How to get the horse inside the city gates: supporting teams hesitant about the CHS

28 June 2022
Marina Kobzeva

by Marina Kobzeva

Global Quality, Accountability and Learning Lead, Tearfund

CHS Alliance member Tearfund became CHS certified in 2016. Ever since, we have been grappling with how to make the most of the Standard throughout the whole organisation and with our partners. A recurring roadblock has been reluctance by those unfamiliar with the CHS to embrace what it represents and how it can help their work. My work over the last few years has involved living, breathing, and dreaming of how to solve this issue…

So how do you convince someone to do something they don’t want to do, have no time for, and see no value in? How do you break through the barriers? Do you keep trying until you run out of arguments? 

After exhausting all ‘honest’ methods of fighting during the ten years of the Trojan war, Greek warriors resorted to the one that finally worked to get inside the besieged city. The Trojan horse. And how did they manage this? Well, the Greeks got inside the impenetrable walls of Troy by tricking the locals into accepting a gift that looked attractive, interesting, and non-threatening.

The goals we set to achieve in the aid sector certainly have nothing to do with sneaking armed soldiers inside a heavily guarded citadel – although sometimes it feels like that – but everything in common with effecting a change that is sometimes misunderstood and therefore feared or unwelcome.

The Trojan horse method has since worked in numerous fields, from astrophysics to sales. And I believe it can also be instrumental in encouraging our our fellow colleagues, partner organisations or busy country teams to genuinely embrace the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS). Or at least help our organisations become more consistent about their work on quality and accountability to people affected by crisis.

Photo credit: Kemal Hayit via Pexels

Of course, there shouldn’t be any need for Trojan horses, and our teams hardly need convincing about putting the communities they serve at the centre of their programming. But as champions of the CHS, we must recognise that some of our teams are understaffed, under-resourced, overstretched, uncomfortable about external scrutiny or commitment to a new framework, think it’s a tick box exercise, think it’s about compliance only, think it’s overwhelming or too western, don’t speak the language (culturally, linguistically or organisationally), don’t know what they don’t know, do things because they have “always been done this way”, “don’t want to fix what ain’t broke”, etc.

So they put up walls.

How do we get past those walls? How do we make quality and accountability commitments attractive, interesting and non-threatening?

Attractive – what’s in it for them?

This should be an easy one. But what can CHS adherence offer overstretched team members or partners apart from the obvious prestige and respect from donors? According to some of our partners in the Philippines, receiving CHS training and implementation support enabled them to better and more confidently engage in coordination mechanisms and forums where the big charities and UN organisations held the reins and had the loudest voices. For our partners, attending a Working Group or a cluster meeting became an opportunity to engage and represent the interests of the communities whose reality and needs they knew so well.

It’s no secret, sometimes, smaller NGOs find it hard to engage in these forums, but for our partners, it wasn’t simply a matter of learning to speak the language of big INGOs, it was about realising how much they had already been doing on quality and accountability, and getting an immediate confidence boost.

Interesting – how do you connect it with something they like or want?

For those of us who have been on this journey for a while, the CHS doesn’t need advertising, its benefits are clear as day. For many of us who are not specialists or new partners, they are less obvious. At first look, the Standard can seem overwhelmingly western and humanitarian in its language, despite the many translations available. This means some many only engage with the Standard at the formalities of a CHS audit. In the spirit of CHS, Participation Revolution, localisation (you name it), we don’t want to blindly force-feed it to our partners but rather hear from them about their priorities in this area, and start from there.

For us, this took creativity. Many of our partners are faith-based national NGOs, so writing a paper that looked at quality and accountability from a biblical perspective opened many doors, hearts, and minds for us where the “professional” argument wasn’t nearly as convincing. 

Often, our teams and partners are already very interested in the issues covered by CHS, even if they are not using its terminology. Particularly specific aspects of it, like establishing complaints mechanisms. This has inspired us to go “where the energy is” instead of pushing a one-size-fits-all approach with CHS training and implementation.

In Nigeria and South Sudan, our teams were particularly interested in strengthening their feedback mechanisms and piloting new approaches to collecting information about communities’ perceptions. So we managed to find funding for these pilot projects, learned from them, and replicated the bits that worked in Indonesia during the Tsunami response. Needless to say, these country teams eventually went through the CHS audits with flying colours. CHS wasn’t just a lofty framework for them anymore, but something they felt they were a part of. 

Once a team develops an interest in CHS, it’s important to keep engaging with them, connecting them with others in similar contexts, celebrating their achievements, and being there when they have questions. We at Tearfund are seeing a growing interest in CHS among country teams and partners, and seek to sustain it through regular safe learning spaces where people can come and ask questions, debunk myths and misconceptions, share concerns and learn from the experience of others.

Non-threateningthere is no denying that adopting a new quality and accountability framework can be overwhelming. So how to make it non-threatening?

The language of the CHS, not its substance, can seem foreign to some of our teams and partners. So what isn’t foreign? Something that they already know and use. Most of us have our Values, Vision, and Mission statements close to CHS in spirit. Many even have internal quality and accountability frameworks, standards, commitments, or policies.

In Tearfund, we already had a set of corporate quality standards that pretty much encompassed the CHS and spoke to our dual mandate working in a multitude of development contexts. With the adoption of CHS, we mapped its Nine Commitments onto our existing standards, aligned our internal quality indicators with those of CHS, and then it was business as usual. We don’t want our teams and partners to feel that now need to follow two accountability frameworks. So we nested one within the other, like Russian dolls. Translating the CHS into the language of our organisation made its adoption much more comfortable.

Another issue that we have to face up to is that no matter how relevant and important the CHS is to team members and partners’ work, you cannot just introduce a new framework and walk away. In my team, we made it a priority to always be available to answer questions, and provide support, accompaniment, and training on quality and accountability to global, regional, local, and partner teams. We did it on their terms, aligning with their contexts, language, time zones, and preferred ways of talking.

Additionally, some aspects of an accountability can appear threatening because they are misunderstood. Establishing feedback and complaints mechanisms is often seen as a chore and not what it can be – a live, real-time monitoring data source.

Interviewing people in the Dille community as part of the Tearfund’s Nigeria Proactive Accountability Pilot Credit: Tearfund

At times, teams feel apprehensive about community feedback. It’s only natural to feel defensive and take it personally if your work is criticised. I mentioned the proactive accountability pilot in Nigeria above. As a part of it, feedback collectors would actively seek information about how communities were feeling about the projects implemented in North-East Nigeria. As expected, this approach helped them receive nearly 100 times more feedback entries. What was not expected, is that over three-quarters of them were not complaints. They were words of appreciation and encouragement. The remaining entries were primarily requests for information and assistance the team could not provide. So they referred people on to the organisations that could. The country team felt encouraged and saw that community feedback wasn’t something to feel nervous about, and their and their partners’ interest in quality and accountability grew ever since.

Staying relevant

These are just a few aspects to consider while introducing some of the more hesitant members of our teams and partners to use the CHS to create a more comprehensive and systematic approach to quality and accountability. We know CHS is not perfect. It does, however, establish a universal aid standard and needs all of us to engage, especially national NGOs, to remain relevant.

I write this a month after the launch of the CHS Revision. National NGOs must have their say. The Standard is about putting people affected by crisis at the centre of our work, so we need to hear from those doing this work on the ground.

You can follow Marina on LinkedIn for more of her reflections on CHS Verification.

Learn more about CHS verification.

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