Accountability in all the wrong places

“But how will we hold them accountable?” the senior technical advisor said of the proposal from the high-profile NGO. “There’s not even a logframe in there.”

Silently in my cubicle, I thought, “Oh, if only that would only make people and organizations accountable…”

Obviously, the need and the desire to be accountable in our industry are not going away. With foreign aid budgets under fire in many donor countries, accountability perhaps becomes even more important.

What I find unfortunate is the automatic associations with accountability in our sector. To this technical advisor, accountability simply meant the inclusion of a monitoring and evaluation (M&E) tool in a proposal to a donor.

Numerous frameworks and standards on accountability to beneficiaries exist. (See the HAP International principles, INGO Accountability Charter, and Principles of Accountability for International Philanthropy.) However, one look at the results coming out of The Listening Project demonstrates how improvements in practice have been “patchy” at best.

There is much to be done to increase the appreciation and understanding of monitoring and evaluation beyond risk management and compliance. There is also much to be done to expand the notion of accountability to not only donors, but most importantly, the people we serve.

Here are a couple of resources on improving downward accountability:

(1) – practical ways of improving accountability for NGOs from Concern Worldwide

(2) – Mango UK’s guide on financial reporting to beneficiaries

When we reduce accountability to abstract concepts or empty exercises that are, if we are honest, ultimately about reporting funding expenditures to donors, we miss the point. Besides, demonstrating “where the money is going” is quite different from representing what percentage of the money actually reaches the ground.

How can we switch the conversation on accountability to focus on creating concrete and required(?) processes of consultation, transparency and participation? Can we acknowledge that when we talk about accountability, we’re ultimately talking about power and its role in our aid relationships?

Accountability will never be found on the pages of a proposal or financial report. And if we continue to look only there, we’re looking for it in all the wrong places.


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  1. Yes!! I attended a session on accountability at the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness. It was run by the KMMG accounting firm working to evaluate DFID grantees. The idea was that NGOs (they mean international NGOs) should proactively propose reporting formats that donors should accept as standard from all. This would reduce administrative cost and improve accountability. What?? What does reporting have to do with accountability? In response to my question, the speaker said he knows they are not the same thing, but he continued to use the words interchangeably. This way, real accountability (which is so important!) gets lost and forgotten.

  2. Marcus Catsam

    The word accountability is so poorly (and over-) used in this context. I wish we could talk about whether things work or not, and if they don’t how we can better ensure that what we do actually has an impact on people’s lives. After 15 years of work in international programs it still AMAZES me that these concepts are not part of our everyday lexicon and- more importantly- practice. How can we keep implementing programs without wanting to know the answers to these questions? I think a lot of it has to do with the mentality of high-level managers in our field, most of whom are hired to maintain the status quo. Unfortunately there are FAR TOO MANY of these managers in our business. When will THEY actually be held to account for their lack of interest in seeing real change??

  3. Kazi Eliza Idslam

    Hi Jennifer,

    Thank you so much for bringing this topic. The discussion came so timely for me. I have been working in development field for last 20 years. Recently few questions really bothering me; What actually are we doing? For whom? Are we really beringing any sustainable changes in the lives of poor, mariginaliged and vulnerable populations? Who are we serving? are we serving them? or are we serving ourselves? why despite the presence of so many nationanl and international NGOs and UN organizations such a huge number of people all over the world are still suffereing from poverty, hunger, marginalization, disempowerment?

    Dont know how many times have I heard the word “Accountability”. I wonder what do we mean by accountabilty? Accountibility to whom? It becomes such an attractive jargon in the development world. People use it to so randomly without even thinking what they mean by accountability beyond donor reporting.

    I think this is high time for us to seriuosly think about it, raise our voice and find ways to hold ourselves accountable to those we work for, not only to those who finance our work. If we can not demonstrate any changes in the lives of people we work, we should not continue doing this .

  4. A comment coming in from LinkedIn, with my response following:

    “Jennifer, I agree with some of your comments and strongly disagree with othgers. After 30 years with a transnational corp and now 5 years working with “social enterprize dev projects” I absolutely agree that having a particular reporting structure does not guarantee accountability (the most searing example I have seen is the ISO quality certifications which are often more about filling in forms than having a quality mindset).

    “Accountability is, to me, nothing more (or less) than demonstarting one’s poroject has been operated in accordance with sound business principles. Donors give moey to get results, not merely to support “feel good” activity. This is no different from someone in business investing shareholder money in a project. One must have a plan, clearly defined results expectations and a means of reporting (and modifying if necessary) on progress compared to plan. When one invokes such “fuzzy” words as “consultation, transparency and participation”, all one accomplishes is the dilution of the key basic business princi0ples that should guide all development aid projects.

    “The greatest failing I have seen (both in business and with dev aid, is accounting to activity rather than results – there is a CRITICAL difference. It is a bit like measuring the less relevant stuff because it’s easy to measure and staying away from the difficult process of actually being accountable for RESULTS.”

    My response: @Jamie – I think we may be closer to full agreement than you think. What I have observed in aid and in social enterprise initiatives both is a disregard of the fact that accountability lies within relationships, between people. Yes, there can be contractual aspects and sound business principles engaged, but that is not “the thing” that makes accountability real. To me, any one person, project, or program can proclaim a focus on “results” but ultimately if the people served are not satisfied and are not able to take ownership of progress, there are no results.

    The events of the Arab Spring remind us that real “D”evelopment comes when people awaken from fear and they can look forward to a future in which they feel secure, valued, and honored.

    And that, ultimately, this must come from within.

    There is a deep and profound difference between social change and delivering services. So how to we ensure both aid and social enterprises are grounded in the ultimate “result”–extending to people the feeling that they matter? (And that’s a bit of “fuzzy feel-good-ery” I’ll stand by.)

  5. Burt Perrin

    I fully agree with your points. A recent book does deal with this topic in some detail, proposing a new model of accountability that actually makes sense and that can facilitate, rather than inhibit, programme improvement:
    Marie-Louise Bemelmans-Videc, Jeremy Lonsdale and Burt Perrin (eds.) (2007). Transaction Publishers. ISBN: 978-0-7658-0399-3

    And yes, I should be clear that I am one of the editors of this book, so please take this into account.

  6. Pingback: Accountability to whom? Keep asking.

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