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What is Humanitarian Accountability?

Read and learn about how we define humanitarian accountability from different perspectives.
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
When you see the phrase ‘humanitarian accountability’ what does it mean to you? Do you have a professional or personal perspective on its meaning and relevance?
The Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) on Quality and Accountability provides a definition of humanitarian accountability widely used across the humanitarian system:
The process of using power responsibly, taking account of, and being held accountable by, different stakeholders, and primarily those who are affected by the exercise of such power. (CHS Alliance 2014: 19)
According to the CHS Alliance, which promotes the Core Humanitarian Standard, this definition applies to organisations and individuals that:
  • deliver direct assistance to communities and people affected by crisis
  • provide financial, material or technical support to other organisations, but do not directly take part in providing assistance
  • or combine both these approaches
(CHS Alliance 2014: 6)
While humanitarian accountability is generally perceived as being driven by the need to improve accountability to affected populations, its ‘downward’ focus towards those being supported needs to be balanced by the historic demands of ‘upward accountability’ to government donors, as well as to other donors, such as corporations and members of the public who donate to major fundraising appeals. This upward accountability also encompasses relationships such as local to national government, locally contracted partners to Non Governmental Organisation (NGO) and International Non-Governmental Organisation (INGO) headquarters and so on.
Interpretations of accountability will also be shaped by the level and type of engagement a stakeholder has with a humanitarian intervention. Each one will have different expectations and assumptions about the assistance that is provided and these in turn will vary depending on local context and culture (CHS Alliance 2015).
While a major donor’s view may be guided by making a difference on the ground, it will also be mindful of its taxpayers (if it is a government) or its shareholders (if it is a business).
INGOs may judge their effectiveness by the number of people reached and the relevance, quality and timeliness of the support provided to meeting their needs. Equally, they may indirectly judge their effectiveness by the amount of funding raised or how effectively risks are managed and whether money is spent within a timeframe that is satisfactory to their donors.
For affected populations, there will be more urgent considerations, such as survival, possible psychological trauma and recovery. Their own interpretation of accountability may vary significantly from that of humanitarian agencies and may be shaped by earlier experiences of assistance, gender or local power relations.
Other factors may also be relevant. ‘In the Philippines, accountability was not easy to translate into local languages and the “western, service-delivery, and consumer-oriented language of feedback and complaints mechanisms that many international agencies use” to be accountable did not fit well with the cultural norm of owing a debt of gratitude to those who provide help’. (CHS Alliance 2015: 8)
It’s worthwhile stepping back and considering a general interpretation of the concept of accountability – what happens when we remove the word ‘humanitarian’?
Accountability, rather than being a bureaucratic or legal term, is about improving democratic processes, challenging power and claiming citizenship. It is best claimed from below by citizens themselves, rather than only being provided by the state. Supporting citizen-led initiatives is important as they address accountability failures in very direct ways.
(Mahendra ed. 2007: 1)
This interpretation requires humanitarian actors to use their power responsibly and to see accountability as a demonstration of empowerment and active citizenship. These considerations become increasingly important when we explore the relationship between humanitarian action and longer term development, and we will consider some of the challenges and opportunities or bridging accountability across these two areas throughout this module.
Terms like ‘accountability’ and ‘effectiveness’ are open to multiple interpretations and as we will see in Short Course 4, can also be measured in different ways (CHS Alliance 2015).
The phrase ‘humanitarian action’ also merits consideration. One older definition from the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP), a forerunner of the CHS Alliance), states:
Humanitarian action: assistance, protection and advocacy actions undertaken on an impartial basis in response to human needs resulting from complex political emergencies and natural hazards.
(HAP 2010: 6)
Dubois argues there is no agreed definition of humanitarian action, but that it captures the essence of human compassion, as well as describing a western-centric system. He challenges the move to broaden the focus of humanitarian action away from immediate lifesaving and alleviation of suffering, towards a broader longer term effort to address issues of system change on the basis that this wider focus does not recognise the inadequacy of humanitarian action in addressing essentially political problems. He further argues that the responsibility for structural change must rest with local actors (Dubois 2018).
Accountability should be seen as a consideration in all phases of any humanitarian intervention. For a slightly different interpretation of community engagement and accountability look at page seven of the following PDF International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies guide to Community Engagement and Accountability.
For a glossary of terms used in relation to humanitarian accountability, go to page 19 of the following link to the Core Humanitarian Standard PDF document.


CHS Alliance (2014) Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability. CHS Alliance, Group URD and the Sphere Project, Geneva [online] available from [10 December 2018]
CHS Alliance (2015) On the Road to Istanbul: Humanitarian Accountability Report. Geneva: CHS Alliance
Dubois, M. (2018) The New Humanitarian Basics. Humanitarian Policy Group Working Paper. London: ODI
HAP (2010) The 2010 HAP Standard in Quality and Accountability. Geneva: HAP International
ICRC/IFRC (2016) A Red Cross Red Crescent Guide to Community Engagement and Accountability. [online] Geneva: ICRC and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. available from [10 December 2018]
Mahendra, S. (ed.) (2007) ‘Claiming Citizenship,’ ID21 Focus. Brighton: IDS
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
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