Building trust through quality complaint systems

24 October 2022
Cat Skehan

by Cat Skehan

Accountability to Affected People Manager

CHS Alliance is delighted to announce that we are launching a new project to develop a Complaints Handling Guideline and Toolkit.

At the heart of accountability is listening to people affected by crisis and delivering aid in the way that they want. As with any system, organisation or person, things can go wrong. It’s what we do when something goes wrong that matters. Are we encouraging people to tell us what’s wrong, so we find out about it? Can we face up to reality, even if it’s hard to hear? Do we react to make the situation better as soon as possible? Do we learn from the problem and change so it doesn’t happen again?

People affected by crisis have the right to complain to an aid organisation when things go wrong, and to receive an appropriate and timely response that addresses their concerns. Formal mechanisms for raising and responding to complaints are an essential component of an organisation delivering accountability to those they serve.

Complaints can also alert an organisation to serious misconduct or failures in a response, allowing them to take timely action to improve the quality of their work, protect people in vulnerable situations and stop serious wrongdoing expanding or becoming imbedded.

All organisations are susceptible to fraud and abuse of power; a well-functioning and consistent complaints system can help an organisation to recognise and respond to malpractice, manipulation and exploitation.

Recent findings from the 2022 Humanitarian Accountability Report show that Commitment 5 on complaints being welcomed and addressed consistently scores the lowest among all the aggregated CHS verification scores. In fact, Commitment 5 has been the lowest-scoring Commitment since the creation of the CHS, never reaching the average score of two that means aid organisations are meeting this Commitment. This low score signals that organisations are making efforts to take complaints seriously and act on what they hear, but these are not systematic, meaning organisations are failing people and missing important warning signs for wider problems.

We know from working with our members, that part of the low score for Commitment 5 is the challenge of ensuring consistent application of complaints mechanisms across operations, as well as knowing how to respond to complaints made.

A lack of follow-up from aid organisations can (further) reduce trust and engagement with people affected by crisis and different actors in the architecture of aid over time, creating a reluctance to complain.

To help close this gap in the sector, the CHS Alliance is pleased to announce that we are launching a new project to develop a Complaints Handling Guideline and Toolkit. This vital work is being supported by the Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, the U.S. Government lead for international disaster assistance, as part of their support to CHS Alliance to strengthen collective accountability to affected people.

CHS Alliance’s upcoming Complaints Guideline and Toolkit will help all aid delivery organisations, regardless of size or location, to develop an effective complaint handling mechanism. It will support organisations to maintain consistent practices across locations, even in the face of diverse communities or different contexts. The guidance will include clear, pragmatic advice on how organisations should respond to complaints they receive.

Recognising the excellent practice that many CHS Alliance members already have in this area, the Guidance and Toolkit will build on the experience of the membership to identify the successes and challenges of current practice. We also need to understand the challenges members face in welcoming and address complaints to make sure the guidance meets your needs.

We cannot do this without the expertise and energy of our dedicated CHS Alliance members. As the first steps for this project, I will be following up with members who have already shared their complaints policies with CHS Alliance and reaching out to members who have not yet shared these with us. If you’re a CHS Alliance member, please do get in touch with me about your current policies and procedures for Complaints Handling and Resolution – email me at Catherine Skehan.

I look forward to building up our collective knowledge on welcoming and addressing complaints in aid – so that the aid system really starts to face up to its problems and listen to those it serves.