From Tick Box to Turning Point: Getting Accountability Right for Improved Humanitarian Action

Doherty, J.
Publication language
Date published
20 Nov 2023
Research, reports and studies
Accountability and Participation, Accountability to affected populations (AAP), Change

The humanitarian system has been talking for decades about the need to be more accountable to people affected by crisis. Yet despite the efforts of some invested organisations and individuals, there has been limited progress in terms of positive outcomes reported by communities and the most marginalised individuals within them. Instead of being conceived as fundamental to the ways of working for the humanitarian system, in recent years, accountability to affected people (AAP) has become a technical area that is increasingly technocratic and siloed from the broader humanitarian endeavour. There is growing frustration from both people affected by crisis and from humanitarian practitioners over the lack of tangible progress from many years of discussion and initiatives.

There is, however, now a key window of opportunity to help make the necessary shifts a reality. The system is experiencing renewed interest in and commitment to accountability from multiple levels – from individual frontline staff up to the Emergency Relief Coordinator – and there is a nascent but growing evidence base that engaging in effective AAP increases humanitarian performance on a range of measures, including improved relevance of assistance and increased dignity for crisis-affected communities. A shared goal to improve accountability is emerging, but questions remain around how to get there. Tangible changes for communities will not be achieved unless AAP is owned by the broader humanitarian system, embedded into its operational architecture, and rooted in its culture. These structural changes require strong leadership-level engagement from both donors and operational agencies. If leaders are serious about making progress on accountability, they will need to focus their efforts on the specific challenges that have been holding progress back.

This paper identifies key challenges and essential issues that need to be addressed to create positive change for people affected by crisis. It draws on a synthesis of different types of evidence, including focus groups discussions with and survey data from people affected by crisis; a literature review; small round-table discussions with humanitarian decision-makers; and key informant interviews with policymakers and practitioners across the sector.

The paper offers humanitarian leaders within donor organisations and operational agencies 12 key recommendations; areas that they should invest in as they grapple with accountability as one of the key sticking points holding the humanitarian system back from making progress for crisis-affected people. The paper concludes by identifying key evidence and learning gaps to which agencies could contribute by documenting and sharing their learning, as they take steps to more firmly centre their work around the perspectives of people affected by crisis.