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[LONDON] There is a widespread belief across the global development sector that aid project accountability is not only a moral obligation, but can also transform project effectiveness, sustainability and efficiency, according to a report launched last week (21 June).

But tangible evidence of the link between accountability and effectiveness remains patchy, it says.

"There are very good moral, financial and social reasons for … ensuring that accountability mechanisms exist in development programmes," said Andy Featherstone, the report's author, during its launch at the Overseas Development Institute in London, United Kingdom.

"But … what do they contribute to project quality and impact? Among the relief and development sector, there was a real lack of knowledge and evidence [here]."

The new report — published by Christian Aid, Save the Children and the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership and entitled 'Improving Impact: Do Accountability Mechanisms Deliver Results?' — aims to begin plugging this gap.

Paul Knox Clarke, head of research and communications at ALNAP (the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action), said that the "robust and evidential" report "steps beyond statements of [moral imperative] to actually interrogate accountability".

The report also strives to create accountability mechanisms — based on information-sharing, community participation and complaints-handling — that agencies can replicate and adapt according to their particular needs in the field.

Using a method developed by Featherstone, the report's research team ran two pilot trials: one at a Christian Aid project in Kenya and a second at a Save the Children scheme in Myanmar.

These uncovered clear evidence of a correlation between accountability mechanisms and project impact, Featherstone said.

He described how communities felt that their participation in programmes meant they were able to "own projects". And greater ownership, in their view, both built trust and galvanised a "passion to sustain projects".

The issue of trust also has a knock-on effect on project funding, said Nick Guttmann, head of Christian Aid's humanitarian division. Building trust allows projects to achieve more, and having evidence of this helps when asking donors for further support, he said.

But the researchers also encountered obstacles to evidence collection — such as the need to reconcile different opinions about what accountability is and to whom it is owed — and identified areas that will need fine-tuning,

Knox Clarke also described how the "wholesale" nature of humanitarian work makes it hard to tailor accountability mechanisms to local contexts.

"The model of humanitarianism … is not a boutique model that is well-designed or well-adapted to providing highly contextualised, individual or community-based responses," he said.

"So it's a fairly thoroughgoing change that [is needed] if we are to remodel humanitarianism to do that."

He also emphasised that communities "are not homogenous but political entities", composed of complex social dynamics, making the question of "whose voice counts" a further complication when gathering evidence around accountability.

Alice Obrecht, research and programmes officer at King's College London's Humanitarian Futures Programme, tells SciDev.Net that the report provides "a necessary and novel approach to thinking about why humanitarians should practice accountability".

But she adds that it raises issues relating to the politics of aid language and interactions with communities, as well as the question of how well Western-based accountability initiatives and standards fit with local communities' notions of accountability.

"The language used to structure dialogue between NGOs and affected communities is of paramount importance. Because they shape dialogue and the relationships between humanitarian organisations and the communities they serve, accountability mechanisms — and their value — stand and fall by their ability to traverse different conceptual and linguistic barriers," says Obrecht.

"As the report itself states, much more work is needed in this area. It would be terrific to see this jump-start a new and richer discussion of the future of accountability practice and the suitability of current accountability mechanisms to support the relationships humanitarians and development practitioners need to be effective and legitimate in the long term."

Link to the report

See a video of Andy Featherstone's presentation

Link to more videos from the ODI launch event (click on audio/video button at top of following url)