Talking about the Role of Leadership in Closing the Accountability Gap

30 June 2021
Coline Rapneau

by Coline Rapneau

CHS Alliance PSEAH Manager

Leaders from more than 20 local, national, and international NGOs in Cox’s Bazar came together for a first dialogue to exchange about their role in closing the accountability gap and preventing Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Harassment (SEAH), as part of a three-year project on Closing the Accountability Gap. They recognised that policies alone do not ensure good practice and that organisational culture is crucial in ensuring strong accountability.

We all know that we can do better in preventing and responding to cases of sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment. The Closing the Accountability Gap project, which the CHS Alliance is leading in collaboration with ISS/Erasmus University Rotterdam (ISS) and The Netherlands Government, aims to help humanitarian organisations do just that. However, SEAH is part of bigger gaps in accountability to affected people where aid organisations can and need to do much better.

Making those improvements in accountability relies a lot on the leadership in organisations. Leadership can come from various levels in an organisation, but as we have seen with the Leading Well report, the heads of organisations play a critical role in setting the right tone from the top.

I had the privilege to take part in a first exciting dialogue with more than 20 leaders of local, national, and international NGOs in Cox’s Bazar who came together on 24 June, to reflect on what more they can do to address accountability gaps.

A first step, they agreed, is ensuring the organisation has the right policies in place. These are the “square approaches,” as Professor Dorothea Hilhorst of ISS calls them. These policies must be put into practice, which requires using “round approaches”, such as organisational culture, mind-sets, creativity, and informal accountability. These approaches rely on concerted efforts over time and leaders must show that they prioritise accountability to affected people and seek to balance both the “square” and “round” approaches.

During the discussion, leaders also identified the lack of harmonised complaints systems as a gap. Organisations must work together to make it easier for survivors/victims of SEAH or others to speak up. Leaders need to have more open and honest discussions about ways to encourage people to feedback, report or complain, and ensure that these reports are acted upon in timely and effective manner.

“Trust” was a word that came up repeatedly. One leader noted that, “everything is about trust.” Leaders must have a plan in place to instil a culture of trust, particularly between management and staff, as well as between affected people and aid organisations.

Building trust takes time and a genuine openness to listen and adapt the way we work. The project on Closing the Accountability Gap aims to support aid organisations improve in this area. ISS is working with local researchers in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) to hear from affected people about their views on humanitarian assistance and where they believe improvements need to be made.

CHS Alliance is looking at organisations’ accountability in each of the three countries through self-assessments and collectively assessing humanitarian responses (check out my colleague Cat’s blog about her role in the project). Findings will then be brought together during national workshops later this year to discuss with various actors, including aid organisations, where the accountability gaps really are and how we can collectively fill them over the next couple of years.

We are very much looking forward to continuing this dialogue about how to better prevent and respond to SEAH with leaders—through organisational culture and increased accountability—in each of the pilot countries over the course of the project.

If you are a leader in an aid organisation in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, or oPt and are willing to exchange or engage in other parts of the project, please email me: