Praise the Feedback, But Pass the Buck

After Haiti’s earthquake in 2010, a story about IOM’s then novel idea of putting suggestion boxes in camps for displaced people made the front page of the New York Times, writes Nick van Praag of Ground Truth Solutions.

Six years on, finding out what affected people think is no longer front page news but the participation revolution, as it was optimistically called at the World Humanitarian Summit in May, still has yet to ignite. Although there is some progress, there are still barriers to including people we once labeled ‘beneficiaries’ as full partners.

The good news is that we are no longer stuck in the lip-service phase, with a hard core of donors[1] providing additional funds for listening and communicating. We also have a critical mass of accountability organizations that have spent the last few years honing their methodologies and, increasingly, cooperating with one another.

To these efforts, add a growing number of operational organizations that seek to include the voice of affected people in what they do. And research groups, like the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP) and Overseas Development Institute’s (ODI) Humanitarian Policy Group, have provided evidence that accountability to affected people is not just right but also smart because it leads to better, more effective programs.

Why is going the last mile proving such a challenge?

Too much ticking of the proverbial box. There is a range of accountability and communication tools out there serving different purposes. They include Ground Truth’s representative feedback surveys, complaints mechanisms and communication with communities. But no one is asking questions about their relative merits or utility – or how they should be combined to ensure they make a difference. Instead we have the same old, same old.

Tyranny of the field.  Decentralized decision-making is mostly a good thing but when it comes to acting on a new paradigm of humanitarian action, staff in the field can bar the way to change, opting for easier approaches that tick the box (like complaints lines) but are only part of the story – or perhaps not part of the story at all.

Taped up. The humanitarian system is good at bogging things down and squeezing the energy out of new ideas. Making a task team of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) the locus of learning and coordination on accountability to affected people ensures the process gets tied up in red tape – despite the efforts of its coordinator.

Vertical disintegration.  Too many aid agencies practice vertical integration, bringing in individuals to deal with this latest big idea rather than hiring organizations with the necessary experience and confidence to push the accountability agenda ahead. Too often, the imported talent finds itself managed by people who don’t get it, leaving them marginalized and ineffective.  

Elusive incentives. We are still far from understanding the push and pull factors that drive compliance. Donors have a major role to play to make sure the incentives are aligned. So do managers inside agencies, especially if affected people say they are not happy.

Rethinking M&E. Accountability and its communications counterpart cost money. They also add value to traditional M&E. It is time to think harder about incorporating accountability to affected people in regular monitoring, boosting the chances these related activities get the funding they need while including the beneficiary perspective in the way implementation is monitored and evaluated.

The greatest obstacle to the participation revolution, however, is the pressure on the humanitarian system itself. With 65 million people in flight, the basics are increasingly questioned.

Exaggerated fears about outsiders leaves little room for actually listening to their point of view, let alone acting on what they say. The priority seems to be hanging on to what remains of the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence rather than pushing for the inclusion of new precepts like accountability to affected people.  

[1] ECHO, IKEA Foundation, Conrad Hilton Foundation, UK Aid, SDC and the US government.