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Humanitarian accountability and governance

At the heart of the accountability debate are the issues of power relations and where responsibility rests.

To satisfactorily give affected populations a voice in decision making, they must have a clear influence over how resources are to be used. At present, this power rests (to different degrees) with actors at each level of the humanitarian system, primarily at the international or national levels. This may or may not include domestic governments, International non-governmental organisations (INGO), UN agencies, donors and others, and is largely determined by context.

There is an acknowledgement that this needs to change, but there’s also a resistance to the loss of power and decision making (CHS Alliance 2018). The humanitarian system revolves around a familiar cast list of actors and is built upon a culture and norms of behaviour at different levels and within different organisations and institutions.

Christina Bennett in her work Constructive Deconstruction (2018) highlights a number of issues related to the governance in the humanitarian system. While this system highlights the need to give affected populations a stronger voice, the reality is that legitimacy and authority rests with those organisations that have direct control over resources and information. The level of in-country influence by INGOs and others can be comparable to some government ministries, but without the same level of domestic scrutiny (Bennett 2017).

The donor, not the family affected, is from a business viewpoint still seen as the customer; able to move its allegiance from different suppliers (aid organisations) if it’s not happy with one’s performance, without losing its own power within the system. The situation is further complicated by the culture of sub-contracting (NGO to local organisation); so that the lines of accountability become blurred and the net value of the humanitarian resource is diminished as it passes through each level (Bennett 2017).

Responsibility v capacity

To take on responsibility also requires capacity. The need to strengthen in-country capacities to better manage humanitarian crises is recognised and there has been positive progress, but the reality of who leads on this process and is responsible for its success is more ambiguous. Country level DRR platforms have had mixed results in bringing different stakeholders together to address risk, while government services, already under resourced and in great demand, face the challenge of integrating a new set of priorities.

NGOs, UN agencies and others are providing increasingly coordinated support for governments to build capacities but face their own resource constraints. Integrating good practice into school and civil service training curricula is one approach where progress is being made, the former being increasingly well coordinated through initiatives like GADRRRES (The Global Alliance for Disaster Risk Reduction and Resilience in the Education Sector).

The Inter-Agency Standing Committee in its guidance on emergency response preparedness highlights the need to build national and local preparedness capacity to undertake risk analysis and monitoring, but from a pragmatic perspective, recognises the need for different INGOs, UN Agencies, Red Cross Movement and others to be organisationally prepared at national levels, and to ensure their own inter-agency coherence in this respect (IASC 2015).

Strengthening local capacity and accountability

The localisation agenda may also appear on paper as though decision making and responsibility and resources are being decentralised down to local levels. The reality may be that local NGOs are only sub-contracted to take on work or used to legitimise international assistance where the latter is perceived as problematic. However, the decision making, and management of risk, still rests with the country or international level organisation. Power relations in this context may remain unchanged (CHS Alliance 2018).

Localisation is supported by a number of different initiatives seeking (to different degrees) to move authority and responsibility to a local level.

These include:

  • The Start Network (we will look at their work in more detail later in the module)

  • Local to Global Protection (L2GP)

  • Shifting the Power project (Start Network)

  • Charter for Change (Charter4Change)

An important and necessary development is seeing a growing number of local networks seeking to advance this agenda themselves, these include ADRRN (The Asian Disaster Reduction and Response network) founded in 2002 (CHS Alliance 2018).

However, there are other barriers to effective localisation. National and international NGOs and UN agencies, as well as delivering against their mandates, are also competing for profile and for the resources not just to deliver humanitarian assistance or long term programming, but also to maintain their country and global structures.


Bennett C (2018) Constructive Deconstruction: Imagining Alternative Humanitarian Action. London: ODI

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

Dubois M (2018) The New Humanitarian Basics. London: ODI

IASC (2015) The Humanitarian Programme Cycle Version 2.0. Inter Agency Standing Committee

UNISDR (2015) Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2015-2030. Geneva: UNISDR

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This article is from the free online course:

Disaster Management and Accountability

Coventry University