Accountability to whom? Keep asking.

It still shocks me a little when a colleague will look at me and ask, “Now, what do you mean by ‘downward accountability’?”, as if I’ve just uttered an oxymoron.

It shouldn’t surprise me. I’ve written about how accountability is often looked for in all the wrong places. But it’s not as if I’m saying something that should be so foreign or new, right?

Here’s a definition from Keystone’s 2006(!) report, “Downward accountability to ‘beneficiaries’: NGO and donor perspectives”:

Downward accountability: HOW an organization engages with its ‘beneficiaries’, builds relationships, and is accountable for results in ways that enable learning and improvement towards the achievement of its mission.

We all know why those we supposedly serve should come first. But when just sharing the concept of downward accountability in a meeting seems baffling to fellow aid professionals, I know that more significant effort, time and resources to understanding accountability beyond funders are long overdue.

Downward accountability is ultimately about defining impact in a way that places beneficiaries’ perceptions center-stage. I think funders would easily jump on board to if aid agencies knew how to better operationalize this, which is more possible than ever before in the aid industry’s history. GlobalGiving is leading the way.

Maybe funders should start judging organizations not on the “impact” of their projects, but on their ability to create, utilize, and maintain feedback loops with beneficiaries. It’s time for such efforts to no longer be “nice-to-have’s” but a central measure of success of organizational success. This would mean re-focusing everyone on the demand, rather than the supply side of NGO activities.

Accountability to whom? It may be a tired question, but one we all must continue to ask…until we don’t have to anymore.

I, for one, can’t wait for that day.


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Listening to People on the Receiving End of Aid


  1. @SmallButScrappy offered this via Twitter: “Anyone else uncomfortable that the language implies we’re somehow “above” beneficiaries?”
    Such a good point. There is status inherent even in the terms. We need entirely new terms for the whole new mindset that is required.

  2. Yvonne Makunde

    @Jeniffer, i totally agree with you. The thing is, the word ‘beneficiary” in itself implies a one sided relationship, where aid agencies are the givers, and the communities we work with are passive recipients. We need to move from this ideology,by changing terminology and attitude, so that we begin to recognize communities as equal partners in humanitarian and development work. Its interesting that some people like you are also concerned. In my organization, we are currently discussing how we can improve on this as well.

  3. A comment from LinkedIn: “The perceptions of the owners of the development process are very important – why are they rarely included or even at the centre of M&E ? The main reason is cost – the beneficiaries are often inarticulate, have barriers of language and communication, are often distracted by the demands of their day to day life, and most importantly the M&E budget is often inadequate to put in place the elaborate measures and logistics to engage them. Its more cost effective to respond upwards! Anyone have enough M&E funding to finance proper ‘downward accountability’?”
    My response: “Are the beneficiaries ‘inarticulate’ in sharing their views and ideas or are we just inept at listening?”

  4. Another comment from LinkedIn, followed by my response:
    “Of course accountability works in multiple directions – everyone with responsibilities and targets should be accountable for meeting those targets. CLEARLY there is significant accountability from the NGO to the beneficiaries … but … BUT … “feedback loops” do not pay the bills or feed people or improve livelihoods – impacts do. For goodness sake don’t throw the baby out with the semantic bath water!!”
    Another’s response (more articulate than mine): “I have been reflecting on the point about what beneficiaries ‘don’t know they don’t know’, which was referring to business knowledge among beneficiarie, as well as the point about the intent of development. I also have been doing some reading in the concept of ‘downward accountability’ and see that there has been much discussion about ways to improve the accountability of donors and NGOs to their beneficiaries or constituents.
    “What I have been wondering about is the fact that often, there are problems (and opportunities) in the contexts or systems in which those constituents live. Constituents may not see opportunities for changing those systems or structures or linkages through or as part of a project, and if donors/NGOs are primarily external, they also may not see this opportunity either. Local NGOs may not have the organizational development language in which to describe the work they are doing, when it is addressing these kinds of changes, and thus limit themselves to reporting upwardly on project results.
    “There seem to be so many stories of what happens when people look differently at their context and discover ways that they can create change by bringing together ‘silos’ or linking areas that may have been seen as separate. A school feeding program, for example, that involves helping parent farmers to grow crops on the school land, producing crops that are used by the home ec class to make meals, and that also changes how those farmers farm, and thus addresses food insecurity in the community in general. (Done without donor funding, except for the farming skills training).
    “I am not sure where this fits in the ‘upward/downward’ accountability picture. If we are focused primarily on ‘projects’, do we miss out on an opportunity to explore how changed thinking or contexts may effectively meet many more goals than just one specific project might?”

  5. And another from LinkedIn:
    “Isn’t this the same thing as “the bottom up approach”. This is just another buzz word that really means the same thing. I also think, as others have mentioned, that this term (downward accountability}) is derogatory. Isn’t it the goal to create a partnership with the community??? Then why not just call it that?
    “If what we are trying to achieve is community ownership and impact, then that entails the willingness of aid agencies to handover the decision making powers and management of programs and services to the communities – to relinguish control and allow the community to truly take ownership. The agency role is then to facilitate, build capacity and provide general assistance (gap fill)…. Isn’t this what we are all trying to achieve? I hope so.”
    My response: “You would think that is what we are all trying to achieve. However, I don’t think enough people or organizations are willing to hand over decision-making powers or control to communities, or even know how to do it. Whether this concept represents just another buzzword or not, I still have too many colleagues in the aid industry that have no intention or interest in the “bottom up approach.” Perhaps downward accountability is a way to shift them in the right direction.”

  6. I remember when I worked at Dalia Association ( there was one time a village woman complained about something we did. Some staff were outraged: “After all we did for them” and such comments. But I was absolutely thrilled. I was happy that she knew she had the right and responsibility to complain, and thrilled at the chance to handle the complaint well — respectfully, seriously, transparently, etc. When people complain it is accountability in action and we should do our best to encourage active two-way communication, even when it’s critical.

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  8. Nikolai Dezin. NGO."MILOSERDIE"

    Dear Sirs

    My name is Mr. Nikolai Dezin. I’m a chairman of a charitable disability organization “Miloserdie” in Sillamäe.

    MTÜ “Miloserdie” was founded in 1989 and since then we have been doing our best to help numerous disable community of over 540 individuals with physical and mental defects. We represent many people with different types of disabilities and trying to make their difficult lives more simple, happy and easier. We would be happy to establish some friendship, relationship and cooperation with you to multiply our ability and improve our service to disabled people. We have some experience in organizing joint concerts, competitions, leisure activities with other Republican organizations. We would like to create a joint project dedicated to help the people, establish exchange program with similar organizations in your country, in other words we are opened to any kind of suggestions and cooperation.

    Our organization will be celebrating 23 th anniversary in May. We wish we could find someone from your country to start long-lasting cooperation that would be to a mutual benefit.
    We know that every embassy in Estonia has consultants that can give some advice or suggestion concerning cross-border cooperation. We would like to invite your representative to visit our office in Sillamae or we could also consider a possibility of making an appointment with you for a meeting in Tallinn.
    Please, look into our letter. We look forward to hearing from you.
    We will be happy to arrange with the project, the competition among the people with physical problems such as an arm wrestling, sitting volleyball and also trips inside Estonia and abroad.
    We will be glad to see here in Estonia visitors from any place and arrange joint competition, training, showing the country. We welcome any project, that could involve the people with physical difficulties, to give them the filling that they are not forgotten.
    E-mail us and send any proposal for a project.
    Greetings, we are grateful to you, that you have paid attention to us. We very much ask the help the finance, and transport that there was a possibility to carry invalids. We invite to visit our organisation. We will rejoice to any help, cooperation, friendship. We wait for you and yours the donation

    All the best wishes,

    Mr. Nikolai Dežin
    40231 Sillamäe
    Fax/tel +372 39 24378
    Cell +372 56 695 200

  9. Brenda Obilo

    I am about to conduct HAP training in one of the communities, and your question came to mind. According to me, we take downward accountability to be an oxy moron because agency staff wonder how they can be accountable to beneficiaries or be answerable to people they help i.e they are on the “receiving end”. There is no price/consequence to be paid by an individual or the organisation for poor quality at the level of beneficiaries as long as donors are kept happy. Agencies only think of accountability as ensuring that in their proposals they include that they share project information with beneficiaries; they have elements of participation and that they have complaints response mechanisms. But on a closer look one would find that: information sharing is not that detailed and some important issues are left out; secondly, it is rare to find that their opinions or ideas will lead to project change or improvement or even removal of projects which to them are not a priority yet this is what constitutes real participation; and the CRMs are in place yes but how many complaints are actually redressed or responded to? I think the only way to make accountability work is to thoroughly train and empower communities on accountability issues ensure that they understand it is their right (as long as it is related to project quality and impact) to hold staff accountable for their actions.

  10. Thanks for sharing your comment and reflections @Brenda – well said. Here are some sites/resources on improving downward accountability you may be interested in:
    1) – practical ways of improving accountability for NGOs from Concern Worldwide
    2) – Mango UK’s guide on financial reporting to beneficiaires
    3) – The Listening Project is a long-term research project exploring of the ideas and insights of people who live in societies that have been on the recipient side of international assistance

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