most Sierra Leoneans earn in three months, and NGO staff move around town in fleets of gleaming white 4x4s. CARL and other members of the non-profit sector in Sierra Leone expressed concern that full financial disclosure would have negative consequences.
"There would be some resentment. Trust me. Some of the figures we're talking about would be resented in communities where people earn a dollar a day. When you have guys [NGO consultants] sleeping in a room for $400 a night, that's going to create some serious backlash," said Tommy.
The humanitarian sector has long been reluctant to accept external regulation or certification schemes. It would, they argue, simply create further bureaucratic hurdles and hinder NGOs' flexibility and effectiveness. As such, progress on accountability is driven by individual organizations themselves, and few consequences await those that fail to meet basic accountability benchmarks.
Voluntary initiatives like the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership-International (HAP-I), which set down codes and standards on accountability, [ http://www.irinnews.org/report/98307/setting-standards-for-the-aid-industry ] have grown rapidly, but binding membership in such bodies remains comparatively low. Local watchdogs, such as Accountability Alert, can raise awareness but lack the authority and funding to force major changes.
HAP-I's 2013 report stresses a need to shift from voluntary to official accountability. Voluntary codes and standards, it concludes, are a necessary part of the accountability apparatus, but are not in themselves sufficient.
Accountability Alert's Foday is frustrated by the pace of change. "So many white elephant projects have failed because they didn't consult [the community]" he told IRIN. "And now people are seeing the impact."