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How the humanitarian system addressed accountability issues

Building on the initiatives we looked at earlier in How the humanitarian system addressed accountability issues, we will now look at some of the more recent attempts to address accountability issues.

Recent developments

There is renewed discussion across the humanitarian sector about the need for widespread reform. The World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 resulted in the ‘Grand Bargain’ agreement (Agenda for Humanity 2018) based around commitments from over 30 of the largest donors and humanitarian aid organisations. These commitments include:

  • More funding for national and local responders (25% of all global funding by 2020)

  • Scaling up cash programming

  • Increased multi-year funding to improve predictability

  • Harmonised reporting requirements

Some of these developments are new obligations, others build on earlier commitments. Without apparent prioritisation, there is some concern that too much attention is given to localisation without sufficient consideration of the need to improve participation by affected populations in these processes. We will look at the localisation agenda in more detail later in this course (CHS Alliance 2018).

There is also an argument that this is only the latest effort of many to reform the humanitarian system, building on earlier initiatives like Good Humanitarian Donorship and the Transformative Agenda (CHS Alliance 2018).

Cash programming

Cash programming has emerged as an important mechanism for making humanitarian action more relevant to the needs of affected populations. Unlike the procurement and logistics systems needed for large scale relief operations, cash can be distributed more quickly, sometimes as a face-to face payment, but increasingly as bank transfers by mobile phone or other digital means (CHS Alliance 2018).

Cash practitioners will highlight that cash is not the solution in itself, but a form of assistance that can, in the right circumstances, support affected people to recover more quickly. Allocations can sometimes be earmarked for use against specific relief items, or in return for work, but the general trend has been towards unearmarked cash transfers which empower families and individuals to make their own decisions about its use.

Some of the key steps in its development include:

  • 1983 UNICEF cash for food assistance in Ethiopian famine

  • 1998 Cash grants for agricultural inputs in Guatemala and Nicaragua (British Red Cross)

  • 1999 UNHCR monthly cash payment to Albanian refugee families

  • 2005 Urban voucher programme in Palestinian territories (ICRC)

  • 2005 Cash and Learning Partnership (CALP) founded

  • 2006 $7.6 billion in pre-paid cards given to those affected by Hurricane Katrina, USA

  • 2011 Ethiopia Cash safety net initiative sees emergency cash given to 6.5 million people

(CHS Alliance 2018)

This is not a complete list and your research will indicate that there are now widespread examples of cash being used in emergencies, supported by evidence of impact as well as influencing policy and organisational changes.

System capacity

One of the main aspects of the growth of the humanitarian sector has been the increased capacity needed to manage the different accountability dimensions of larger scale, more complex, and more numerous humanitarian operations. Servicing the upward accountability requirements of many donors means some INGOs have an average of 36 reporting deadlines in each country of operation, per years (CHS Alliance 2018).

Report writing has gone from being a quick three or four page summary of what’s been done, to a specialised skill area in its own right. The capacity implications of increased accountability can also be seen in the growth of international financial and audit teams, technical advisers and rapid deployment surge teams.

The system creates substantial needs that must be fulfilled to sustain itself. The risk is that the more energy and resource that go into keeping the system functioning, the less is available to actually engage with affected populations and other key local stakeholders, understand their capacity and their needs, and develop viable response plans.


Agenda for Humanity (2018) Grand Bargain Initiative [online] available from https://www.agendaforhumanity.org/initiatives/3861 [10 December 2018]

CHS Alliance (2018) Humanitarian Accountability Report. Geneva: CHS Alliance

Sphere (2018) The Sphere Handbook 2018 Edition. Geneva: Sphere Association

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Disaster Management and Accountability

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