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Cowboy culture? Keeping aid workers accountable

Late last year I had dinner with a group of senior aid workers, ahead of a debate the following day on integrity and risk sharing in the humanitarian aid community.  

This content was published on October 27, 2020 - 12:33

We discussed the changing face of humanitarian work over the years. “The days of cowboys are over,” reflected one. “I probably used to be one.”

He didn’t need to explain to me what he meant by “cowboys”. Any journalist who has spent time in conflict and crisis zones will have come across them: hardened aid workers, swooping in on light aircraft, looking around, deciding what’s needed, and doing just that, without necessarily asking too many questions. Usually men, usually white, usually extremely dedicated, often cynical, sometimes a bit swaggering.

But those cowboys are becoming somewhat rare. There has been a huge amount of soul searching among the aid community over the years. Not just because of headline grabbing scandals like the ones which emerged around sexual exploitation by an aid agency in Haiti, but because aid agencies have learned that their work is a great deal more effective if they involve, and listen to, the people they are trying to help.

Still that conversation came back to me as I was preparing the next edition of our Inside Geneva podcast. What do aid agencies do to ensure integrity? Who checks it? How do we know the aid workers are really delivering what they promise? And what do the communities they say they are helping actually think of them?

Core standards

In fact there is a little known but extremely useful organization which monitors standards in the humanitarian world, known as the “CHS Alliance”. It was set up in 2015, and now has over 150 members, most of them organizations providing humanitarian aid.

CHS Alliance asks aid agencies to sign up to a set of nine core standards, from ensuring aid is efficiently delivered, to creating feedback channels for affected communities, to the simple principle of “do no harm”. This month the Alliance published a five year survey of how aid agencies are living up to those standards, and our podcast gets Alliance executive director Tanya Wood around the table with Unicef’s senior advisor on accountability, Charles-Antoine Hofmann, to discuss the findings.

It’s an in-depth conversation, and I hope you’ll tune in to listen. It turns out that being accountable is not as easy we might assume. Tanya Wood rightly points out that if we “think of schools, or hospitals, anywhere you might put vulnerable people, or children, there’s no way you wouldn’t expect them to meet certain standards.” The same should go, of course, for aid agencies.

Charles-Antoine Hofmann does not disagree. Unicef is the first UN agency to be ‘benchmarked’ against the CHS by the Humanitarian Quality Assurance Initiative. He describes it as a “robust process”. Like many other participating humanitarian organizations, Unicef scored well in learning from experience and improving, but less well when it came to communication, participation, feedback, and complaints.

Pressure from donors

The picture that starts to emerge is one in which there is pressure on donors to see results, which can, Hofmann suggests, come at the expense of listening to a community, and delivering what it genuinely needs. “I think there is growing pressure to demonstrate results and impact…and it’s good that it is pushing aid agencies to show value for money. But we should be a bit cautious, sometimes there is a risk that we favour highly visible results, and things that can be measured more easily.”

Taxpayers in wealthy donor countries understand things like 20 latrines installed in an earthquake zone, or thousands of vaccines delivered to an Ebola afflicted country. But behind those satisfying statistics are other questions, ones the aid agencies need to take time discussing with the local community. Are the latrines built in a place where everyone feels safe to use them? Do people understand what the vaccine is for and why it is being administered? Not engaging with local communities on that last question caused serious problems in the fight against Ebola.

Recognition and rejection

And in 2020, which will no doubt go down in history as the year of the great pandemic, there is more and more pressure on big aid agencies to face up to global crises and come up with answers. It’s become something of a poisoned chalice for the World Health Organization. Despite its efforts to advise and support affected countries, the WHO has seen its work rejected by the United States, with Washington now flouncing away from WHO membership, and taking millions of dollars with it.

Join our live stream on multilateralism

The issue of multilateralism, and the future of the United Nations itself, will be the subject of a special podcast, streamed live from Geneva’s Graduate Institute on Wednesday. You can register to watch and listen here, and even submit questions to our panel of experts.

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At the same time, the World Food Programme has been recognized as a contributor to peace, winning this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Perhaps in answer to the US position, the Nobel committee pointedly said it had based its decision partly on the fact that ‘the need for international solidarity and multilateral cooperation is more conspicuous than ever.’

At the end of the day, aid workers are not modern day saints, but neither are they the bureaucratic, money wasting people some critics would have us believe. Mistakes are made, abuse can happen, and it must be tackled with the ‘zero tolerance’ the aid agencies have all promised. But at the end of the day, the primary function of humanitarian work is to save lives and protect the vulnerable. By and large, it succeeds in that mission. Still, it’s no time to get too self-satisfied about that. The cowboys need to carry on with their soul searching.

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