Ensuring accountability to communities in rapid response
Learning through the Start Fund
Start Network's Laura-Louise Fairley discusses a study into the Start Fund and accountability. She finds the study reports on tangible success stories yet argues there is clear room for improvement.
At the heart of accountability is the commitment to ensuring a response is uniquely designed to meet the needs of affected people – not only to restore their lives but also their dignity. Signatories to the Grand Bargain agree to go further, committing to ‘a participation revolution’ which includes ‘people receiving aid in making the decisions which affect their lives’.
The Start Fund’s niche is that of rapid response – alerts are raised quickly after the onset of a crisis, sometimes even in anticipation; projects are designed and funded within 72 hours; and communities reached with critical aid often before comprehensive joint needs assessments are undertaken. While the Start Fund is a funding mechanism, it is collectively managed by its network of members, and thus is not a donor (nor should it act like one – it offers much more flexibility to programming and a light-touch reporting process). Given these defining characteristics, how can the Start Fund ensure accountability to communities without policing members? And at the implementation level, does speed come at the expense of appropriateness?
A study of accountability
Accountability is integrated into Start Fund supported projects at various stages. The Start Fund: Learning from Accountability to Crisis-Affected Communities 2017 review of 71 projects identified good practices, challenges, and gaps in accountability to communities. The study used the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability (CHS) as a lens to explore the various facets that make up strong accountability practices.
The study showed that all of our members consulted communities about their needs to inform their project design. Communities were also largely involved at the evaluation or post-distribution stage to comment on the response (80% of projects reported this) and 73% of projects reported community involvement in implementation.
The report concluded that despite rapid implementation and short project length, often at the peak of the crisis, members seek to ensure that communities have access to the humanitarian assistance they need. It also argued that the flexibility allowed by the Start Fund is critical for change in programming when necessary to ensure the most appropriate interventions are delivered, especially with changing contexts. Unquestionably, this flexibility is of paramount importance in instances where projects are designed prior to comprehensive needs assessments and when communities are the drivers of change.
In Tanzania, World Vision’s feedback mechanism led them to note that “it is through this communication that communities could express the need for shelter support and that there was no requirement for food, blankets, or tarpaulins” (alert 144 Tanzania earthquake).
Most agencies are also sharing information with communities about the project intervention, though this did appear to be low (56%). It was also found that only 55% of projects reported seeking community feedback or setting up community feedback mechanisms. Another relatively low indicator of accountability was the involvement of communities in the project design phase itself (31%) and the mention of response to feedback or complaints (18%), begging the question of whether we enable communities to directly shape design as much as is possible – and necessary – and whether we truly close the feedback loops.
Are we asking the right questions?
These figures must be read with caution however, and herein lies both the limitation of the study and the opportunity for improvement; it is not compulsory in final reports of Start Fund projects to include the extent to which crisis-affected people felt that their needs are being met. The study was therefore unable to assess the depth of engagement of communities and the accessibility of feedback mechanisms.
The occasionally low markers for accountability do not indicate an absence of it, merely an absence of reporting. For a more comprehensive analysis in the future, it will be imperative to dig deeper into the data that is currently not obligatory.
Listening to communities during needs assessments has led to better project outcomes. However, there is more work to be done to ensure that such good practice is widespread and shared in a way that agencies can learn from one another. The recommendations from the study focus on minor – but impactful – revisions to the Start Fund’s internal processes and templates, with the goal of supporting members to integrate improved accountability mechanisms into their programmes. If successful, these changes will better equip the fund to ensure accountability and share learning across the network.
Accountability in the Start Fund of the future
The Start Network is committing to streamlining approaches to providing information to communities, enabling community participation in decisions, and receiving and addressing community complaints. As part of the Start Fund’s commitments for the future, one of the seven focus areas for 2018-21 is to improve transparency and accountability to disaster-affected communities. To shift decision-making and leadership closer to crisis-affected populations, we have established 12 standing decision-making groups in crisis-prone countries who are trained in project selection and can be mobilised rapidly. This peer-review process will enhance sharing of good practice in accountability. We will also explore improvements in information provided to communities and community participation in decisions.
Speed versus effectiveness – must it be a trade-off?
The Start Fund has embraced an experimental approach, allowing processes and approaches to be iterated and refined over time. While the Start Network aims to challenge the humanitarian system and to help break the shackles of bureaucracy, centralisation, and stagnation, we must ensure our solutions do not come at the expense of established values – most critically, accountability. This study reports on tangible success stories of our members and their partners working with communities to ensure they are making the decisions which affect their lives. Yet there is clear room for improvement before we can say with absolute certainty that we are doing justice to those we seek to serve.
First, we must combat the limitations in our learning. But when we have the answers to our questions, what is our role as a network to ensure we are meeting the standards to which we commit, when our projects fall short? Is there a limitation to accountability while we are not fully localised? As the network becomes more driven by local actors, our projects will have better links to affected populations. Moving forward the Start Fund has the potential to position itself as an example of how accountability at speed is not only obtainable, but critical, if the humanitarian system is to ever truly embody localisation.