Use the CHS for all it’s worth

30 October 2020

by Nick van Praag

Director & Founder, Ground Truth Solutions

Ground Truth Solutions wrote a new strategy this year based on the notion that for too long, the humanitarian sector has invoked variations on the mantra that it should be more accountable to the people it serves. No matter how earnest, though, rhetoric alone cannot tip the balance towards more accountable and participatory humanitarian action. For that to happen, things need to change – and that means doing things differently.

People on the receiving end of humanitarian action still have little say over how aid is provided, and new instruments – including the CHS and HQAI – are yet to achieve the momentum necessary to establish aid recipients’ influence in humanitarian decision-making.

When we at Ground Truth Solutions (GTS) ask crisis-affected people about their take on humanitarian action, they tell us plainly that these efforts have not shifted the fulcrum on accountability.

It is not that the rationale is missing. It is broadly accepted that accountability to affected people, done right, will lead to higher quality aid, better value for money, and improved performance.

It is rather that despite these compelling arguments, the aid sector continues to be supply-driven. It is centred around the mandates of individual agencies keen to demonstrate their value to what political scientists call their ‘authorising environment.’ But demonstrating that value to affected people, not so much…

Over the past couple of years, we have seen a huge increase in window-dressing on accountability to affected people – mostly in the form of guidance and frameworks. The way to deal with these largely empty artefacts, is through the amplification of the voices of affected people, so their first-hand views are heard, influence decisions, expose gaps, and show what’s working and what’s not.

This is where the CHS comes in.

I don’t think anyone assumes the humanitarian sector will return to business as usual once the threat of Covid-19 has subsided. We must seize this moment of self-reflection to make greater accountability a reality – and the CHS has a special place in this context. The clarity, concision, and comprehensiveness of its Nine Commitments allow us to track progress against a single, universal scorecard; one that is framed in the perspective of people on the wrong side of the humanitarian tracks.

It is a powerful tool and we need to use it to make a difference.  This means ensuring the commitments become action points for every humanitarian agency and all humanitarian country teams – with the perspective of aid recipients hard-wired into the way plans, programmes, and projects are designed and their impact measured.

Over the last three years, with the support of Sida, GTS has been working with the CHS Alliance in Chad, systematically tracking how affected people see the relief effort there in terms of its respect for the Standard and progress towards achieving the strategic objectives of the Humanitarian Response Plan.

Participants in the CHS Alliance and GTS strengthening accountability project in Chad © Isabella Leyh, GTS

This same approach to tracking response-wide performance from the aid recipients’ point of view has been replicated in Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Iraq, and Somalia.

The approach holds promise because it is not the preserve of AAP ‘specialists.’ Rather, it requires ownership on the part of the leadership.  Only when the perspective of affected people is embedded in the architecture of humanitarian action will it cease to be a nice-to-have add-on and become instead a central driver of better humanitarian performance.

This means revisiting the prevailing approach to AAP at the field level that places disproportionate emphasis on Commitments 4 and 5. In practice, this often boils down to basic communication with communities and going through the motions on setting up complaint mechanisms. By limiting the focus in this way we risk giving a perfunctory nod to the concept of AAP while ignoring the bigger CHS picture. Seven-ninths of it, to be exact!

Rather than tethering ourselves to a minimalist interpretation of AAP, we must seek out the views of affected people on every aspect of humanitarian action. The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie rightly says that “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” The very term ‘accountability’ has its roots in truth telling, and we can no longer afford to understand humanitarian accountability in this limited way.

The CHS provides a powerful framework against which to measure progress while the strategic objectives set out in every Humanitarian Response Plan provide succinct statements of intent against which to assess whether or not the Standard’s commitments – all nine of them – are successfully translated into concrete programming.

The humanitarian planning season is now in full swing and humanitarian country teams are pouring over needs assessments and formulating response plans for next year.  Most turn to AAP specialists to help them draft discrete sections in the new documents, in line with guidance from Geneva.

This frenetic planning exercise is about elaborating response plans for the year 2021. But what about evaluating the success of plans implemented in 2020, the year that is coming to an end? Who is checking whether they met their goals… and if people affected by crisis consider they’ve made a difference in their lives? In most places, this is simply not happening.

The compelling aspiration of accountability to affected people will only come to pass when it is part of a broader approach to humanitarian accountability, at all levels. If we are to break the AAP logjam, we must place it in this bigger context. This in turn requires determination on the part of donors to demand more of the organizations they fund than routine self-reports. They must genuinely hold their grantees to account– and weighing heavily in that balance must be the extent to which affected people get to participate in determining their own future.

Learn more about CHS Alliance’s Accountability to Affected People work.