How to Improve Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Operations

Posted on 20 October 2011

By David Bonbright and Nicholas van Praag

It is easier to listen than to act on what you hear. That is one of the lessons drawn by many of the groups pushing to give beneficiaries a greater say in the design of humanitarian programs.

Why then is progress so limited and what can be done to bridge the gap between listening to beneficiaries and acting on what they say?

There is a tremendous amount of work already under way—by the agencies themselves and the humanitarian standard setters like HAP and SPHERE, through ALNAP’s work in coalition building and knowledge-sharing, and thanks to an increasingly robust quality and accountability community. 

There has also been a lot of excellent thinking and writing on how to do better, notably the work of CDA’s Listening Project and the 2011 Humanitarian Emergency Response Review chaired by Paddy Ashdown.

So what more could be done to get traction?

We believe there are a couple of innovations that would make a big difference.

First, we need to ask beneficiaries the right questions—or rather ask them in ways that work in the fog of humanitarian programs, and formulate them so that they give aid agencies answers they can act upon.

This methodology must meet the litmus test of speed and simplicity while eliciting accurate data on beneficiaries’ needs, the relevance of the assistance they are getting, its effectiveness, and their trust in those providing aid.

Such a data stream would provide the basis for aid organizations to plan their operations and manage their performance in a way that includes the views of those they want to help. That is an important step forward.  But it is not enough.

Behavioral economics and the customer satisfaction industry have taught us that the power of comparing the performance of different actors is key in getting them to improve their game.

In other words, without the right structural incentives, aid providers are unlikely to heed beneficiary feedback. Thus, in addition to a new methodology for asking questions—and getting more useful answers—we need to make the data publicly available, tracking and ranking the relative performance of different humanitarian organizations across programs and over time. 

Such an index would act as a guide to donor support and an encouragement to aid agencies to take-up beneficiary feedback, so they score better in future.

This week the British government released its new humanitarian policy.  It talks about the importance of raising the quality of humanitarian support and ensuring better accountability, both to those served by humanitarian programs and to donors.

These goals are the right ones but they can only be achieved if we complete the cycle of accountability by making sure that the perceptions and insights of people in need figure prominently in the design and management of humanitarian programs. For this to happen, we need to give their views greater weight by collecting them systematically and publishing them in a form that allows ranking and comparison.

David Bonbright is the founder and director of Keystone Accountability. Nicholas van Praag is the director of Ground Truth, a Keystone project focused on accountability in humanitarian operations.

4 responses to How to Improve Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Operations

  • Great insights. I hope to hear more from beneficiaries as A Child’s Right water project learns from its real-time indicators project. Their staff stories are powerful, and the commitment to transparency is as innovative as I’ve seen. Lots of orgs could learn from that. But where is the “client” or “community” voice? Looking forward to how beneficiaries’ experiences can be incorporated with the data. Here’s a look at what they just launched: I raise some questions about it here:

    • You make excellent points — and underline the centrality of keeping beneficiaries front and center at all times. Having come back only yesterday from North Africa, the call for transparency and accountability is still ringing in my ears. A Child’s Right water project seems to have taken transparency and accountability to a new level. The project David Bonbright and I are launching (Ground Truth, a project of Keystone Accountability) will aggregate data from beneficiaries of humanitarian programs and make it publicly available. We hope in so doing to shine a light on organizations that are ahead of the field, and encourage others to follow their example in making sure that client or community voice is heard and heeded.

  • Felipe Cabezas says:

    Take a look at GlobalGiving’s storytelling project. It addresses many of the point listed in this post and has shown promising progress so far.

    • GG’s story telling project is a great example of listening to and learning from beneficiaries. I would like to learn more about progress to date. Our approach is to ask good questions – so aid providers get focused, actionable feedback – and then to aggregate that feedback and make it public, using the power of comparison to encourage better performance. The intent is very similar to GG. Getting closer to the client and placing her/him at the center of planning and implementation.

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