THE BLOG
05/13/2016 03:32 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Humanitarian Responders: Are We Accountable to Beneficiaries?

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This month, the first ever World Humanitarian Summit is being held in Istanbul, Turkey. The timing and location could not be more apt. We are witnessing a rapid increase in humanitarian crises, from the West African Ebola epidemic, earthquakes in Nepal, Japan and Ecuador, to the intractable and brutal conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

A topic of discussion at the Summit is "Putting People at the Center," a special session calling on humanitarian responders to place the people who receive humanitarian assistance - beneficiaries - at the heart of their programs. That a special session on this topic must even be held could be considered something of an indictment of the humanitarian community. If we aren't already putting beneficiaries first, what exactly are we doing? And if we put beneficiaries at the center of our approach, how will our humanitarian actions change?

The key, I believe, is accountability. Accountability is most often used to describe responsibility to donors, to ensure that funds are being used legitimately as the donor intended, and in a way that provides a measurable impact. While this is vital, putting people at the center also requires accountability to our beneficiaries. As humanitarian responders, we have a duty to be accountable both to our donors and to those we serve on the ground. So how do we measure this accountability to beneficiaries?

This requires feedback mechanisms to give recipients a say in the aid they are receiving. These feedback mechanisms must be completely independent, and staffed by individuals separate from staff working on the direct provision of assistance. By separating the delivery of humanitarian assistance and beneficiary feedback into discrete functions, we can help ensure that beneficiaries - who are among the most vulnerable people - feel more comfortable discussing their concerns, as well as allow those collecting the feedback to give honest assessments to program implementers of what the community's needs are, as well as if the current assistance is effective.

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But having feedback mechanisms is not enough. We must act seriously on that feedback. It is essential to prioritize flexibility when responding in a new or dramatically changing environment. If people are not benefitting from your assistance, or if they have ideas on how it can be improved, that feedback must be heeded. Humanitarian crises are prone to remarkably rapid shifts in the local situation on the ground. One moment the primary concern may be shelter for recent arrivals, the next soaring food prices from surging populations putting pressure on limited supplies. Maintaining flexibility is the best way to adapt to changing circumstances, whether external shocks or changes in beneficiary needs.

At Global Communities, we have implemented a feedback mechanism for vulnerable displaced persons in Syria. We provide a hotline number to receive calls, text messages, or whatsapp messages from beneficiaries, and with every kind of assistance we deliver, we also provide a paper feedback form for beneficiaries to complete if they so choose. We learn a great deal through the feedback we receive. For example, we originally provided beneficiaries with kits of in-kind goods. After receiving feedback from beneficiaries that they would prefer vouchers, we changed our program to take this feedback into consideration. Now, an increasingly large portion of our assistance to program participants in Syria is distributed via vouchers.

It takes time, effort and clear communication with your donors, but putting beneficiaries' needs at the center of assistance better meets their needs. It is the responsibility of NGOs to listen to the needs of the community and both act upon them and inform our donors and supporters of those needs and how best to meet them. If we are not doing this, we are failing in our responsibility toward those we serve.

For any emergency humanitarian response to be truly accountable to beneficiaries, however, it must have a longer-term focus. Simply showing up to struggling communities, offering assistance, and moving on to the next town is not enough. By having a continuing presence in the community, a relationship can be built at all levels of the local society. In many ways, knowing from the beginning that your humanitarian response will be a longer-term commitment is the only way to build trust and accountability: local communities will not trust you if they know you are going to leave immediately after dropping off your assistance.

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This is especially important in the emergency relief context, where tensions are often strained to the breaking point by the stresses of the crisis. Short-term responses can exacerbate these tensions, with an influx of support or goods suddenly creating a problem of who gets what. On the other hand, longer-term programs that partner with the community can help alleviate this risk by forging partnerships that address community needs.

We often separate out humanitarian assistance from long-term development, but if we are going to build long lasting relationships that foster accountability, we must be prepared to work with communities long after the most immediate aspects of the crisis have ended. This will require a change in the way that humanitarian assistance is funded. The gulfs between urgently needed short-term funding and longer-term investment need to be bridged. Hybrid forms of funding that address the spectrum of needs must be developed to ensure our community practices this accountability.

One of the founding principles of humanitarian assistance is "do-no-harm," the idea that in a crisis humanitarian assistance can have unintended consequences, and we should strive to do no harm, or at least, not make things worse. By implementing real accountability to beneficiaries and putting them at the center of our work, I believe that we can truly live that principle.