CHS Alliance takes part in the 20th Humanitarian Congress Berlin

22 October 2018

On 4-5 October, the CHS Alliance took part in the 20th Humanitarian Congress in Berlin. Focusing on topical issues such as migration and the safeguarding crisis, participants discussed how to best support crisis-affected people  in a polarised political environment.

Bonaventure Sokpoh, CHS Alliance’s Head of Policy, Advocacy & Learning, and Shama Mall, Deputy Regional Director of Programs and Organizational Development at Community World Service Asia (CWSA) and  Board member of the CHS Alliance, both participated in a panel discussion focusing on humanitarian accountability.

Attitudes and behaviours

“Currently there are so many different quality and accountability standards available for the sector, and in many cases, they really changed the way we respond to emergencies, but the question remains whether we are doing enough in practice,” Shama said. Specifically, she would like to see changes in organisational behaviours and attitudes to ensure a more meaningful engagement at the community level: “staff should be able to demonstrate accountability in their day-to-day activities.” 

She believes that change must come from the leadership, who needs to demonstrate accountability on every level and that “staff will follow by example”. She also warned that, based on her experience, in certain cultures managers find it hard to demonstrate personal accountability or even hold their own team members to account, as people don’t want to get into confrontational situations. “Another problem is that managers also find it difficult to admit that they have gaps in their programming. I believe that the Core Humanitarian Competency Framework (CHCF) can help achieve these behavioural changes. This framework helps to look at the core competencies that are needed in an organisation to promote a more accountable culture.” 

Improving responsiveness

“For us, when it comes to accountability, our key objectives are client responsiveness and partner responsiveness,” said Wale Osofisan, Deputy Director of the Governance Technical Unit at the International Rescue Committee (IRC). His organisation deliberately uses the terminology ‘client’, as opposed to ‘beneficiary’, because they consider that the latter has a more passive connotation. It implies that people are recipients of aid and services, without any choice or power to influence them. They also rather use responsiveness than accountability, as “accountability is sometimes seen as feedback, whereas it’s not about just getting feedback, but how we are responding to the feedback,” he explained.

To strengthen accountability, IRC focus on their internal project management processes. They have a so-called technical assistance model that ensures that interventions are based on the best available evidence and the design phase considers client preferences. IRC is also currently exploring ways of including client responsiveness as part of their own staff’s performance evaluation. “You have to have the carrot and stick approach in order to make behaviour changes happen,” he argued.

How change happens

Bonaventure promoted the Alliance’s flagship publication, the Humanitarian Accountability Report (HAR), which was recently launched and examines how change happens in the humanitarian sector. “We found that we have sufficient procedures, standards, code of conducts and alike; however, we are struggling with the application of these codeshe said, backing up Shama’s earlier comment.

“Real change happens when commitments translate into practice on the ground.”

Demonstrating the relevance and usefulness of the CHS Verification Scheme he argued that “once an organisation has been verified against the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability (CHS), we are able to see its strengths and weaknesses, where we need to put our efforts to make further improvements.” The aggregated verification data collected so far shows that the aid sector needs to make progress with regard to its application of Commitment 5 of the CHS (complaints mechanisms), as well as Commitment 4 (communication with communities) and Commitment 7 (learning from experience).

“It’s good to have the data, but we also need to hear the voices of the affected people, and that’s the reason why we started to work together with Ground Truth Solutions in Chad.” The first results of the perception survey show discrepancies between the perception of aid workers and crisis-affected populations. For example, while aid workers feel confident in their targeting, respondents within the crisis-affected population were much less certain, with only 34% considering that those most in need are reached.

Transferring power

From the audience, Jeroen Jansen, Vice President of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) made a comment, saying that “we are not going to move anywhere if we are not willing to transfer some power, preferably to those who are in need, so that they can hold us accountable”. He also found problematic that just a summary and not the full report of the CHS verification data are available online and asked why that is.

Bonaventure clarified that neither the CHS Alliance, nor the Humanitarian Quality Assurance Initiative (HQAI), which carries out third-party verification, are allowed to publish the full reports. Only the organisations themselves can make that decision, and this is something to look into in the future.

Wale, reflecting on the suggestion to transfer more power to those who are in need, said that the problem is that usually accountability is directed toward funding sources. “The question is what kind of social contract we can develop that would address this issue.”

Tina, from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), wanted the panel’s opinion on the issue of the Aquarius, a refugee ship that can no longer operate because it doesn’t have a flag anymore. She was struck by the silence and lack of solidarity of other organisations and UN agencies toward the issue. “How can we ensure that humanitarian organisations are accountable to the humanitarian endeavour, to humanity?” she asked.

“Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer, but generally speaking, even in crisis, we select the people with whom we work,” Bonaventure reminded. “For example, there are several villages, and we will select just a few based on our assessments… and we are not going back to explain why we selected those villages to the others. Thus, the problem exists, even in interventions, not to speak about cases when we are not intervening.”