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.
Image of different people in a range of roles asking different questions about change management, with a process map on the wall and a local African person asking if the system or process is working.
Illustration adapted from the CHS Core Humanitarian Standards Report 2018

Challenges of accountability in the contemporary humanitarian system

There is a general consensus around the main accountability problems faced by the humanitarian sector today, although emphasis and interpretation can vary.

Course note: Further down this step we will be exploring subject matter that could be of an upsetting or sensitive nature for some learners around the world. Please note that the case study chosen is for the purpose of understanding the educational context around the subject matter.

As an example of an effort to consolidate engagement with these problems across the humanitarian sector, the START Network is an initiative aimed at improving performance, quality and accountability. It draws together 42 humanitarian organisations of all sizes across five continents including Oxfam, Save the Children and UK Aid (the UK government humanitarian funding arm). The START Network summaries the three main problems in the sector as:

  • Too much power is held by a handful of international institutions

  • Humanitarian action is often reactive and slow to reach people in need

  • Too many rules make it hard for aid agencies to be flexible

(START 2018: 11)

The START Network has included over 200 local and national organisations and aims to help them build more equitable partnerships with their international partners, thus redressing the balance of power.

It also actively promotes innovation and new financing techniques like pooled funds which allow faster reaction to medium and small scale emergencies (START 2018).

The work of START and many others indicates that progress is being made, but fundamental issues remain. As this sketch from the 2018 CHS Alliance report indicates, change is a complex process requiring attention across the whole system.

We will shortly be looking at the health of the system, as documented in ALNAP’s State of the Humanitarian System 2015 report, but in addition to the other concerns and problems already highlighted in this course, one aspect of humanitarian accountability has been given renewed importance by a series of events in 2018.

Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA)

Issues and concerns in this field are not new and the term PSEA can be traced back to 2001 when research by UNHCR and Save the Children UK in three West African countries found systematic exploitation of refugees and children by some aid workers, as well as by some local security personnel and community leaders, often on the basis of food, medicines or relief items for sex (CHS Alliance 2018).

Recent coverage of the Oxfam Haiti scandal from 2011 brought the problem to a wider audience and prompted other agencies to investigate and admit publicly their own PSEA and safeguarding incidents. The issue is not just confined to the aid sector, and patterns of abuse by UN peacekeepers have also been identified (CHS Alliance 2018).

The Oxfam Haiti scandal and subsequent revelations from Save the Children UK and others highlighted a range of organisational and management failings, including not just paying sex workers, but also staff harassment and the bullying of whistleblowers (CHS Alliance 2018: 63). Public acknowledgement of failures and increased donor scrutiny has ensured a strong focus is maintained on the issue, but there are increasing calls for more fundamental change within the culture of the sector.

Your task

Would you prioritise some of these problems and challenges over others?

From your own experience and research, would you identify other reasons why humanitarian accountability is important today?


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

START Network (2017) Leading for Change in Humanitarian Aid: Annual report 2017. London: START Network

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Disaster Management and Accountability

Coventry University