DUBAI, 4 July 2012 (IRIN) - At the highest levels, humanitarian aid agencies are increasingly realizing the importance of being accountable to the people they are trying to help, with several important developments on the policy front in the last decade. But as field staff try to put the lofty concepts into practice, they face many challenges, from the basic (people don’t always understand the word “complaint”) to the complex (how to be accountable when managing a project remotely due to insecurity).
“Some [organizations] might have very public commitments to accountability,” says Maria Kiani, senior accountability adviser with the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP), “But those procedures, practices don’t [always] trickle down to the field operation sites.”
Here is some advice on getting and acting on feedback from affected communities:
Get buy-in from all stakeholders
Accountability mechanisms can be met with resistance from many sides: your organization’s management, your field staff, the government, or other humanitarian partners you hope to engage.
“The number 1 challenge would be… buy-in from your partners,” says Maria Ahmad, who manages a humanitarian communications programme for the International Organization of Migration (IOM) in Pakistan.
Take the time before you start a programme to make the various stakeholders more receptive to the idea. Re-assure your staff that accountability is more about a “culture of learning”, as TearFund puts it, than a “policing” mechanism. Creating an equivalent feedback system for staff may help reinforce this idea.
Understand the local information eco-system
Understanding how people communicate in any given context is crucial. Two-way communication is a central part of accountability - but aid agencies often forget to consult affected people before designing those communication channels. If the people affected have not helped shape your communications mechanisms, they are unlikely to use it.
For example, a recent assessment by media development organization Internews in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya found that most communications at the camp level happened verbally through pre-established camp administration and other networks among social groups. But the assessment found that many residents did not trust these channels, preferring radio, mobile phones and friends or family, and that verbal information took weeks to reach its targeted audience, “if it reaches them at all.”
“We end up in many occasions operating based on assumptions rather than knowledge,” says Jacobo Quintanilla, director of humanitarian information projects, at Internews. “If you can understand how the information flows, or the information ecology, you can more successfully set up accountability mechanisms.”
Speak their language
Beyond the challenges of translating expressions like “accountability framework” and “feedback mechanism” into local languages, the concepts themselves may be foreign to local people.
“It is all very well agreeing that we need to be more accountable, but what constitutes accountability for an elderly woman living in rural South Sudan, or a young Japanese man who has recently survived a tsunami,” Karyn Beattie, an independent consultant who has worked with TearFund in the past, writes in the October 2011 issue of the Humanitarian Exchange magazine, which focused exclusively on accountability. She describes the word “accountability” as elusive and complex.
In areas where people are accustomed to traditional community dispute resolution systems, for example, they may be skeptical about the idea of complaining to an NGO.
The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) has struggled with this in West Africa, where “there is a culture that we should not criticize, because if we criticize, there will be trouble,” according to its global accountability focal point Niels Bentzen. There, they have replaced the expression “complaint mechanism” with “feedback” or “letter box mechanism”.
Have a viable complaints system
A complaints system that is not understood or owned by the people is unlikely to have impact. Explain what your accountability mechanism is, how you work with affected people, what their entitlements are, and how they can give feedback and be part of the process.
Actively seek out complaints on a regular basis instead of waiting for them. Raise awareness about the complaints mechanism.
“One of the constraints is to make sure that people really understand their entitlements,” says Olivier Beucher, director of DRC’s programmes in Lebanon and Syria.
“They often don’t know about their rights because we don’t tell them,” HAP’s Kiani adds.
Ensure everyone has a voice
In an effort to engage with affected people, aid agencies have often turned to community representatives or camp leaders as interlocutors. These community committees are not always representative, but rather “self-selected elder men who hold these positions of power”, according to Gregory Gleed, a member of HAP’s roving team. Thus, people may not be comfortable complaining about community leaders or sensitive issues through this forum, and the confidentiality of verbal feedback cannot be assured.
“When working well, committees may ensure greater community ownership and empowerment, access to local knowledge, and enable more efficient programme design and delivery,” HAP says. “When working poorly they may be linked to corruption, exploitation and abuse; the needs of diverse groups (including women, men, children, elderly, disabled, and other groups) not being identified or blockages in key information.”
According to a study by the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) of its communication with people affected by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, women and people over 50 are the most information-deprived in a disaster situation. In several circumstances - in Dadaab and Mogadishu - camp leaders and community representatives were found to be charging money for information or relief. Holding separate meetings for women and girls, men, youth and ethnic minority groups can help ensure that all affected people have a voice. This may require respectful negotiations. Ensuring you have enough female outreach workers to interact with women in the community is another good way to engage with the more isolated.
Take sensitivities into account in your programming
For many aid agencies, context-specific sensitivities have posed a challenge to implementing accountability mechanisms.
“Cultural sensitivities can play havoc with your message,” says Ahmad, of IOM in Pakistan. Advertising a hotline for victims of rape and sexual exploitation, for example, would “create an uproar” once translated into Urdu, she says, because communities would be offended by public reference to the word “sex”. Before putting out any message to affected people, Ahmad recommends asking your national staff: `Would your mother listen to this? Would it be ok if you were saying this to your sister? If your government heard this, would they find it offensive?’
Similarly, when designing feedback mechanisms, be aware of the sensitivities. An NGO in Pakistan had good success with complaint boxes in the south, but received no feedback when it used the same mechanism in the north - people affected by civil war in the north were afraid the information would be misused, Kiani said.
Build accountability into budgets and staff responsibilities
Some accountability mechanisms can be expensive. Think of the human resources needed to communicate information in camps and to translate documents; the cost of toll-free numbers or text messages; and the staff required to man a call-centre. In Pakistan, a project to give cash assistance to 1.1 million people affected by floods cost $2.2 million in communications - spreading information, receiving feedback and making referrals - alone. Factor the costs in advance and include them in your grant proposal.
The IFRC’s beneficiary communications programme during the provision of shelter at a camp for people displaced by the Haitian earthquake had a separate budget and terms of reference. Staff are more likely to follow through with something that they are required to report on. Include “responding to beneficiary feedback” in employees’ responsibilities and performance evaluations.
Another gap has been adequate staff with the right skills. “Effective communication with communities is a specific and important technical area of work, separate from PR or external relations,” says Imogen Wall, a communications specialist who worked with the UN during the Haiti earthquake.
Re-assure your staff
A common challenge in implementing accountability mechanisms is reaction from staff, who often see feedback and complaints mechanisms as a way of policing them.
“The word `complaints’ can be threatening to people,” says Madara Hettiarachchi, associate director for humanitarian accountability at World Vision International.
“The first time, when you speak to staff about this, they immediately say, `you are giving our beneficiaries a possibility to undermine us, to try to gang up against us, and you are giving us no defences’,” DRC’s Bentzen says.
But researchers have found that negative perceptions by staff of accountability usually stem from a lack of understanding of the concept.
Technology is not the silver bullet
While technology, like Frontline SMS, has helped fill gaps in accountability and communication with affected people, it still requires human resources to be effective. For example, Ushahidi (the crowd-sourcing mapping software) helped identify areas of concern in Haiti, but detailed needs assessments and field visits were needed afterwards to complete the picture.
“Twitter, Facebook and blogs can all be used for communication, though harnessing these real-time but indirect channels, and utilizing them in an effective way, remains a challenge,” Gwyn Lewis and Brian Lander, co-chairs of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Sub Group on Accountability to Affected Populations, wrote in Humanitarian Exchange. “Information communicated through these means can be difficult to verify and may not be consistent or accurately reflective of needs.”
After the eruption of Mount Merapi in Indonesia, local community group Jalin Merapi used twitter, SMS and Facebook to inform people of what was happening and get feedback on their needs. To close the loop, they communicated these to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) for further action.
Coordinate your accountability mechanisms
After the 2004 tsunami in Asia, many NGOs began conducting meetings with affected communities. “All of us want[ed] to be accountable,” says Quintanilla, of Internews. This led to “meeting after meeting” in the same community.
Given beneficiaries have a hard time differentiating between aid agencies, in many contexts, joint or at least coordinated accountability mechanisms would go a long way.
But there are clear risks, as Lewis and Lander, of the IASC sub-group say:
“If, in the case of a joint feedback/complaints system, one organization does not respond in a timely and systematic manner, what was initially feedback can become a complaint. If there is no follow-up on a complaint and corrective action is not taken, this can become an even more serious issue, potentially posing a threat to all organizations working in a community, because everyone is seen as equally culpable and confidence in the whole system is weakened.”
“Expectations are raised when communities are asked for feedback,” David Bainbridge, Tearfund’s international director, wrote in Humanitarian Exchange.
Gleed, of HAP, warns against making too many promises in the assessment phase, not only to affected communities, but to government and other stakeholders: “Agencies that go in with clear-cut messages - we can and can’t do this - from the outset, are less likely to disappoint the communities they are working in.”
When you cannot meet someone’s needs, refer them to another agency that can.
Explain that your organization is dependent on funding and that you may not be able to do more than one project in the same community.
Researchers have found that affected people recognize, respect and appreciate the limitations of agencies that communicate well and involve beneficiaries in their programming.
Some advice from Bryony Norman, a programme officer with Tearfund who has just completed a study on accountability in insecure environments: “We encourage staff to begin all discussions with the statement: `This part of the discussion I’m having with you is for Tearfund learning… to enable us to improve what we do… We want to listen to your feedback… and we want to be continually learning, but it does not mean that Tearfund will be able to do everything you have asked’.”
During the 2004 tsunami in Asia, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) stopped accepting funds at one point because it believed it no longer had the capacity to spend more money.
Look for ways to be adaptable
Many aid workers have pointed to the tension between accountability to donors and accountability to affected people, with donors’ reporting requirements often making it difficult for aid agencies to adapt their programmes according to feedback from affected people.
“The biggest challenge appears to be achieving the rigour required for donor accountability, while being flexible enough to include the voices of affected people,” write Paul Knox-Clarke and John Mitchell of the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP).
Some have suggested setting aside a certain amount of money in every project to allow aid agencies to change course, if necessary. But while donors are increasingly recognizing the need to be flexible, they have not reached the point of including such a budget line.
Try seeking out sources of funding that allow for more flexibility. Privately funded organizations like MSF and community-based organizations do not need permission from donors to change course and thus can respond faster than those who have to wait for institutional funding.