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Early steps towards improving humanitarian accountability

We will now consider some of the early interpretations of humanitarian accountability which built upon the previous step learning about the Rwanda crisis.

In Accountability: The Three Lane Highway (Mitchell 2003), John Mitchell started to unpack the discourse and the growing range of initiatives around humanitarian accountability post-Rwanda to make sense of the direction accountability was taking. He did so by defining humanitarian accountability in terms of the ‘three lanes’ of:

  1. Participation and the beneficiary

  2. Principles and law

  3. Results

He considers the journeys of different humanitarian actors along these three lanes, starting with the state and its utilisation of power, often moving between accountability to its population in-line with the rule of law and either inaction or exercising power to the detriment of its people (Mitchell 2003).

Mitchell considers a specific challenge for international governmental donors, which must demonstrate results, cost effectiveness and value for money in the way its funds are used but needs to balance these demands against humanitarian priorities. There is a further complication that decision making may be influenced by other donor government policies, for example trade or defence.

Finally, with humanitarian agencies, he sees a ‘pick and mix’ approach across the three lanes. He notes the challenges related to efforts to introduce developmental and participatory approaches into the humanitarian sector. He also noted the poor awareness among humanitarian workers of accountability good practice and codes of conduct, and the rise of results-based management and its implications for accountable action (Mitchell 2003).

Read the Three Lane Highway document and the Fabien Dubuet paper for Medecins Sans Frontieres France (2002). Both were published at a similar time and have a similar starting point for their analysis with Rwanda. They also cover some of the same ground, but present different interpretations on the accountability challenges faced by the humanitarian system.

Your task

Based on your reading of the Three Lane Highway document and the Fabien Dubuet paper for Medecins Sans Frontieres France (2002) documents, consider the following:

Where do you see similarities and differences between these different critiques of humanitarian accountability?

What do you think are some of the reasons for these different interpretations?

What are your personal reactions to these two documents?


Dubeut F (2002) What is Humanitarian Accountability? [online] available from https://www.msf.fr/sites/default/files/2002-04-01-Dubuet.pdf [10 December 2018]

Mitchell J (2003) Accountability: The Three Lane Highway [online] available from https://odihpn.org/magazine/accountability-the-three-lane-highway/ [10 December 2018]

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This article is from the free online course:

Disaster Management and Accountability

Coventry University