Wow! The 29th Annual Meeting of ALNAP in Addis. This was memorable and eye-opening. But what is ALNAP? The Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action. Rather less memorable in full than as an acronym. But a vital orientation and a remarkable organisation. This annual meeting brought together for two intense days 170 people engaged in the sector. From a great range of over 100 organisations, with NGOs more than any other category, and international agencies, governments, universities, and the private sector in smaller numbers. An astonishing range of experience to have all in one room, and the largest ALNAP annual meeting so far.
And why was it memorable? For me it was one of those Rip van Winkle re-entries which for some reason seem to come my way more often these days. My time in the sector was long ago in UNHCR as its first evaluation officer in the mid 70s, and then in 1986 in a team evaluating the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies drought relieve operations in Africa in 1984-6. How radically things have changed since those days of relative amateurism and ignorance. In the mid 70s UNHCR was faced with many millions of rural refugees in Africa and did not have a single health, nutrition, agricultural, sanitation, water, settlement or other specialist. Though lots of lawyers, good at law. There were some large refugee settlements, but it was convenient to believe that most African refugees were best off left to fend for themselves. African hospitality would take care of them. Often not, I concluded, the case. And as for 1986 we wrote in our evaluation report that people had ‘a basic human right to be protected from incompetence’.
What a different universe it is now!
People in this conference were far, far more professional and experienced. Their concerns for accountability and performance have spread, deepened and evolved almost beyond recognition. There are now many guides, protocols, critical reviews and even organisations preoccupied with accountability to those affected by crises, outstandingly ALNAP itself.
The theme for the meeting was great – Engagement of crisis-affected people in humanitarian action. The overview and background paper by Dayna Brown, A Donini and Paul Knox-Clarke is excellent. The subject is vital because of the misfit and tension between urgent action to save lives and minimise suffering on the one hand, and listening, sensitivity, responsiveness, and supporting not undermining what people are doing and can do for themselves. And the many contexts and types of emergency or crisis challenge standard solutions. All this is pretty well known, so let me jump to what hit me in the face.
Top-down measurement versus accountability to people.
Paradigms are in tension. Underlying current debates and practice in the sector is a tug of war between the (Newtonian) paradigm of things, which is top-down with control, measurement, standardisation and upward accountability, and the (complexity) paradigm of people in which we find discretion, judgment, diversity and downward accountability. And there are contrasting concepts, language, values, methods and processes, relationships, mindsets and personalities that go with these. Top-down is driven and sustained by the real or imagined imperatives of crisis.
Take language. Beneficiary belongs to top down. It patronises. It begs a basic question, implying people do benefit. It ‘others’ those affected by crisis. It misfits equality, respect, listening and learning from people. Other words and phrases have been tried – crisis-affected people, and citizen (but this does not work so well for UNHCR with refugees). But again and again beneficiary is the word that is used. It is deeply, deeply embedded. And I dare say many see nothing wrong with it. One organisation has even appointed a Beneficiary Accountability Officer. Can’t we do better than this?
Then there are donors’ demands and ‘the system’. There was a view that to be ‘evidence-based’ the case for engagement and participation had to be supported by measurement. Others, myself included, felt the case was already overwhelming. When someone asked how many had read evaluation reports which blamed ‘the system’, a forest of hands went up. And participants lamented their experiences of how data demands forced them into gathering data for upward accountability at the cost of action, learning, adapting and accountability to affected people. Yes, a tragic trade-off, just as in the development sector.
Highlights and reflections
- To bypass recurrent rush. In sudden onset emergencies, many agencies carry out similar rushed and biased assessments (close to airport, only meet the leaders, men etc.). After typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines a non-operational team did a slower more interactive and representative assessment, hearing other voices, and found unrecognised needs: who would have guessed that old women needed underwear? Could UNOCHA (UN Office for Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs) try this dedicated team approach to test whether it should be standard practice?
- Participatory statistics. Dawit Abebe and Berhanu Admassu presented their participatory impact assessment work with pastoralists which generated participatory statistics. Dawit and Andy Catley have a chapter in Jeremy Holland’s Who Counts? The power of participatory statistics. Great stuff and huge potential. But who will pick it up? I recommend the guide which has just been updated. It is an eye-opener.
- Definition of terms? We did not spend much time on definitions. This was sensible. There was more interest in action. But engagement is a good word. And engagement of crisis-affected people was a move in a good direction.
- Personality and recruitment. The background paper considered skills (the word so often used), but then went further with behaviour and attitudes. I wonder, though, does personality go even further, and somewhere we need to go? Some saw recruitment procedures with interviewing face-to-face as critical. If the sector needs people who are good at listening, empathetic, participatory, they must be sought out, and trained. Also, institutional cultures, personality and relationships interact, so that for good engagement with affected people, with sensitive listening and respect, these must be part of good engagement in organisations at all levels.
- Learning what affected people are doing already came over as important. What are their existing organisations? What are they already doing? These were priority questions, as they have been for decades.
- The Who? Whose? questions. These were as relevant as ever. Who participates in whose project? was asked in the background paper. Who engages in whose action? Do they engage in ours or do we engage in theirs? Several times in the meeting someone asked ‘How do we want to engage with them?’. But further steps are ‘How do we find out how they would like us to engage with them?’ This was raised but I did not hear it much discussed. A future agenda? To ask them? As standard good practice?
- Listening and learning. We often say and hear that we must ‘go and talk to [sic] people’. Talk to at least involves meeting, but when will we habitually say listen to or learn from? Or listen to and dialogue with? The training the day before the meeting was on evaluation. Next year, a training on listening? But would anyone sign up? Or be able to persuade their organisation to give the extra day to be trained to do something we all know how to do (when we talk to people)?
- Time with people. In a panel session on Building Accountability to Affected Populations into Humanitarian Evaluation, it was proposed that those engaged in the evaluations 9 months or so after an emergency should have to spend 50 per cent of their time with the affected people. Yes. Good idea.
- Accountability to whom? At that moment, a penny dropped with me. I wondered and still wonder, is the humanitarian sector ahead of ‘development’ in accountability to people? If so, or if it appears so, is this because the need is greater? In any case, what can the development sector learn? I suspect, quite a lot. But if so, where should we go from here?
- Gems for reflection from Luz Gomez Saavedra (Oxfam Intermon, formerly with MSF in Niger):
- ‘Nothing can replace presence and proximity’
- ‘The most amazing tool, sitting down under a tree with people’
- An old woman who said: ‘If you want to know who is poor and who not, don’t count goats – ask who is receiving remittances from a relative in Calgary’
- When she asked people how she could do her work better the reply was unanimous: ‘Don’t change but keep smiling’
Will this meeting transform the sector?
That would be asking too much. But intensifying the shift in the agenda to examining ourselves more (and this is in line with the World Development Report 2015 on Mind and Culture), yes, one can hope for that. And it may countervail against the magnetism of upward accountability which afflicts both humanitarian action and development, and reinforce actions and policies for accountability downwards to crisis-affected people, and learning more about and appreciating their realities, and what they want and need. And what they already do and can do, perhaps often much more than outsiders suppose.
Some in the sector are already onto all this. Could many, many others join them in putting into practice two PRA slogans which fit here as signposts and reminders:
ASK THEM THEY CAN DO IT
Robert Chambers is a Research Associate in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.
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