Off the Radar: Are there quality and accountability blind spots in the humanitarian sector?

Alix Wadeson

by Alix Wadeson

Independent MEAL consultant

This month, Alix Wadeson, an independent consultant supporting organisations with CHS framework advice and conducting self-assessments, shines a light on the blind spots in accountable humanitarian responses

It’s encouraging to observe more commitment and interest in humanitarian quality and accountability since I started working with organisations and the CHS framework a few years ago.

Not only because this offers me more consulting opportunities. But because I actually believe in the mandate and ethos of the CHS Alliance and admire collective efforts of members to meet the Standard’s nine commitments.

I’ve had the privilege of working with several organisations on their journey of the CHS verification process, including self-assessments. And I do mean it is a privilege – it takes courage and trust to open one’s work up to an external eye, especially as humanitarian actors are constantly responding to crises in contexts of chaos and complexity, with staggering levels of suffering and loss. The stakes are high. The odds are often stacked against them. The pressure is immense.  Failure, at least to some degree, is likely. While I believe we should always strive for better, holding ourselves to ambitious standards, I think it is also important to acknowledge these factors, since there is a lot of scrutiny in the sector. What I’m saying is, it ain’t easy.

Is the CHS self-assessment perfect? No, of course not, nothing is. But it’s an effective means by which organisations can openly reflect and genuinely examine their policies and practices, asking and answering important questions through a process that enables tangible evidence and meaningful results. This paves the way towards meeting our aspirations to ‘be better’. And that’s no small thing. This is why I am an advocate for the CHS self-assessment process, as a vehicle for learning and improvement in a safe space, amongst peers. It’s a driver of change.

In the spirit of ‘how can we do better?’, I have noticed a few ‘blind spots’ from conducting several self-assessment processes. These are CHS indicators that result in weak scoring, quite consistently across a wide spectrum of organisations with differing sizes, sector expertise and geographic focus. This suggests these are not organisation-specific areas of weakness but rather sector-wide areas in need of more evidence, innovations and improvement.

  • Inclusive representation and leadership at the local level: Key Action 3.3 Programmes enable the development of local leadership and organisations in their capacity as first responders and promote an appropriate representation of marginalised and disadvantaged groups in local leadership and organisations. Organisations are increasingly partnering at the local level to promote local capacity and roles in response. However, there are gaps in explicit efforts to promote staffing for inclusive representation.
  • Data protection for the most vulnerable: Organisational Responsibility 3.8 Systems are in place to safeguard any personal information collected from communities and people affected by crisis that could put them at risk. The current humanitarian context of increasingly sophisticated methods of data collection and the use of technology means there are great strides and potential for evidence and learning however also higher risks. Yet, the sector is a long way off from fit-for-purpose systems and capacities to address these risks adequately. Even where relevant policies exist, there is limited awareness and enforcement of data protection and security measures.
  • Consultation on complaints and feedback mechanisms, throughout the project cycle: Key Action 5.1 Communities and people affected by crisis are consulted on the a. design, b. implementation, and c. monitoring of complaints handling processes. While many organisations are putting complaints and feedback response mechanisms in place and investing significant time and resources to this challenging area, the step of consultation with communities and including them as active participants in this process, all the way from design to implementation and monitoring, is often missing.
  • Sharing learning and evidence back with communities: Key Action 7.3 Learning and innovation are shared internally, with communities and people affected by crisis, and with other stakeholders. Organisations are usually very proactive about sharing learning with donors, online communities and peers, however planning and resources fall short to ensure this is also done at the community level for those who provided the source of evidence (arguably the most important stakeholders!).
  • Assessing and addressing environmental risks and natural resources use: Key Action 9.4 Local and natural resources are used taking their actual and potential impact on the environment into account. Environmental impact assessments and policies for climate change, sustainability and environmental protection are largely absent in humanitarian programming. At times, we can see relevant measures from a perspective of DRR, food security and sanitation for humans. It is understandable that during crisis, the mandate for human survival and urgency can override these concerns. However, the ways that programming impacts the environment is a significant area for improvement, in terms of both policy and practice.

Do you want to know what commitment is the most challenging for organisations to meet? Or where we as a sector are compliant with the requirements of the Standard? Are you interested in analysing where systems and guidance are lacking, or where staff need to be better supported to use existing tools? Do you wonder how the sector is performing on cross-cutting themes like PSEAH or localisation?

For the answers to these questions and more, please check out the new CHS Alliance data webpage, and don’t hesitate to share your comments and reactions with us. Contact CHS Alliance Verification Manager, Adrien Muratet for more.


If you have ideas or insights or can share your learning and evidence, please reach out to the CHS Alliance. And to me, as I’d be keen to discuss.