Who engages with whom? Who is accountable to whom? Can the development sector learn from the humanitarian sector?

20 March 2014

This blog was originally posted at the Participation, Power and Global Change blog from the Institute of Development Studies (University of Sussex).

Wow! The 29th Annual Meeting of ALNAP in Addis. This was memorable and eye-opening. But what is ALNAP? The Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action. Rather less memorable in full than as an acronym. But a vital orientation and a remarkable organisation. This annual meeting brought together for two intense days 170 people engaged in the sector. From a great range of over 100 organisations, with NGOs more than any other category, and international agencies, governments, universities, and the private sector in smaller numbers. An astonishing range of experience to have all in one room, and the largest ALNAP annual meeting so far.

And why was it memorable? For me it was one of those Rip van Winkle re-entries which for some reason seem to come my way more often these days. My time in the sector was long ago in UNHCR as its first evaluation officer in the mid 70s, and then in 1986 in a team evaluating the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies drought relieve operations in Africa in 1984-6. How radically things have changed since those days of relative amateurism and ignorance. In the mid 70s UNHCR was faced with many millions of rural refugees in Africa and did not have a single health, nutrition, agricultural, sanitation, water, settlement or other specialist. Though lots of lawyers, good at law. There were some large refugee settlements, but it was convenient to believe that most African refugees were best off left to fend for themselves. African hospitality would take care of them. Often not, I concluded, the case. And as for 1986 we wrote in our evaluation report that people had ‘a basic human right to be protected from incompetence’.

What a different universe it is now!

People in this conference were far, far more professional and experienced. Their concerns for accountability and performance have spread, deepened and evolved almost beyond recognition. There are now many guides, protocols, critical reviews and even organisations preoccupied with accountability to those affected by crises, outstandingly ALNAP itself.

The theme for the meeting was great – Engagement of crisis-affected people in humanitarian action. The overview and background paper by Dayna Brown, A Donini and Paul Knox-Clarke is excellent. The subject is vital because of the misfit and tension between urgent action to save lives and minimise suffering on the one hand, and listening, sensitivity, responsiveness, and supporting not undermining what people are doing and can do for themselves. And the many contexts and types of emergency or crisis challenge standard solutions. All this is pretty well known, so let me jump to what hit me in the face.

Volunteer with Afghan girls
Top-down measurement versus accountability to people

Paradigms are in tension. Underlying current debates and practice in the sector is a tug of war between the (Newtonian) paradigm of things, which is top-down with control, measurement, standardisation and upward accountability, and the (complexity) paradigm of people in which we find discretion, judgment, diversity and downward accountability. And there are contrasting concepts, language, values, methods and processes, relationships, mindsets and personalities that go with these. Top-down is driven and sustained by the real or imagined imperatives of crisis.

Take language. Beneficiary belongs to top down. It patronises. It begs a basic question, implying people do benefit. It ‘others’ those affected by crisis. It misfits equality, respect, listening and learning from people. Other words and phrases have been tried – crisis-affected people, and citizen (but this does not work so well for UNHCR with refugees). But again and again beneficiary is the word that is used. It is deeply, deeply embedded. And I dare say many see nothing wrong with it. One organisation has even appointed a Beneficiary Accountability Officer. Can’t we do better than this?

Then there are donors’ demands and ‘the system’. There was a view that to be ‘evidence-based’ the case for engagement and participation had to be supported by measurement. Others, myself included, felt the case was already overwhelming. When someone asked how many had read evaluation reports which blamed ‘the system’, a forest of hands went up. And participants lamented their experiences of how data demands forced them into gathering data for upward accountability at the cost of action, learning, adapting and accountability to affected people. Yes, a tragic trade-off, just as in the development sector. Read more.