Embedding accountability from the outset

29 March 2022

Wherever conflict or catastrophe strike, they are met with the humanitarian urge to respond – with compassion, with care and with solidarity. In the early stages of crises, such as the tragedy steadily worsening in Ukraine, countless people, organisations and institutions are providing exceptional support and assistance. Yet decades of humanitarian action teach us that this humanitarian instinct must be paired with accountability for the sudden power and influence organisations can have over people’s lives. All those fleeing war, caught up in disaster, or facing poverty must be protected from additional harm, treated with dignity and have their rights respected by those supporting them. Their agency must be recognised and made central to decisions that affect their lives. To achieve this, every person facing crises must know their rights and how to hold organisations’ accountable for their actions.

The Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability (CHS) sets out the aid system’s core commitments to the people we assist. It guides us in taking a principled and people-centred approach. To successfully deliver these commitments, the CHS must be applied at every juncture – in the early stages of a response, holistically throughout organisations and at every level of the aid system. The CHS is a universal core framework to deliver principled, accountable and high-quality support. While it may seem challenging to meet all the Commitments of the CHS during the initial phase of a rapid and complex crisis, efforts to meet the Standard during the initial phases of a response are crucial to ensure a good quality and accountable programming of the funds and resources entrusted and to ensure that people are at the centre throughout the response.

Recognising power imbalances

CHS Commitment 1 emphasises the importance of ensuring the humanitarian response is appropriate and relevant. This requires a thorough assessment of needs, capacity and risks that engage diverse crisis-affected communities (CHS Key Action 1.2). High quality assessments require a good understanding of power dynamics, different vulnerabilities, and risk factors to make sure assessments are representative and inclusive. Attention should be given to the needs of potentially more vulnerable groups such as persons with disabilities, older people, children, female-headed households, ethnic or linguistic minorities and stigmatised groups.

Seeking coordinated and complementary opportunities is vital during the initial phases of a response, as outlined in CHS Commitment 6. Many organisations are trying to conduct assessments in the early stages and communities can quickly feel assessment-fatigue. Humanitarian organisations need to share information with each other (CHS Key Action 6.4) including using assessments that have already been conducted to design programmes, including those of other actors.

Assessments must be followed up with the right mitigation measures. Cases of sexual exploitation, abuse or harassment can be more likely to happen when response programmes are not carefully designed around the specific needs and risks for the people we are assisting.

CHS Alliance’s PSEAH quick implementation handbook provides a complete quick reference guide to implementing measures for PSEAH in an organisation or project. Each chapter includes a case study sharing how specific organisations tackled this important work. The CHS PSEAH Index is a key part of the CHS. The Index gives organisations the ability to determine whether they have the policies and practices in place to protect people in vulnerable situations.

Photo credit: UN Women/Aurel Obreja

Building on national & local capacities

National and local authorities and civil society organisations will almost always be the first to respond. International actors need to create respectful and fair partnerships with the actors already operating in the countries, making sure to build on their leadership and capacities (CHS Key Action 3.3).

Documented partnership agreements can help recognise the constraints and commitments each actor has (CHS Organisational Responsibility 6.6). Programmes should build on existing local capacities and always have aim to improve the resilience of people affected by crisis (CHS Key Action 3.1).

Informed participation at every stage

During the early stages of a response, it is essential that people have access to the information they need to access services and protect themselves and their families. Aid organisations must ensure that information regarding their activities is easily accessible and is shared in appropriate formats and languages with different groups of people (CHS Key Action 4.2).

The people that aid organisations work with have to be made aware of the behaviour and support that they can expect from the aid workers and volunteers, as early as possible (CHS Key Action 4.1). This needs to be clearly spelled out, and not assumed it is known.

However, providing information on its own is not enough. To ensure their services meet people’s needs; organisations must be able to seek the views of the people they support (CHS Key Action 4.4) and build the space and flexibility to adjust their programmes as a result. Agility is key during an emergency, organisations must adapt regularly on the basis of monitoring, feedback and complaints (CHS Key Action 7.2).

Views from a wide range of people and community groups should be sought to create different ways to access information, participate and provide feedback (CHS Key Action 4.3). Two-way flows of information, done right, helps to gain the trust of crisis-affected people, without which they may not provide feedback later.

As a first step, CHS Alliance produces plain language poster versions of the Nine Commitments of the CHS – available in 18 languages including Ukrainian, Polish and Hungarian. These have been designed to clearly and simply communicate on one page what people should expect from the organisations supporting them.

Open complaint channels from the start

Aid organisations must have a functioning, secure and locally relevant processes to investigate complaints. These must prioritise the safety of those making the complaint (CHS Key Action 5.3), especially if they involve a victim/survivor of abuse. Complaint mechanisms should be developed by building on existing systems, ones that people will already know and trust.

People affected by crises must be made aware of how they can report concerns they have about the assistance they receive or the behaviour of the people supporting them (CHS Organisational Responsibility 5.6). Referral mechanisms are an important part of a functioning complaints system, as no one organisation will be an expert on every issue. Making sure that complaints are dealt with by the right people is an essential component of a functioning complaints mechanism. All aid organisations must start to identify referral mechanisms from the earliest stages of the reponse (CHS Organisational Responsibility 5.7)

Research into how organisations made efforts to welcome and address complaints during the Covid-19 pandemic shows key considerations for complaint mechanisms in the digital age: Complaint mechanisms & COVID-19: the importance of preparedness & community engagement.

Play your part

CHS Alliance’s vision is that every person facing a crisis is served by organisations who put their ideas, needs and dignity at the centre of all they do – by applying the CHS throughout their work. This will take many more organisations assessing how well the meet the CHS commitments and making improvements where they fall short. Critically this will also need those who support and guide organisations delivering support, to create an enabling environment were applying the CHS is an absolute necessity, and every organisation is fairly supported to do so.

  • If you need more guidance on any aspect of this, or have questions, please get in touch with Cat Skehan, CHS Alliance’s Collective Accountability Manager.
  • If you’re part of a CHS Alliance member organisation, get in touch with our Community of Practice leads to see how we can support your work using the CHS to embed accountability early.
  • See our new four-year strategy for how we plan to get closer to this vision, and how you – our members, partners, supporters and challengers are needed to make it a reality.
  • Save the date to attend the next CHS Exchange to learn more about using the CHS to embed accountability in all crisis-responses.