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When did humanitarian accountability first come to prominence?

Humanitarian action is not new.

Oxfam was campaigning in 1945 to send food parcels to Germany. Six years later it was responding to famine in India. The International Committee of the Red Cross can trace its own history and that of the original Geneva Conventions back over 150 years (ICRC 2014). A quick look back over the past 50 years will identify numerous major events (conflict, drought, sudden onset disasters and so on) which have affected populations across the globe.

Evaluation of humanitarian action and systematic engagement with learning is a more recent trend. The ALNAP website currently hosts over three thousand evaluations, but in the mid 1990s, evaluation of a humanitarian action was not always guaranteed, and when conducted, was often limited in its focus and scope.

The Rwanda crisis

The Rwandan crisis is often regarded as a key moment in the evolution of humanitarian accountability as it highlighted a range of performance, quality and coordination issues amidst a humanitarian crisis where 800,000 were killed and millions displaced.

Before looking at its main findings, it’s worth stepping back to understand the context. A quick reminder of some of the background and key events in the crisis can be found at the following BBC News website article link (please note that depending on which country you are accessing the link from, you may encounter technical restrictions):

Rwanda: How the genocide happened

The scale and impact of the Rwanda crises marked a change in attitudes and prompted significant critical reflection resulting in the proposed Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance (JEARR) to Rwanda by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which took place between 1994 and 1996.

The complexity of the Rwanda context resulted in four substantial separate studies. One looked at historical perspectives and factors; the second looked at early warning and conflict management; the third, which is the focus here, reviewed humanitarian aid and its effects and the fourth looked at the rebuilding of Rwanda.

The following published study titled, ‘The International Response to Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda Experience: Humanitarian Aid and Effects’ (Borton et al. 1996), was written while elements of the crisis, including the experiences of refugee populations in neighbouring countries, were still playing out. Its timing and mandate to objectively and critically look at this major humanitarian response while experiences were still fresh in the minds of key actors, set the tone for future similar initiatives.

To give an indication of the scale of response, between April and December 1994, approximately $1.4 billion was allocated to the emergency by the international community, with half of this channelled through United Nations agencies - mainly United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and World Food Programme (WFP) - much of which was then allocated onwards to local and international NGO partners for implementation. Around 17% of the total financial allocation passed through the Red Cross Movement (Borton et al 1996).

The evaluation (Borton et al. 1996) highlighted a number of commendable efforts including:

  • UNHCR Emergency Response Teams in Ngara and Goma

  • The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) work inside Rwanda, mainly between April and July 1994, particularly its hospital and survivor protection work

  • Widespread starvation did not occur and for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) the food aid system in this first phase performed well.

However, limited access and security issues presented challenges to ensuring the protection of the civilian population, as well as being able to reach them at scale with relief assistance. Numerous other challenges included disease outbreaks in camps; the time taken to establish local capacities; technical coordination problems; and the dilemmas presented by potential association with Western military forces present in the area (Borton et al. 1996).

Particular attention was paid to the influx of approximately 850,000 refugees in to Goma, in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, and how this quickly overwhelmed the capacity of those agencies present, and highlighted a wider weakness in the humanitarian system for monitoring and providing early warning of substantial population movements.

Media coverage and a subsequent cholera outbreak resulted in a substantial humanitarian response and the JEARR report highlighted the speed at which water was supplied and health care facilities established in the camps. However, it also noted the performance and experience of the many different agencies involved was mixed; assistance was influenced by availability of stocks rather than needs on the ground; and coordination could have been greatly improved (Borton et al. 1996).

The report was also clear that problems were a result not just of weaknesses in the humanitarian sector, but also a failure to align political, military and humanitarian strategies effectively (Borton et al. 1996).

The full report is online and is recommended as essential reading.

Your task

The following link will take you to a published report from the ALNAP website ‘The International Response to Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda Experience: Humanitarian Aid and Effects (JEEAR)’.

Specifically read and review Chapter 9, Findings and Recommendations, pages 11-13 of the report which cover ‘Improving Accountability’ and consider the following questions:

  • Based on your own experience, do you feel these recommendations and findings are relevant to other contexts and emergencies?

  • Which recommendation’s or areas that would be the most important?

  • If you have time to look at other findings in Chapter 9, which other areas might fall under the heading of ‘accountability’?


BBC News (2011) Rwanda: How the Genocide Happened [online] available from https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-13431486 [10 December 2018]

Borton, J., Brusset, E. and Hallam, A. (1996) The International Response to Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda Experience: Humanitarian Aid and Effects (JEEAR) [online] available from https://www.alnap.org/system/files/content/resource/files/findings/erd-2517-findings.pdf [10 December 2018]

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC, 2014) 150 years of Humanitarian Action [online] available from https://www.icrc.org/en/document/150-years-humanitarian-action-photos-past-and-present-0 [10 December 2018]

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Disaster Management and Accountability

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