European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations

Service tools

Humanitarian accountability: Rhetoric vs. reality

© European Union/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie

As humanitarian aid organisations around the world gear up for the important discussions at the World Humanitarian Summit, a lot of the focus is on what can work 'at scale'. This makes sense, as humanitarians are facing a sea of people affected by crisis, more than ever before in history. With the drivers of forced displacement, climate change, and population growth set to continue, solutions for what works best at scale are urgently needed. But in the rush to scale up, it is also important to know what is happening on the ground. This is where change really happens. Behind every data point, there is a person.

The European Commission is funding an innovative project run with DanChurchAid, Save the Children and Ground Truth Solutions to better understand people's needs and tailor the humanitarian response.

Erik Johnson, Head of Humanitarian Response, DanChurchAid @DanChurchAid

Zoom out from space and take a picture with a satellite. Now walk on the ground and measure the physical distance between two items in that satellite image and compare the results. That’s called ‘ground-truthing.’ This technique is used in the most diverse fields to calibrate big picture views and ensure that satellite images have the right scale. But it has been widely adopted also as a tool to ensure that the views of individuals in any given process are reflected in the big picture analyses.

Through its Enhanced Response Capacity funding, the European Commission is supporting its partners DanChurchAid and Save the Children, together with Ground Truth Solutions, to test an innovative application of ground-truthing on disaster responses.

While many donors and agencies are rushing to scale up their responses, others, such as the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO), are aware that what happens on the ground – to that single refugee or disaster survivor – is every bit as crucial.

What happens on the ground – to that single refugee or disaster survivor – is every bit as crucial.

Our ambitious project to pioneer new methods of accountability is called, ‘Listen, Learn, Act.’ It includes 16 agencies in 4 countries – Ethiopia, Nepal, Mali and Lebanon.

What is most exciting about this project for us is perhaps also the scariest: we don’t know the outcome. We are all willingly walking into the unknown, and through repeated survey of beneficiaries’ views, we are committed to openly exploring the results. What this technique promises to offer is something like a 'vital sign' on our performance. Through repeating the surveys, we can find out where we are on track, and where we need to course-correct on several key performance parameters.

Listening takes effort. It takes time. But we are using the time and resources on this project because we know that we need to do better. When people have lost everything, it is hard to sit with them. It can be uncomfortable to just be with someone in their pain, to listen when a Syrian refugee has lost so much.

How do we apply our complex and professional accountability mechanisms in a way that is meaningful and relevant for these communities?

On the other hand, how can we not?

The project has now launched in all four countries, and we are beginning to hear a heartbeat. We can act on some of what we hear, and learn about our own humanity in the process. These are some of the voices that – together with the Commission – DanChurchAid and Save the Children will be taking with us to the World Humanitarian Summit.