In our conversations with humanitarian professionals about data and information sharing with affected populations, one of the most interesting themes of discussion has been accountability. This term, much like open data, is something of a buzzword in the broader humanitarian community, and the term has become a focal point in a solid majority of our discussions. Whether it be through membership in the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) or through internal programs or projects, a wide swath of humanitarians are saying and doing a lot more to ensure that they are being ‘accountable’ to the populations with whom they work.
However, when we talk about this idea of accountability, particularly as it relates to the openness of data and its meaningful sharing with affected communities, what do humanitarians actually mean? To answer this question, it is important to look at perhaps the most frequently subscribed to and influential definition of accountability within the humanitarian community: the one set forth by the aforementioned HAP.
According to HAP, accountability is, in dictionary definition form, “the means through which power is used responsibly. It is a process of taking account of, and being held accountable by, different stakeholders, and primarily those who are affected by the exercise of power.” More meaningfully, the HAP definition includes, among other elements, a requirement for “participation and informed consent” and “transparency.” According to this definition, participation and informed consent include “listening and responding to feedback from crisis-affected people when planning, implementing, monitoring and evaluating programs, and making sure that crisis-affected people understand and agree with the proposed humanitarian action and are aware of its implications.” Transparency necessitates “being honest and open in communications and sharing relevant information, in an appropriate form, with crisis-affected people and other stakeholders.”
Although the above definition, which also includes notes about neutrality, humanity, impartiality, and independence, sets the accountability standard for many humanitarian organizations, other definitions do exist. One put forth by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) is particularly notable because it pushes the HAP definition a little further. In a document on Accountability to Affected Populations, the IASC delineates a definition of accountability similar to the HAP’s, with an important added emphasis on program design that “strives to enhance capacity of affected people to prevent, minimize or better cope with the effects of future hazards.” In short, this definition brings into play the potential for accountability to address affected communities in a manner that builds resilience for the long term.
When comparing these ‘dictionary’ definitions of accountability with the more common practices on the ground as described by various humanitarian professionals, it becomes fairly clear that most humanitarian organizations are often content with fulfilling only the more basic elements of humanitarian accountability. Accountability in action does take into consideration the HAP’s concepts of transparency and participation, but for the most part it includes these definitional elements as part of a focus on assessing needs in the context of project and program improvement. In short, it appears that the popular definition of accountability to affected populations is commonly implemented in a manner that approaches a connection with the affected communities as a means to an end of designing the most resource-maximizing humanitarian assistance projects and programs possible. In a sense, this idea of accountability, although not specified entirely as such in the HAP definition, becomes project and organization-centric.
Now, this isn’t to say that this form of accountability does not provide benefit to the affected populations. Through allowing the beneficiaries to express what works, what doesn’t, and how the humanitarian actors ought to best design or redesign their strategies, humanitarian organizations are undoubtedly able to do more effective and positively influential work – precisely the main goal behind such a conceptualization of accountability. In fact, it is clear in speaking with many humanitarian organizations that this approach to accountability is sometimes the most powerful and influential force pushing them to connect with affected populations in a more direct way.
However, in terms of leveraging open data to help build a knowledge base within affected communities that can support longer-term resilience beyond the implementation of specific humanitarian projects and programs, this operational definition of accountability seems to fall a bit short. The common version of accountability is a one-way street for data and information. The data involved, although useful, flows from the affected communities to the humanitarian organizations, and only returns to such communities in the form of other projects, programs, and initiatives. This appears to be the case because the focus of accountability remains on improving humanitarian projects over the relative short term rather than directly providing information of utility to the beneficiary communities. In short, this popular definition of accountability as practiced by an apparent majority of humanitarian organizations fails to close the data and information gap.
It is also important to note, however, that a second conceptualization of accountability to affected populations – one that includes IASC’s addition of capacity enhancement – has also been expressed in the field. While this second definition of accountability has been much less frequently mentioned, it has been brought up a few times by those humanitarian professionals who are looking to establish a more two-sided, beneficiary-oriented accountability process.
As mentioned above, this concept of accountability moves beyond the support of program and project redesign to a data and information connection with affected communities that focuses on sharing for the sake of establishing sustainable knowledge systems within the communities themselves. In this approach, open data’s potential and the humanitarian movement’s push towards accountability begin to more effectively link. In particular, the concept of providing communities with the knowledge and information necessary to conduct future data collection, sharing, and analysis (expertise which is gained by the humanitarian organizations during many popular accountability processes) seems ripe with potential. And this is an idea that has been mentioned by multiple humanitarian professionals with whom we spoke.
By working with a community and sharing information to help it locally institutionalize the methods of surveying its own members, humanitarian organizations can expand the concept of accountability – a term that is so often a part of these organization’s conversations involving open data - so that it touches affected populations in a manner that addresses long-term resilience over the still important, yet less permanent, issues of project reform and redesign. And although this idea is still more concept than policy, it shows the potential for a significant shift in the way the humanitarian community approaches accountability, and therefore the way in which it approaches affected populations.