On 4th June the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) Accountability Peer Learning Group held a learning event on interagency Accountability to Affected Populations (AAP) in the Central African Republic (CAR), at the Save the Children office in London.
The two panellists David Loquercio, Head of Policy and External Relations at HAP International, and Jacobo Quintanilla, Director of Humanitarian Communications Programmes at Internews, recently returned from the CAR. David was seconded to OCHA for three months to support inter-agency AAP in the response, and Jacobo was setting up a new media assistance programme with the local Association of Journalists for Human Rights (RJDH by its French acronym) and its network of community correspondents.
Both panellists gave some background on the situation in the CAR: a country the size of France, ranked 180/187 on the Human Development Index, and where the average life expectancy at birth is only 49.1 years.
Although data outside of the capital is unreliable, it is estimated that 54% of the population is currently in need, with 35% living in food insecurity. The CAR has suffered political and social instability for decades, and following the seizure of power by Seleka rebel fighters (an alliance of Muslim fighters from the CAR, Chad and Sudan) in March 2013 the country has experienced even higher levels of disruption and mass displacement.
The conflict has resulted in an estimated 560,000 internally displaced people, as well as 350,000 refugees who have fled to neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Democratic Republic of Congo. Humanitarian agencies are facing substantial constraints in providing relief to affected people, most notably: insecurity; access (due to few and insecure roads and difficulty with logistics, including obtaining fuel); lack of funding; and shortage of experienced staff with essential language skills.
Local media and telecommunications infrastructure
In terms of infrastructure, Jacobo explained that CAR has only a few hundred kilometres of paved roads and that in “many parts [of the country] making a phone call is still something of the future.”
According to Jacobo, the current crisis in the CAR has severely compromised the capacity of local media to do their job, and is starving communities of one of their most precious assets, local radio and news. Many journalists, who have been victims of threats, have been forced to stop their work and flee to the capital or neighboring countries.
Before the crisis there were 29 functioning community radio stations in CAR. Today only 16 are operational, six of which are located in the capital Bangui. The broadcast signal of these stations doesn’t reach further than 25 km outside the capital, meaning the vast majority of citizens are left completely in the dark when it comes to news and information [see Internews/OCHA’s map of radio stations in CAR].
Communities living in these areas explained to Internews that, as they only have rumours to tell them what is happening around them, people are living in a state of fear and are afraid to go home. When Internews conducted an information needs and access assessment in Bossangoa, people said they most wanted information about peace and security, rather than the distribution of relief goods.
Accountability: “Less discussion and more action”
David gave an overview of what has been achieved in the CAR in terms of interagency accountability, which consists largely of raising awareness of ‘rédevabilité’ (accountability) amongst humanitarian agencies, and trying to integrate it at inter-cluster level. Inter-cluster participative evaluations were carried out, which asked communities to rate aspects of the humanitarian response and provide suggestions for how it could be improved.
Communities said this was the first time anyone had asked their opinion about the aid provision. They complained of a succession of “needs assessments”, which usually resulted in no aid and no follow up visit to explain the decisions taken. Partly due to the high prevalence of corruption in the country, communities requested greater control and monitoring of programmes by international agencies, to ensure more effective programmes and prevent the diversion of relief goods.
There was an emphasis on being fair and keeping promises, and, where aid providers can’t keep promises, explaining why. People also said they had stopped complaining, as agencies consistently failed to follow up and respond to their grievances.
Other interagency AAP initiatives included use of ‘Last Mile Mobile Solution’, on Android phone-based devices. This allowed for faster and more accurate registration of people receiving aid, as well as a more effective distribution process, with the capacity to easily share the technology between humanitarian partners operating in the same location. LMMS was combined with a commercial grade electronic surveys application to rate beneficiary satisfaction on the distribution site.
In his analysis, David briefly discussed five factors which he felt contributed to undermining collective AAP in the humanitarian sector in CAR:
1) There is too often no consequence for aid workers or humanitarian agencies when serious professional mistakes are committed, when commitments are not fulfilled or when recommendations endorsed at senior level are ignored or not acted upon. For example, the lack of contingency security plans for UN staff was not addressed in some locations for several months, despite being identified as a priority in February 2014.
2) The information management systems and dashboards fail to provide data on needs and vulnerabilities, capacity and access, and humanitarian response that is reliable, up to date and actionable. The absence of such data obviously undermines not only the capacity to effectively manage a response, but also to be accountable.
3) In terms of accountability, there is a gap between global policy, and practice on the ground, with global commitments failing to translate into trained staff and the inclusion of good accountability practice in programme planning and management.
4) The humanitarian system, which is based on project funding, lacks flexibility to respond according to population needs. In a conflict situation, these needs may change daily. [This point led to a discussion about the benefits of cash based interventions, where there is a functioning market, enabling people to make their own decisions about what they require. The question was asked whether humanitarian agencies would ever really embrace this method, as it would disrupt their ‘business model’].
5) Because of the current model, which sees large humanitarian agencies increasingly playing the role of fund managers, there is a negative impact on their degree of proximity to affected people. While large international organisations tend to have more sophisticated accountability policies than civil society counterparts, they are further removed from the communities they work with, and therefore rarely have to witness or deal with the consequences of their decisions. On the other hand, smaller organisations (often their implementing partners) tend to live within communities or interact with them on a daily basis, which means angry people will be “knocking at their door if the food distribution is cancelled or delayed”. David warned that humanitarian agencies must not let this gap widen, and maintain regular interactions with communities so they can be held accountable for their actions.
Local media networks
Jacobo echoed this sentiment quoting OCHA’s John Ging’s remark on the very limited footprint of humanitarian operations: “the deployment of humanitarian staff outside of Bangui remains insufficient”. He talked about the psychological importance of people having the opportunity to tell their story and make their voices heard.
In CAR, Internews is working with RJDH, a local Association of Journalists for Human Rights. The RJDH is multi-media national news service that produces news and information from across the country, specializing in humanitarian and human rights coverage.
The RJDH produces daily news bulletins distributed to local radio stations and to a distribution list of over 1500 recipients, and broadcasts a daily humanitarian short wave radio show in French and Sango, which reaches refugees in neighbouring countries. Its content is also shared on Twitter and Facebook.
Although the objective of the project is to provide news and information about what is happening in different parts of the country to local communities, the bulletins are also a useful source of information for humanitarian agencies, as the RJDH and its network of correspondents cover areas where humanitarians may not have physical access.
Humanitarian accountability: the police policing itself?
Jacobo’s key message was that local media can and should be a fundamental element in any accountability strategy. However, the press should not be used simply as a tool by the humanitarian sector, as they have a wider role to play as watchdogs of the whole of society, ensuring accountability and good governance.
His second key message was that currently “humanitarian accountability looks a bit like the police policing themselves”. The demands for humanitarian accountability need to come from communities, rather than being driven by the need of aid agencies to fulfil organisational and external accountability standards.
Jacobo also emphasised that communicating with disaster affected communities offers opportunities that are much wider than holding powerful people to account, by providing a space for dialogue, debate and education in society.
Historically, working with local media has been met with resistance by agencies in the CAR, which tends to be common place in humanitarian disasters. When responding agencies do work with local media, it is often perceived as a means to an end only to improve the effectiveness and accountability of their own programming.
However, Internews and the other media development partners working in the CAR would argue that supporting local journalists to provide news and information which helps communities make decisions about their next steps; helps to hold governing bodies, aid agencies and others to account; and provides a space for dialogue and debate, is over and above an end in itself.