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Humanitarian accountability: a conceptual analysis

Citation: Daun, Joakim (2020) Humanitarian accountability: a conceptual analysis. [Discussion or working paper]


Creative Commons: Attribution-No Derivative Works 4.0

Drawing on the public accountability literature, mainly using Bovens’ concepts of accountability as mechanism and accountability as a virtue, this paper reviews existing strategies for conceptualisation and operationalisation of accountability in the humanitarian sector and compares their advantages and shortcomings. Humanitarian work takes place in contexts that are characterised by inherent power imbalances between donors, humanitarian organisations, local communities and affected populations. In this context, humanitarian organisations have a multitude of accountability relationships, some of them are formal – for example, through contracts with donors – while others are legal and political obligations. Others are informal, such as those with affected populations who do not have any formal power to hold these organisations accountable. Efforts from humanitarian organisations to become more accountable have to date mainly focused on accountability virtue, a normative concept that defines accountable behaviour, and the sector has developed a multitude of voluntary standards and business inspired frameworks. However, less attention has been paid to accountability as a mechanism, which requires organisations to explain and justify their conduct to a forum and face judgement. It appears that donors are the only existing forum to which humanitarian organisations do have to give an account and be answerable for their acts and performance. The author argues that a mix of these approaches (virtue and mechanism) could improve accountability in the humanitarian sector. However, the success of such an approach to humanitarian accountability will essentially depend on how far both donors and humanitarian organisations are willing to let go of power and control.

Creators: Daun, Joakim and
Subjects: Human Rights & Development Studies
Sociology & Anthropology
Keywords: humanitarian accountability, humanitarian aid, accountability to affected populations, refugees
Divisions: Institute of Commonwealth Studies
Collections: Refugee Law Initiative
  • 16 January 2020 (published)


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