Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the Coventry University's online course, Disaster Interventions and the Need for Evaluation, Accountability and Learning. Join the course to learn more.

Accountability and transparency

The ‘accountability’ part of MEAL has become a shorthand term commonly used in the disaster and humanitarian sector to infer the need to undertake monitoring, evaluation and reporting of findings. However, this focus on accountability can be problematic.

First of all, it can result in a narrowing of the purpose of monitoring and evaluation, which is to account for actions to stakeholders. Secondly, it can negatively influence the appropriateness and rigorousness of the methodology used, and the transparency and availability of the underpinning data.

Historically, accountability was largely synonymous with performance reporting, usually to head office and donors. Reports typically demonstrated that what the project set out to do had been done, in the way it was originally proposed, within the resource constraints originally defined. Increasingly, this ‘upward’ performance reporting is not viewed as sufficient.

The following is taken from Hilhorst (2002, p. 203), published as the quality and accountability ‘crisis’ in humanitarian action was at its height:

NGO accountability is often defined as ‘the means by which individuals and organisations report to a recognised authority, or authorities, and are held responsible for their actions’ (Edwards and Hulme, 1996, p. 8). In order to be accountable, organisations have to be transparent and responsive regarding their compliance with agreed standards on organisational policies and practices. Accountability, seen this way, requires agreement on clear roles and responsibilities, and a set of agreed standards of performance or at least a set of clear objectives against which performance can be measured.

As citizen engagement approaches have been integrated into disaster and humanitarian practice, the means of achieving transparency has been a challenge. Simply providing reports and raw data in the public domain (eg online) rarely aids transparency; often the effect is quite the opposite. Acting transparently requires those communicating to ensure information is:

  • Relevant – where evaluation and monitoring data is extensive, stakeholders should be consulted on what is relevant for their needs.
  • Accurate and timely – if the process of data collection and an analysis is so time consuming that the evaluation is out of date by the time it is published, then it’s a waste of time. The appropriateness of the time frame depends on the purposes – interim evaluations to keep a project on track need to be swift; end of project output, outcome or impact assessments can be less time-constrained.
  • Accessible – understandable, made available through appropriate channels and in an appropriate medium, at and for an appropriate time. Dissemination should be an active process. Stakeholder engagement with and understanding of the information provided should be evaluated.

Your task

Find a more current view from the sector of what ‘accountability’ entails and its purpose.

Provide your fellow learners with the source and compare that recent definition with the one given above by Hilhorst in 2002, and also with the notion of quality management given in the previous step. How do these concepts and processes link and align?


Hilhorst, D. (2002). Being good at doing good? Quality and accountability of humanitarian NGOs. Disasters, 26(3), 193–212. DOI: 10.1111/1467-7717.00200. Access via Locate here

Edwards, M., & Hulme, D. (1996). Beyond the magic bullet. NGO performance and accountability in the post-Cold War world. Kumarian Press.

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Disaster Interventions and the Need for Evaluation, Accountability and Learning

Coventry University