NGO accountability has been a popular topic over the last decade. For academics and implementers alike the debates are interesting and thought-provoking, but for implementers there is still a lack of clarity on how to put it all into practice. This article, based on research conducted over 18 months in South Sudan, focuses on NGO accountability to the people humanitarians aim to assist. The research looks at the gap between theory and practice and draws on learning from the literature.
Calls for greater accountability have forced NGOs, just like businesses and government agencies worldwide, to broaden their accountability to consider all stakeholders. But unlike in business or government, it is difficult for NGOs to identify a primary stakeholder.
In 2003, the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) was established with the aim of promoting higher standards of accountability and better management systems among NGOs – particularly those providing humanitarian assistance. The HAP standards of accountability require that NGOs prioritise recipients of aid as stakeholders. However, although this group is most affected by the decisions and actions of NGOs, in practice they are often trumped by other stakeholders. For example, during the period of research in South Sudan, the Ministry of Health decided to prioritise a specific age-group of children for immunisation. While adhering to this directive, NGO staff received complaints from mothers and carers who had walked long distances only to be told that their child was not eligible for vaccination. In this case, government legislation took priority over the wishes of the community. It is the tension and complexity of stakeholder priorities that we need to consider when we talk about NGO accountability. But we also need to understand what accountability means to different groups.
What is ‘accountability’?
Across the literature there is acknowledgement of the complexity of the English word ‘accountability’. It is a particularly elusive word because its meaning changes dramatically depending on the context, and it is not easily translated into other languages. This is particularly important for emergency relief NGOs, whose staff and aid recipients are culturally and linguistically diverse. It is all very well agreeing that we need to be more accountable, but what constitutes accountability for an elderly woman living in rural South Sudan, or a young Japanese man who has recently survived a tsunami? Perhaps more importantly, what is the likelihood of NGO staff from vastly different backgrounds reaching a common understanding of how to be accountable to the communities they are serving?
In the research, 23 field staff of three different nationalities were interviewed at two different sites. Of these, 18 had received some form of training or induction in the HAP standards. Depending on when staff joined, their interview included questions on accountability. In one site, training was followed up by the appointment of a full-time accountability officer; in the other, follow-up was through further training events. While the more senior staff were able to articulate the concept of accountability in some depth, junior staff tended to understand just one or two aspects of the word. The lack of clarity around the concept resulted in junior staff having a disproportionately negative view of the accountability mechanisms established.
The most common problem was that accountability mechanisms, such as complaints boxes, sharing detailed project plans in community meetings or appointing an accountability officer, were viewed as policing mechanisms by the staff. ‘Okay, so now you are going to be the policeman!’ was one comment made to an accountability officer following a training session to introduce the concept. This may be understandable since the concept was new to staff, but other officers reported similar reactions from their peers even after training.
One accountability officer, referring to the challenges she faced in implementing accountability mechanisms, said: ‘The problem is not with the beneficiaries but with the staff’. Her manager confirmed this: staff ‘just assumed that they [accountability officers] are working a sort of security thing for the organisation … So that was really demotivating’. This was despite both the manager and the accountability officer providing ongoing training. The accountability officer was one of the most articulate of those interviewed so the failure did not stem from the calibre or content of training. The reality is that staff can interpret the imposition of accountability measures as implying a lack of trust in them no matter how much training and support they receive.
This problem was compounded by the fact that field staff were less familiar with the mechanisms implemented to ensure accountability to other stakeholders, such as reporting to the host government, the giving public or the charity commission. They felt singled out. One field officer recounted his belief that the Juba office was not familiar with accountability mechanisms since they were only implemented at the field level.
These challenges are not easy to address. Being accountable is a way of thinking, not a project that can simply be implemented or rolled out. As one officer explained: ‘It’s trying to communicate much more than the standards, it’s about the essence of what is behind it’.
Another difficulty is the time pressure involved in humanitarian work. As one senior manager put it, ‘it was just another thing … our programme was struggling to actually run a health care clinic much less sit down with the community and be accountable to them’. This concern was expressed by a number of interviewees, and was echoed in the findings of The Listening Project, a collaborative venture to record the views of nearly 6,000 local people on what can be done to make international aid efforts more effective and accountable.Reporting deadlines and pressure to spend contrast with the lengthy process of getting to know a community sufficiently to develop trust. As one nurse put it: ‘it is very tempting to just … start giving out your services … you want to catch up with time’.
When faced with time constraints, one option is to say, ‘Just tell me what I have to do’. One response to this question is to develop guidelines which try to translate a complex concept into a simple set of tasks. In this case, guidelines were developed at the NGO’s head office and then presented to senior field staff for implementation in their project sites. However, producing guidelines may be counterproductive. For example, in the research areas the Country Director had insisted on notice boards being put up in the communities because this was suggested in the guidelines and had worked well in projects in Kenya. But because illiteracy rates were very high, the information on the notice boards was largely useless to the community. When asked how they received information from the NGO, all the interviewees cited public meetings. They only acknowledged the notice boards if asked directly and then admitted that very few could read them. Given these difficulties, it is hardly surprising that some staff found it difficult to accurately describe how to be accountable to the community.
The challenges facing NGO staff are one thing, but do the measures taken by NGOs constitute accountability as far as the members of the community are concerned? The research included discussions with groups and individuals from the Dinka Malual tribe in the two project areas, but was not restricted to recipients of the assistance. Because of the complexity involved in translating ‘accountability’, the main themes that were explored included the information received, the mechanisms for feedback, the relationship between the NGO and the community and perceptions of the aid and services provided.
Without exception, participants said that they were happy with the interaction between themselves and the NGO. ‘Up to now, our relationship with [the NGO] is okay’, said a group of elders. Similarly, most interviewees said that they felt free to raise issues at any time. According to one man, ‘[The NGO] respects us just as we respect them’. However, a number of incidents during the period of the research appeared to contradict these statements. For example, when local traders disagreed with the NGO’s decision to award a tender to local farmers instead of them, they ‘arrested’ two local staff members and threatened the NGO. This was despite being given the opportunity to discuss the decision at a meeting held for that purpose. It took over a week to resolve the problem; during that time, the chief made the following statement in one of the research interviews: ‘[The NGO] are like friends to us – they come and help us in our homes just like a friend does. Therefore I cannot allow you to be mistreated’. This statement seems to demonstrate that, while NGO staff felt mistreated by the traders, the community had a different perspective. For them, this was a way of indirectly communicating.
Other similar incidents indicated that the community was reluctant to express issues directly. One local staff member explained that this was because they did not want to cause problems between the community and the NGO. This is understandable. Until the late 1990s, NGOs provided virtually the only economy in South Sudan, and they still wield significant economic power today. As one interviewee said, ‘they’re not going to upset the donor because [the NGO is] the donor and if they say the wrong thing to [the NGO], maybe money won’t come’. In this particular case, it is difficult to see how accountability could work. Certainly, if people feel reluctant to raise an issue directly with an NGO, they are unlikely to view information sharing and feedback (or complaints) mechanisms as a form of accountability.
Personal relationships are fundamental in South Sudan’s Dinka culture. As one local staff member said, people relate to and respect individuals, not organisations. Staff turnover, which remains high, can adversely affect engagement in such cases. This was reflected in the community’s reaction when a new manager was appointed in one of the research sites. The former manager had been in position for three years and had developed a good rapport with the community. When the new manager came in, people felt uncomfortable with the change. Even though only one staff member had changed, they said that the NGO had ‘gone across the river and left them behind’, a euphemism for division or a lack of harmony.
Quality of the services provided
Community members were asked whether services had improved after accountability mechanisms had been implemented. Respondents consistently cited an increase in the number of services as an improvement. While in the literature accountability is often linked to quality, what constitutes quality is subjective. For the beneficiaries interviewed, quality was equated with an increase in the quantity of inputs and services; for humanitarian actors, quality is usually about achieving technical excellence and adhering to standards, codes and principles.
The findings of the research did not show a clear link between the implementation of accountability mechanisms and the quality of the services delivered. While the accountability mechanisms provided the community with information, and avenues for feedback and complaints ensured that responses were given, the community did not link these to improvements in services.
The growing acceptance of the HAP standards indicates the willingness of NGOs to do better. It is natural that the profile of accountability should have been raised since it is linked with improvements in performance. But accountability is complex, and that complexity has not been given sufficient consideration. As a result, in some contexts what is called accountability to recipients of assistance is really not that at all. The volume of literature from other sectors is considerable, yet many NGOs continue to do things like put up notice boards in illiterate communities. Is that because we are too busy to learn from others, or because the mechanisms of accountability are really for us, our supporters and our donors, and not for communities after all?