How accountable is our accountability?
By Maurice Sadlier
Accountability towards people affected by disasters is a vital element of any humanitarian response. It sits at the core of World Vision’s humanitarian and development work; our Programme Accountability Framework sets out how we seek to be answerable to the children and communities that we serve.
In addition to our own internal policies and procedures, World Vision is guided by many international norms and voluntary codes. One of these is the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability, which guides all of us working in this field to, above all, put people and communities at the centre of what we do. The Standard has set out nine Core Humanitarian Standards (below) which we as World Vision use to guide our work; two directly relate to accountability: Commitment 4 Humanitarian response is based on communication, participation and feedback, and Commitment 5 Complaints are welcomed and addressed.
Over the years I have developed an informal mental checklist that I go through every time I visit our programmes, to assure myself that we have systems in place to meet these standards:
- receive a locally contextualised briefing on child and adult safeguarding on arrival – check
- see notices around the office of internal complaints or whistle-blower line – check
- ask national programme staff if they are happy with support from colleagues on my team or have any issues – check
- look for suggestion boxes or notices while in community – check
- observer notices of project commitments, plans and budgets for a community – check
- ask community members themselves if they are happy with the service and how they would go about making a complaint if they had an issue – check, check!
This list or some format of it will be familiar to the majority of humanitarian workers, it becomes part of our being and natural instincts of checking programme quality. I recognise that as a white Irish man who often flies in for a short period of time, working through interpretation, I am not always best placed to fully assess these issues but I can reflect on them and be aware of their existence.
With that said, it’s clear that we must improve the ways we check if our accountability or Complaints and Response Mechanisms are truly working for those we wish to serve. Too often we take someone’s understanding of how to make a complaint as evidence that the system works. Or we congratulate ourselves on the number of complaints received as evidence that the process works, without enough analysis of the nature of the complaints. Many times complaints can relate to the provision of services outside of the scope of the project or are tangentially related to the project, and we feel reassured by the absence of “serious” complaints.
We need to reflect more on why we are not receiving these sorts of complaints. At the core this we have to acknowledge two factors – trust and power dynamics. Many of the people we are working to help find themselves in situations of unimaginable suffering after often fleeing war, conflict and persecution. Personal experience has naturally dented their trust in authorities, processes and systems. We need to work hard to build that trust and demonstrate that the systems result in action. We must also acknowledge and account for the power dynamics in many of these contexts, recognise and remedy gender imbalances, and be aware of fears of stigmatisation, and threats.
But just because we have these issues does not mean we abandon our current mechanisms to enable complaints and manage them. To quote Irish Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney: “If you have the words, there’s always a chance that you'll find the way.” We can continue to improve our systems and commit to learning. Wise stewardship, one of World Vision’s organisational values, means continuously improving and innovating, tackling current and future challenges.
We cannot ask enough times, or enough people, “are we doing this right?” The Core Humanitarian Standard Alliance verification process offers support in this. World Vision Ireland recently completed a Self-Assessment process, guided by the Alliance, that saw us review our organisation against the standards, look critically at our policies and practices, and, importantly, invite our stakeholders to give input to the assessment and help us hold up a mirror to ourselves. As the CHS Alliance promises, the self-assessment is a learning exercise, and it provided us an opportunity to reflect on our strengths and weakness and identity. We have developed an improvement plan to help us grow and ensure we are continue to find ways to deliver the highest standard of support to the communities we are here to serve. Is there anything more important?
Maurice Sadlier is World Vision Ireland’s Programmes Director. Follow Maurice on Twitter @mauricesadlier