Saturday, May 30, 2009

Accountability and humanitarianism...

From the Global Governance Watch website, we learn of an interesting development in terms of the rising demand for global administrative law within the fields of humanitarian aid and intervention. The Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) has released its 2008 Humanitarian Accountability Report. It assesses a wide range of different organisations, from IGOs (the World Bank, the UNHCR, IOM, NATO, IAEA, amongst others), NGOs (Transparency International, ICRC, IOC, again amongst many others), and transnational corporations (amongst which are Haliburton, Goldman Sachs, Royal Dutch Shell and Carrefour); and it contains the following five chapters:

Chapter 1: An Overview of Humanitarian Accountability in 2008. The opening chapter provides an overview of materials relevant to humanitarian accountability published in 2008. The purpose of the annual humanitarian accountability essay is to offer an informed and independent view of progress made by the humanitarian system towards meeting HAP’s strategic vision of “a humanitarian sector with a trusted and widely accepted accountability framework, which is transparent and accessible to all relevant parties”.

Chapter 2: Survey of Perceptions of humanitarian accountability. This chapter reports on the fourth annual survey of perceptions of humanitarian accountability.

Chapter 3: Voices of disaster survivors. During 2008, HAP staff held extensive discussions with communities affected by disasters. Some of the direct quotes recorded at various locations are presented here.

Chapter 4: Members’ Accountability Workplan Implementation Reports. In preparing for the 2009 General Assembly, most of HAP’s members prepared summary accountability workplan implementation reports. These are presented in tabulated form in this chapter.

Chapter 5: The HAP Secretariat Annual Report. This chapter was prepared by HAP staff and provides a self-assessment of progress achieved against the objectives set out in the 2008 workplan and the headline targets described in the 2007-2009 medium term strategic plan.

According to GGW, the general conclusion is that the major players in the field could do better:

The organization’s 2008 report reveals that there is room for improvement across the humanitarian sector. The report cites a study completed by One World Trust, which annually compares a select grouping of NGOs, IGO, and corporations, underscoring the need for UN accountability reform. In particular, UNICEF and UNHCR scored less than 30 points out of a possible 100 on organizational transparency.

Actually, digging a little deeper, the HAP is itself an extremely interesting body from a global administrative law perspective. It styles itself "the humanitarian sector's first international self-regulatory body", and, amongst other things, develops standards for measuring accountability and quality of service within humanitarian aid institutions, and "certifies those members that comply with the HAP Standard in Humanitarian Accountability and Quality Management". Its 2007 Standard in Humanitarian Accountability and Quality Management, "a quality assurance tool for humanitarian organizations", sets out the following six "benchmarks":

1. The agency shall establish a humanitarian quality management system.
2. The agency shall make the following information publicly available to intended beneficiaries, disaster-affected communities, agency staff and other specified stakeholders: (a) organisational background; (b) humanitarian accountability framework; (c) humanitarian plan; (d) progress reports; and (e) complaints handling procedures.
3. The agency shall enable beneficiaries and their representatives to participate in programme decisions and seek their informed consent.
4. The agency shall determine the competencies, attitudes and development needs of staff required to implement its humanitarian quality management system.
5. The agency shall establish and implement complaints-handling procedures that are effective, accessible and safe for intended beneficiaries, disaster-affected communities, agency staff, humanitarian partners and other specified bodies.
6. The agency shall establish a process of continual improvement for its humanitarian accountability framework and humanitarian quality management system.

Haven't had time to look into this in much detail, but it is certainly a striking example of the kind of dual-natured global administrative body that are becoming more and more common - that is, an entity that is at once an oversight body and an administrative body in its own right (i.e. insofar as it develops standards, grants certifications, etc.). The other immediately striking feature of the report and the Standard is the apparent focus on the managerial side of accountability (as opposed to a more robustly legal side). I have blogged on this focus within the field of humanitarianism before, on the issue of the Save the Children report on sexual abuse of children by aid workers; this HAP Report seems to take a very similar approach (indeed, the Save the Children report is itself reffered to with approval). A quick search of the 204-page report, for example, reveals that the term "criminal" does not appear, and there do not seem to be many - if any - real references to legal accountability mechanisms at all (for example, at p. 17 we learn that the "an organisation’s accountability capabilities [one of the categories in the table provided at the outset to this post, which can be found at p. 17] are measured by assessing the integration of key good practice principles in policies and procedures and the existence of management systems to support their implementation"). The key issue remains: managerial forms of accountability are certainly necessary; but are they - in this of all fields - even remotely sufficient?


Matthias said...


Thank you very much for this post. HAP is indeed a striking example for a managerial approach to human rights, as well as for governance by discursive framing. The Humanitarian Accountability Report seems to be based on the HAP's own "2007 Standard in Humanitarian Accountability and Quality Management". As far as I can see, the standard was developed in a largely secretariat-driven process (, which included interviews with victims and field workers. According to their website, the secretariat staff does not include a legal officer.

With this standard, HAP seems to aim at some kind of certification scheme for disaster relief. While the need for humanitarian standards in the field of disaster relief seems obvious given the great number of governmental and non-governmental agencies involved in such situations, I am a bit concerned about the legitimacy and transparency of the standards as well as about the risk of some kind of "humanitarian wash". I am not competent to assess the content of the standard. The only thing I can say is that they seem to be fairly broad. Perhaps somebody else could fill me in? However, I am a bit worried that they characterize the HAP standard and quality management as "Simple, really!" (bottom of first website I mentioned). Further, the standard is sold on the one hand as an "industry standard", reflecting "a broad consensus" (, while it is elsewhere recognized that the standard only provides a "level of attainment" that yet has to become a true standard by way of adoption by the relevant stakeholders( That leaves me a bit confused, and I have doubts whether this is a good basis for a certification process.

Euan MacDonald said...

Many thanks for the further detail, Matthias, and the links - it's not an area I'm hugely familiar with, but I share your concerns; generally speaking, there doesn't seem to be enough recognition that the type of standard-setting inherent in certification processes is itself and exercise of public power that must be transparent, participatory, accountable, etc. Although I haven't done the research to know what steps HAP takes to address this. An interesting area though...

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