Member of the Month: the Disasters Emergency Committee

25 April 2019

This month we are putting the Disasters Emergency Committee in the spotlight. The CHS Alliance and DEC have been closely working together to promote high quality and accountable humanitarian aid. A recent example of collaboration was their joint learning event in November 2018 to identify and share good practice on the implementation of the Core Humanitarian Standard.

“Together we are stronger” – Monica Blagescu from DEC on humanitarian accountability and the CHS

This month we are putting the Disasters Emergency Committee in the spotlight. DEC is a membership organisation which brings together leading UK-based humanitarian agencies to work closely with the media, corporate partners and others to raise and allocate funds in order to help save, protect and rebuild the lives of crisis-affected communities. The CHS Alliance and DEC have been closely working together to promote high quality and accountable humanitarian aid. A recent example of collaboration was their joint learning event in November 2018 to identify and share good practice on the implementation of the Core Humanitarian Standard.

For this edition, we sat down with Monica Blagescu, Director of Humanitarian Programmes and Accountability, to hear more about how the Disasters Emergency Committee ensures and promotes quality and accountability with members and beyond. At DEC, Monica works with member charities to ensure that funds they raise through their public appeals are spent to deliver highly effective programmes which best address the needs of crisis-affected communities.

Disasters Emergency Committee becomes Member of the Month

Doida talks to Monica about his experience in a field of maize in Bena Tsemay, South Omo, Ethiopia – one of the areas worst affected by the 2017 drought. The seeds were provided by a Christian Aid partner with DEC Appeal Funds. The community was engaged in decision-making about prioritisation of humanitarian operations and in the identification of most vulnerable households.

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where does your commitment to quality and accountability come from?

My interest and passion for improving humanitarian quality and accountability stems from an early experience as part of a community receiving international assistance and now spans more than 25 years.

Immediately after the fall of communism and following floods that affected the eastern part of Romania in 1991, my small home town saw distributions of international aid supplies from both Western European citizen groups and from well-established organisations working in partnership with the city council. This offered me an early insight into the dynamics between aid providers and aid recipients, the role of community-level decision makers, the necessity of recognising people in need as agents of change and the importance of providing a dignified and inclusive response. While the help received was always welcome, these instances gave me a glimpse of the unintended mismatch between needs, targeted groups and supplies, and of power imbalances that can deepen at different levels.

How do crisis-affected people and communities benefit from DEC’s funding model?

As a registered charity, the DEC is governed by a Board of Trustees responsible for setting in place an assurance framework for how funds are distributed and used down the delivery chain to make a difference in the lives of people affected by natural disasters or complex and protracted crises. As a collaborative entity, members are bound by our mission to work together and raise funds quickly and effectively in large-scale humanitarian emergencies, to uphold the highest standards of quality and accountability in the programmes that they deliver with such funds, and to learn and share information to promote effective humanitarian programmes. Of course, we are also accountable to our supporters – people and organisations in the UK who donate to the DEC national appeals and who expect to see the impact that their contribution is making.

What internal mechanism do you have in place to drive high quality and accountable aid?

The DEC Accountability Framework has been used in different forms since 2007, and regularly revised over the years. It encompasses a number of activities designed to promote and demonstrate programme quality and accountability, structured around four pillars: quality standards audit; appeal-specific reporting; a system of independent external evaluation of programmes; and learning and improvement activities.

The Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability (CHS) was adopted by the DEC Board in 2015.  It is now a requirement of DEC membership to provide assurance through third-party verification against the CHS. This means that members examine their ways of working across all operations and are committed to strengthening the systems which underpin their ability to consistently deliver effective response. Programme reporting and external, independent evaluations drill down on specific DEC-funded humanitarian operations, asking questions about how well member agencies utilise tranches of DEC funding. The impact measurement focusses on an independent review of how members have adapted and improved their programmes. Joint learning activities – member-led or facilitated by the DEC – provide an opportunity for members to generate evidence to improve and draw lessons for future application.

We hear a lot about the challenges that organisations face to adhere to donor requirements, while also being accountable to crisis-affected communities. How does DEC find the right balance?

The DEC’s work is driven by a commitment to best practice, compliance with legal and regulatory requirements, and being accountable both to our appeal supporters in the UK and to the crises-affected people for whom we raise funds.

Accountability to donors and accountability to communities need not be an either/or situation though unfortunately it often is especially given shortage of funding, the ongoing calls for scrutiny from different directions and the lack of alignment amongst donor requirements. More must be done across the board to address the accountability deficit that exists; to do so, we must shift from donor accountability towards accountability where this matters most, towards the communities we are striving to help. Aid organisations must be supported to invest more in what I call the accountability triangle: to take into account (the needs and aspirations of communities), give an account (to the same communities of how they are delivering on agreed commitments and expectations that they set), and be held to account for what and how they deliver.

Under the umbrella of the DEC, members have made a commitment to accountability to crisis-affected populations. We are driven by a strong belief that delivering high quality programmes, which are accountable to communities, should also provide sufficient evidence to satisfy accountability requirements to the DEC as a funder and back to the public who donated to our appeals.

The DEC and the CHS Alliance have been working together to develop a CHS self-assessment tool for donors and funding bodies. Can you tell us about your experience with this process?

The DEC is committed to the CHS and all 14 DEC members are at different stages of engagement with the CHS Verification Scheme, making the DEC one of the first and largest group of aid agencies to have voluntarily adopted the CHS and the Verification Scheme.

Yet the DEC constantly reviews and revises how the requirements and ways of working with its members enhance and support members’ abilities to deliver the CHS. We recognise that the “rules” that we set up can have a profound impact on how funds that we disburse are spent and on members‘ abilities to remain focussed on accountability to communities. It is in this spirit that we have spurred and contributed to the development of the self-assessment tools for donors and funding entities. We are also the first such entity to undertake a self-assessment to identify areas where our members feel that we can do better to support them and to facilitate more collaboration amongst them.

What message would you like to address to others, including donors, regarding their role in supporting the CHS?

Adopting or recognising the CHS and the CHS Verification Scheme would be welcome, and I want to acknowledge the progress that has been made in this regard as part of the bilateral donors’ group before and after the Safeguarding Summit “Putting People First” which took place in London in October 2018. But we need to achieve critical mass by aligning around the CHS and the principles that it embodies.

We hope that other donors and funding entities will also assess how they impact or hinder the ability of operational organisations to meet the CHS. To do so, it is important that other donors continue to acknowledge their role as part of the aid system beyond that of funders, so that we see a more significant shift from accountability to donors towards accountability with donors for how aid is delivered in the best interest of crisis-affected communities, very much line with one of the Grand Bargain commitments. Undertaking a self-assessment against the CHS could go a long way in this direction.

We are in this together – policy, funding and operational organisations – and each and every one must recognise the role that they play and the impact that they have on each other. This is not in any way to say that ongoing review and close scrutiny is not welcome; on the contrary, it is about recognising the importance of rigorous peer to peer accountability, which must be focused on the ultimate goal of improved humanitarian assistance. In the true spirit of the DEC, the message to others is to recognise that “together we are stronger”.