Humanitarian power and accountability

Publié: 15 mars 2002 0:00 CET

Dr. Agnes Callamard, in Geneva

Agency workers from international and local NGOs as well as UN agencies in the west African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are reportedly the most frequent exploiters of girls under 18, in a series of as yet unverified allegations catologued by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and Save the Children-UK. The allegations centre on the use of the very humanitarian aid and services intended to benefit the refugee population as a means of sexual exploitation.

According to the Humanitarian Accountability Project (HAP), the extent of the abuses described in the report may be unusual. Their nature is not.

The HAP is an inter-agency project, hosted by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. It was launched in 2001 in Geneva in response to concerns of a number of humanitarian organisations about the lack of accountability towards crisis-affected populations. They were moved to act following numerous evaluations and investigations, which had shown the inconsistent quality of aid provision and found too few instances of listening, monitoring and responding to the concerns of men, women, and children affected by a crisis.

Humanitarian actors acquire and exercise power over the lives of crisis-affected individuals: the power to decide who gets and who doesn't, what will be given, when and where, where people have to go to or stay, when they have to do so, what they will eat, what clothes and shelter they will have, and how much private and social space they will enjoy.

Through the process of providing relief, some humanitarian actors may act with malevolence. They abuse their humanitarian power to commit or permit abuses. For example, they may, as has been alleged in west Africa, prey on women and children through sexual exploitation.

Too often, such situations will be met by a conspiracy of silence and a culture of impunity.

HAP research points out that those who wish to complain and those who wish to act are rendered powerless by the absence of safe complaints resolution mechanisms. In addition, too often, there are no codes of conduct clearly defining required individual and organisational behaviours and responsibilities.

As reactions to the UNHCR-SC UK report highlight, all humanitarian agencies are tarred with the same brush. They are held collectively responsible for abuses of power, or the negligence, or incompetence of some of their members.

Over the years, humanitarian assistance experiences have prompted humanitarian actors to look more closely at issues such as quality, accountability and legitimacy.
In 1994, the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief was developed. It introduced new thinking about the rights of disaster victims and the professionalism and accountability of humanitarian NGOs and the Red Cross Red Crescent. It included a commitment to accountability to the claimants of humanitarian assistance.

Since then, much effort has gone into strengthening the quality of humanitarian work.
Humanitarian actors have set standards and principles for the provision of relief. They have sought to improve staff management and training. They have approached their work as contributing to protecting the rights of those affected by a crisis, including the rights of refugees and of internally displaced populations. They have developed gender-sensitive and child-specific guidelines. Some agencies have involved crisis-affected populations in planning and monitoring their work. A few have also established complaints mechanisms and information centres for humanitarian claimants.

Some of these efforts were carried out at the level of individual organisations. Others were exercised through collaboration, by setting up inter-agency initiatives or projects. The HAP is one such initiative. Others include the Sphere Project which developed a Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response (, the Humanitarian Ombudsman Project, Platform Qualité, Do no Harm, People in Aid, and others.

The UNHCR/SC-UK report reminds us all that the efforts under way have not been enough. They have consisted in overlaying the existing "core" humanitarian tasks rather than leading a transformative process of humanitarian work. While a code or guidelines directed at specific populations may have positive outcomes, its effects on organisational culture is inevitably superficial.

Comprehensive protection and prevention requires a rethink of deep-seated organisational and humanitarian assumptions, including core values. In sum, accountability must become the governing principle and practice of humanitarian work.

Accountability aims at ensuring that humanitarian power is exercised within a framework of fairness, respect and justice: a crisis-affected individual is not a number on a ration card, a shadow in a queue or an irritating beggar; she or he has a right to be informed, to participate in decisions affecting their lives, to raise concerns and complaints, and to get answers. Women and children should not be discriminated against, and in particular they should be protected against sexual violence.

The sector, as a whole, must also acknowledge, through self-regulatory and independent monitoring bodies and mechanisms, its responsibility to ensure that its members observe minimum standards in expectations and professional conduct.

The author Dr. Agnes Callamard is co-director of the Humanitarian Accountability Project. For more information on HAP visit the web site