Accountability

A Series on Accountability. Part III. Transparency – The elephant in the room

AAP Principle 2. Transparency: Provide accessible and timely information to affected populations on organizational procedures, structures and processes that affect them to ensure that they can make informed decisions and choices, and facilitate a dialogue between an organization and its affected populations over information provision.

AAP Principle 2: Transparency

Leaders of humanitarian organizations will provide accessible and timely information to affected populations on organizational procedures, structures and processes that affect them to ensure that they can make informed decisions and choices, and facilitate a dialogue between an organization and its affected populations over information provision.

Again let’s break this principle apart, to make sure we understand it:

  1. Leaders will provide accessible and timely information to affected populations on organizational procedures,
  2. Leaders will provide accessible and timely information to affected populations on structures,
  3. Leaders will provide accessible and timely information to affected populations on processes,
  4. Leaders will facilitate a dialogue between an organization and its affected populations over information provision.

As of June 2018, the Cox’s Bazar AAP subgroup admitted that “insufficient focus is still given by some humanitarian actors to informing affected populations of their rights related to humanitarian assistance, which is an essential precursor to improving AAP” (Accountability Subgroup Manifesto – Cox’s Bazar, June 2018).

“In the first quarter of 2018, the Rohingya response in Bangladesh was generally failing to achieve mandated accountability standards (Christian Aid 20183 and Internews 2018). According to the Christian Aid (CAID) survey, only 16% of women and 25% of men were aware of accountability mechanisms, while only 27% of women and 17% of men report understanding their rights related to humanitarian assistance.”

THE ACCOUNTABILITY TO AFFECTED POPULATIONS (AAP) MANIFESTO, Jan 2019

This problem is not unique to the Bangladeshi response.  The creation of two-way communication systems, where people are allowed to interact with and discuss the information they receive, but also to actively input into what information they want and how, it still missing.

Apart from work on privacy and data ethics, there are very few examples in Bangladesh or elsewhere where organizations have involved communities themselves in discussing organizational procedures, structures and processes that affect them to ensure that they can make informed decisions and choices. It is totally missing for example, an informed debate about how NGO people are hired, how projects are carried out, or what procedures regulates the decision-making processes at the top of the organization.

The scrambling to find a solution for the massive backlash received after the Oxfam scandal, to create new and more sophisticated body of safeguarding policies, was done with almost none of them have been discussed or have seen the involvement of affected communities.

Even the process of how information collected from affected communities is handled and answered is often vague and not very transparent, largely because most aid organizations are unable to share their data easily with each other, and set up clear referral pathways that would ensure that the process is transparent and that all voices from the community are heard and answered to (Internews, 2018).

Despite the high demand from women and men for information related to the humanitarian response, agencies aren’t engaging with affected people in the was they prefer. This was also the case in South Sudan, as highlighted in this report from 2016.

To this, we have to add the issue of how humanitarian agencies work with local media, which should normally be one of the actors that ensure transparency, by reporting in an unbiased and objective way. While the humanitarian community in Cox’s Bazar has been working with local media and local radio stations, there is still a lack of understanding of the role of media in this context. Humanitarian agencies try to use media for PR purposes and the media in return try look for opportunities to expose them. This undermines government and local people’s trust in the response, as well as the potential important role local media can play supporting aid organizations become more accountable and transparent.

Generally it is clear that international organizations are quite afraid of talking openly about their internal structures and systems. Unwillingness on the part of aid agencies to share information about corruption in their operations for example, could potentially discredit their mission and it is therefore almost always covered up, saved some very famous examples, all emerged as result of the work of media.

On the other side, organizations are also not able to fully implement this principle because they do not know how. The idea of explaining to affected communities how the organization operated, why and its systems, is often set aside by humanitarian workers as something that “they will not understand”. The Ebola response was a great example of this, where the majority of local media were involved into spreading rumors and false information about the disease, mostly because no one had taken the time and effort to explain to them the science behind it. The consequences were deadly, for both humanitarian aid workers, journalists and local communities.

The result of all of these problems in the application of the principle of Transparency as articulated before is a monster that mocks the very principle of transparency. For example, in Greece, during the Refugee response in 2015, the local Communication with Communities working group in the island of Lesvos had no member of affected communities sitting in it whatsoever (it also had no Greek national in it, or representative of the Greek population living in the island). The meetings were basically NGO and UN agencies meetings to talk about what “they [a.k.a. refugees]” asked, what “they” wanted, all from the point of view of these agencies themselves. In these meetings refugees where in fact often talked about as a third party to manage, not as a genuine stakeholder. In fact the group could be renamed “Communication to Communities.

Less than 5000 meters away from the CwC meeting room in Lasvos there was Moria, also called by the BBC the “worst camp on earth”. It goes without saying that even the national CwC Working Group in Athens had absolutely no members of affected population in it – see here their meeting minutes with attendance recorded.

This principle is, as of today, mostly ink on paper, and it is translated way too often as a bland set of information being thrown at beneficiaries, often in a way that they will not be understood (and not for their lack of ability to understand but because humanitarian organizations do a pretty bad job at communicating).

Personally, I think the Transparency principle as explained here is a missing opportunity: if accountability is related to the ability to hold someone to account, then the obligation to provide information on any of these issues is not enough. Personally I would required organizations to discuss and generate these structures, processes and procedures directly with affected communities. What is the point of telling me what your procedures are, if ultimately I cannot change them?

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