Blog post written by Joakim Daun, Field/Legal Researcher at the Refugee Law Initiative working on the RECAP (Research capacity building and knowledge generation to support preparedness and response to humanitarian crises and epidemics) project.


The #MeToo movement has made public the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace and elsewhere. The recent Oxfam scandal sheds a new light on an old debate around accountability for humanitarian organisations. In the aftermath of the scandal, other organisations have come out and publicly announced they also face problems with sexual misconduct from staff. Yet, we have not seen affected people themselves speak up about the abuse as we have seen in other sectors.


While power dynamics exist in all sectors, in the humanitarian sector the balance between those in power and receiving assistance is even more skewed. Crisis-affected populations, whether displaced by natural disasters or people fleeing war, famine and persecution have often lost their self-protection mechanisms and networks. They are among the most socially and economically vulnerable. Accountability in the humanitarian sector is therefore even more relevant as it can be the only way for affected population can have a say in what happens to them and the only path to seek redress when their rights have been violated.


While there is no agreed definition of “humanitarian accountability,” there are three strands of accountability that have been implemented by most organisations:

  • The first focuses on setting technical standards for services delivered, such as the Sphere standards that outlines minimum standards for programmes addressing WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene), food security, health and shelter.
  • The second focuses on results-based management frameworks that define expected results and monitor progress toward the achievement of such results. Emphasis is also put on integrating lessons learned into management decisions and reporting on performance. Here accountability is seen as way of making best use of resources and using feedback from affected populations to improve effectiveness.
  • The third strand is the rights-based or client-based approach, which focuses on affected populations as rights-holders that should include their voices in the projects which implemented for them. This approach requires humanitarian actors to involve crisis affected populations  in key decisions and processes that impact them and have effective communication and feedback channels that engage all groups without discrimination, especially the most vulnerable or marginalised populations.


Most humanitarian organisations now have frameworks that incorporate these strands. Yet, crisis-affected populations including forcibly displaced persons still have no formal control, and often little influence, over decisions taken by humanitarian organisations. Some evidence suggests that these approaches have failed to effectively ensure refugees’ voices are listened to and acted upon. In some instances, affected populations are unaware of how they can make complaints and they do not have faith that their concerns will be taken into account. Another study showed that refugees felt they were only encouraged to mobilise and asked to participate and contribute if it was within fixed humanitarian structures and participation initiated by refugees themselves did not fit in the humanitarian response structure.



Outside of humanitarian organisations, the avenues to report abuses are limited because local authorities are often badly equipped to deal with such allegations. There are few or no mechanisms in place to deter staff from committing such abuse more than codes of conduct. Rotation of humanitarian staff is frequent and internationally recruited staff may leave the country before an investigation is even completed. As in the Oxfam case, the staff member resigned and left the country without any sanction and was able to take up employment in another country.


Even when people are asked to share their views and complaints, few organisations have independent systems in place to receive such complaints. Crisis-affected populations can therefore be hesitant to criticise an organisation that provides them with assistance and protection, fearing that they might then lose these aids. The fact that victims of sexual abuse must seek recourse from the same organisation associated with the abusers is a clearly a deterrent for people to step forward and speak up about such abuses.


Humanitarian accountability has generally been donor and government driven and not a grassroots movement. In 2016 The Grand Bargain called for a ‘participation revolution’ asking aid organisations to ensure that the voices of the most vulnerable groups are heard and acted upon. Last year through the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, States committed to putting “those most affected at the centre of planning and action”.


The UK International Development Secretary, Penny Mordaunt reacted swiftly to the Oxfam scandal, asking humanitarian organisations to show moral leadership and said the UK government will not work with any organisation that does not live up to the high standards on safeguarding and protection standards they require. This strong stand was welcomed but donors have been pushing for better accountability for a while and humanitarian organisations are already under more scrutiny than in previous years. It is fair to assume that most humanitarian workers are well-intended, and they often work long hours in dangerous, difficult and stressful conditions. Moreover, bureaucratic structures and constant reporting leaves staff with little time to fully engage with and respond to affected population’s complaints. If accountability is not fully prioritised from organisations and donors, and only seen as a requirement on paper, it will become yet another task for a staff member that is already overworked. Hence, asking staff to do more without giving them tools and incentives might not be the solution.


Humanitarian organisations compete with each other for funds and have to put lots of time and resources on developing reports and other documentation to show the impact of their work and to maintain a ‘positive image’ of themselves in order to attract enough funds. The fear of having their image damaged might actually make organisations less likely to be open about accountability issues. In hindsight, it probably would have cost Oxfam a lot less both in terms of financial loss and public embarrassment if they had revealed all the facts from the beginning and taken proper action to ensure the abuser was sanctioned. However, the way they reacted says something about the environment in which humanitarian organisations operate.


The pressure from donors on supply-side accountability also needs to encourage and allow humanitarian organisations to invest time and human and financial resources both in increasing accountability internally, but also to implement meaningful and effective participation and two-way communication on the ground for the affected population. Establishing participation mechanisms without addressing the fundamental dynamics between those in power and those without is not enough to make humanitarian organisations more accountable.


The humanitarian sector has developed lots of guidelines and frameworks on meaningful accountability, but it is less clear how these can be independently measured, and what consequences staff or organisations face if they do not live up to these standards. There is therefore a need for more independent scrutiny and mechanisms that can receive complaints from crisis-affected populations. The International Development Secretary asked “How can we as a sector act swiftly to investigate violations of our codes of conduct, support victims and report with transparency and accountability?” The answer cannot only be donor driven but host governments, humanitarian organisations, academia, and crisis affected populations must work together to find solutions.


The newly launched RECAP project, of which the Refugee Law Initiative is part, aims to offer further insight to some of the complex issues around accountability in the humanitarian sector. The research at RLI will focus on investigating legal and other frameworks and mechanisms related to protection and displaced populations and exploring better ways to achieve accountability. By asking what meaningful accountability means in practice we hope to produce research that can be both critical but also useful for practitioners in the field.



Photograph: ©Wikimedia Commons

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law InitiativeWe welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.