A report card for aid groups

Red Cross volunteers provided counselling to people affected by Cyclone Winston in Fiji, 2016. The meetings also allowed people to offer feedback on the humanitarian aid they had received. Credit: International Federation of the Red Cross

How much have humanitarians improved the way they deliver assistance in the five years since the sector launched a set of standards for its work? Practitioners from over 150 organisations met last week (virtually, of course) to answer that question.

It has been more than five years since the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability (CHS), a set of nine voluntary commitments meant to improve aid, was launched. More than 150 aid organisations came together last week in a virtual meeting to take stock of how far the sector has come in meeting them.

The report card was mixed. More than 100 humanitarian organisations have signed on to the commitments, though progress has been patchy and has not yet matched the overall ambition. That's according to the 2020 edition of the Humanitarian Accountability Report (HAR) , launched on the meeting's opening day, which sums up the extent to which the sector “is making aid work better for people affected by crisis.”

Localisation: steps in the right direction. The CHS preceded the 2016 Grand Bargain , another set of promises to improve humanitarian action in which some of the largest donors and humanitarian groups pledged to put more power - and funding - in the hands of local aid groups. Dr. Manu Gupta, co-founder of the NGO SEEDS, noted the CHS 'role in advancing this agenda. “It was a huge departure from the processes in place until then… [Developing the CHS] allowed us to recognise the importance of coordinating with and complementing local actors.” Described as a leveler of sorts, the CHS has put local organisations that have been verified for compliance against the standard, on the same footing as their larger international counterparts.

The degree to which “humanitarian response complements that of national and local authorities and other humanitarian organisations,” was an area in which aid groups scored relatively high in the accountability report. According to the report's authors, that indicates that “ CHS-verified organisations … are doing better in this area than the system as a whole.”

Change: more policy than practice. Paul Knox-Clarke, contributing author to the report and founder of the Climate and Humanitarian Crisis (CHC) Initiative, noted that for many organisations, the CHS provides a framework for quality and accountability. “There is energy, creativity and passion,” for these issues he said, speaking to The New Humanitarian. “It gives organisations focus, and pulls them in the right direction,” when it comes to improvement.

But change has been slow, as reflected in the underwhelming progress towards meeting the commitments overall. “There's no escaping that the average scores are low, even demoralising, given how long the sector has been working on these issues,” he said at the launch.

“All of the lights on the humanitarian dashboard are blinking red,” Knox-Clarke warned, given the global challenges facing the sector. “The slow overall rate of change and improvement doesn't suggest we will be ready to meet them.”

The report notes that aid groups generally perform better in “ establishing policies rather than those related to what staff do in practice”. As Arbie Baguios, founder of Aid Re-Imagined, an initiative to improve aid effectiveness, explained at the launch, “we are good at consulting experts and making perfect policies that don't match the realities or context on the ground.”

Feedback and complaints: a glaring blindspot. Organisations have done best in fulfilling the commitment around “coordination and complementarity”. They scored lowest on the degree to which they agree to welcome and address complaints - despite a sector-wide acknowledgment that this needs to change.

For issues such as sexual abuse and exploitation, this is particularly worrying, as recently highlighted in the 2018 Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “People don't always know their entitlements, they don't know the basics. How they can complain when we haven't been clear about what acceptable behavior is? ”Asked Knox-Clarke, speaking to The New Humanitarian. “We need to be explicit in telling people what they can and should expect, even saying clearly 'you should not be asked for sexual favours, and if you do, you should complain like this.'"

When feedback does come in, responding to it is also entirely at the discretion of the organisation that receives it, Salama Bakhalah, board member of the organisation Loop, pointed out at the launch. “Who chooses to collect feedback or who gets to analyse it?” she asked. “The answer to that is the agency providing the aid or the donor. If we want a different future for the sector, we need people affected by crisis to be at the core. ”

Alexandra Sicotte-Lévesque, community engagement and accountability manager for the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) told the New Humanitarian that she often sees Red Cross national societies struggling in this area. “A hotline isn't enough. These mechanisms can't be passive. They're pro-active and require resources - not only money, but people to collect and analyse this feedback. ”It's the analysis where the obstacles often lie. “You can capture all the community feedback you want, but if you don't have the capacity to analyse it, the data will just sit there and not be acted upon, making it an accountability problem in itself.”

She also points to the need for leaders to prioritise this information for decision making. “If the leader of my organisation asked, 'what does the community say about this?' then we'd go out and find it. Organisations are still top-down; we need leadership to own this and ask for it, ”she said.

It also comes down to what the sector values, and what is often valued is what is written and documented. Meaningful intangibles - like relationships and people's perception of whether they are treated with dignity - aren't captured by a written standard like the CHS. “There [may be] no documentary evidence of engagement, but [for some organisations], engagement of the communities is quite strong. They can't prove it though, because they don't have written evidence, ”said Baguios.

Without plugging into this, the sector remains out of touch. “Affected communities have their own ways of providing feedback - a group of people having a chat while getting water, in the background of weddings or [at a] local gathering. We aren't using that familiar way communities are already using, ”he said.

Room for learning and improvement. Aid is generally difficult to regulate and methods to do so, like the CHS, are voluntary. Reflecting on this, Bakhalah noted: “We are the only ones where we are answering the needs, delivering the needs, monitoring the needs, and reporting on the needs. That doesn't happen in any other industry. ”

Baguios sees potential for a mindset change and “unlearning the outdated mentalities that we still unconsciously carry in this line of work.” He proposed a union of aid recipients wherein citizen assemblies hold aid organisations accountable, like village committees that hold their governments to account.

The report recommends simplifying the focus of change to sustained efforts in three main areas: better engaging with people affected by crisis, improving information management, and being more flexible in responding to rapidly changing needs.

“Organisations are doing an awful lot of work and thinking to create solutions,” Knox-Clarke said. “There are areas of excellence we can build on but,” he cautioned, “real improvement is required.”

Last week’s virtual meeting offered an important opportunity to reflect on the CHS’ contribution, noted Mille Døllner Fjeldsted, head of humanitarian action and civil society at Denmark’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark (DANIDA). “It’s hard work and takes continuous learning,” she said. “Learning and improvement are imperative to do the best we can.”