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Standards and Aid

June 6, 2007


When I have discussed  Development-in-a-Box™, I have always stressed the importance of standards and best practices. If you are going to jump-start a developing economy and get it connected to the developed world, providing some assurances that those interactions can be trusted is critical. Standards and best practices go a long way towards developing that trust. The Economist reports that a group of the world’s leading aid agencies recently revealed standards they pledge to operate by and by which they believe all aid agencies should be judged [“Weighed and Found Wanting,” 26 May 2007, subscription required].

“Go on, check us out then—the more that people scrutinise us, the better. That, roughly, is the message which 17 of the world’s aid agencies were sending when, at a recent meeting in Geneva, they unveiled details of a standard of good management to which all of them (and, in due course, other agencies) should aspire. The hope, presumably, is that next time an earthquake, epidemic or war creates a human tragedy, donors will be able to show their compassion with confidence that their money will not be wasted or diverted. ‘When you buy a well-known make of car, you assume that it’s been tested against some carefully chosen benchmarks,’ says Nick Stockton, a veteran of the aid business who now runs the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) in Geneva. ‘Donors to good causes should have a similar assurance.’ That is much more than a platitude. Aid workers are still blushing over blunders they made after the 2004 tsunami. In the Indonesian province of Aceh, victims were housed in leaky, termite-ridden dwellings which had to be pulled down; boats given to Indonesian and Sri Lankan fishermen proved unseaworthy; temporary homes for Indian victims proved too hot to inhabit. Such embarrassments have given independent aid bodies a strong incentive to review their own record before governments, or inter-governmental bodies, step in with heavy-handed rules.”

Humanitarian aid agencies are especially important in times of crisis, but they also play a valuable role in the development arena. By adhering to accepted international standards, the good they do can be increased. At least that is hope behind the new standards.

“In practical terms, getting a HAP certificate (valid for three years) means inviting auditors to take a tough look at your mission statement, your accounts and your control systems—both at head office and in the field. Auditors’ reports will be as open to the public as company accounts are. Among HAP‘s members, there are some global giants of relief such as World Vision, CARE International and Oxfam; groups with a religious inspiration like Christian Aid, and some state agencies, mostly Nordic. Two bodies have been given their HAP certificates already, on the basis of audits carried out over the last few months: the Danish Refugee Council, and a Senegal-based agency, OFADEC.”

There has been an enormous increase in the number of non-profit organizations operating around the world. Not all of them are of the same quality and not all of them have been set up for altruistic reasons. Eager criminals (or corrupt politicians) have established phony foundations to grab a share of the billions of aid dollars looking for worthy projects. Separating the good from the bad is one of the first chores of the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership. Once that status is determined, HAP looks much closer at accountability.

“‘Accountability’ has been a buzz-word among providers of succour at least since 1994, when it emerged that refugee camps in Congo were sheltering those responsible for Rwanda’s genocide. The notion that ‘good intentions can have bad results’ became a commonplace. And after the tsunami, there was much talk of accountability to victims as well as donors. One problem, maybe, is that there is no point in the chain that leads from donors to recipients where judgments and motives are always wise and disinterested. As most agencies will admit, rich types with bleeding hearts are not the best judges of where their donations are needed; an agency that simply catered to donors’ whims would short-change the needy.”

The reason that most aid agencies insist on making decisions about where assistance should go is that they are quite aware of the “CNN effect.” The spotlight of the press can draw attention to a situation richly deserving of assistance, but the press then moves on to the next story; leaving the still unacceptable situation unresolved. Even worse, other situations never gain the attention they deserve and, therefore, would fail to attract any donations. By signing up to standards, agencies are saying that donors can and should trust their judgment. The article concludes, however, that even the best set of standards cannot address ethical dilemmas that are likely to arise.

“Victims of a disaster … are of course better judges than any bureaucrat of the houses or boats they need; but if they are caught in the midst of a conflict, the ‘needs’ of the victims and the war aims of their tribe or nation are not easy to separate. If a ‘victims-first’ principle had been used in those camps on Rwanda’s border, it might have implied pandering to the perpetrators of terrible crimes. To put it another way, there is no piece of paper that will instantly solve the agonising ethical dilemmas that can so easily arise when handing out aid to the suffering. But the HAP certificate might still do a lot of good if it forces agencies to abide, at least, by the first principle of Hippocrates: First, do no (avoidable) harm.”

The Humanitarian Accountability Partnership lays out seven overriding accountability principles:

1) Commitment to humantarian standards and rights

Members state their commitment to respect and foster humanitarian standards and the rights of beneficiaries

2) Setting standards and building capacity

Members set a framework of accountability to their stakeholders. This framework of accountability includes standards, quality standards, principles, policies, guidelines, training and other capacity-building work, etc. The framework must include measurable performance indicators. Standards may be internal to the organization or they may be collective, e.g. Sphere or People in Aid. Members set and periodically review their standards and performance indicators, and revise them if necessary. Members provide appropriate training in the use and implementation of standards.

3) Communication

Members inform, and consult with, stakeholders, particularly beneficiaries and staff, about the standards adopted, programmes to be undertaken and mechanisms available for addressing concerns.

4) Participation in programs

Members involve beneficiaries in the planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of programs and report to them on progress, subject only to serious operational constraints.

5) Monitoring and reporting on compliance

Members involve beneficiaries and staff when they monitor and revise standards.

6) Members regularly monitor and evaluate compliance with standards, using robust processes.

Members report at least annually to stakeholders, including beneficiaries, on compliance with standards. Reporting may take a variety of forms. Members enable beneficiaries and staff to report complaints and seek redress safely.

7) Implementing partners

Members are committed to the implementation of these principles if and when working through implementation partners. Like everything else, the devil is always in the details (which these high level standards lack). Nevertheless a commitment to standards is a good start. I found HAP’s definition of accountability very useful as well:

“HAP’s evolving definition of accountability goes beyond an exclusive focus on the process of reporting upon – or accounting for – decisions and actions. Accountability also involves taking account of the needs, concerns, capacities and dispositions of affected parties, and explaining the meaning and implications of, and the reasons for, actions and decisions. Accountability is thus a measure of the quality of the relationship between an agent (a body offering a service or product) and a principal (the person or group for whom the service or product is intended). The more powerful the agent, the greater potential there is for abuse and exploitation of the principals. Accountability is the countervailing force which confronts power and ensures that it is exercised responsibly.

“The HAP definition of accountability thus involves three dimensions:

  • Processes through which individuals, organizations and states make decisions that affect others.
  • Mechanisms through which individuals, organizations and states seek to explain their decisions and actions.
  • Processes through which individuals, organisations and states raise concerns about, and seek redress or compensation for, the consequences of the decisions and actions of others.

“Accountability therefore requires responsible behaviour within all three of these domains and this is what, in the context of humanitarian action, HAP seeks to promote.”

It seems remarkable that we have come this far into the information age (which was built on accepted standards) and are just starting to understand how important standards are in most areas of human activity. Development-in-a-Box has been well received because of its standards-based and best practices approach and I think it is an approach that will be adopted in many areas as we move forward.

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