Being good at doing good? Quality and accountability of humanitarian NGOs

  • Hilhorst D
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Quality enhancement of humanitarian assistance is far from a technical task. It is interwoven with debates on politics of principles and people are intensely committed to the various outcomes these debates might have. It is a field of strongly competing truths, each with their own rationale and appeal. The last few years have seen a rapid increase in discussions, policy paper and organisational initiatives regarding the quality of humanitarian assistance. This paper takes stock of the present initiatives and of the questions raised with regard to the quality of humanitarian assistance. This paper is based on a review of literature and on 27 interviews about ideas and practices to do with humanitarian quality held in 2001 with representatives of humanitarian NGOs, donors and staff members of humanitarian quality initiatives (see Figure 1). 1 The interviews were particularly valuable in bringing out the interweaving nature of different aspects of the discussions. Where literature normally addresses either the politics and principles of humanitarian assistance or matters of organisation, the interviews show how highly principled statements seamlessly intertwine with organisational politics and patterns. After providing a background to the discussion, the paper distinguishes four different approaches to quality that may partly overlap in practice, but mark different principles and styles of assistance. These are the organisational management approach, the rights approach, the contingency approach and the ownership approach. The discussion then moves to discuss the use of standards in humanitarian assistance. This issue has recently raised a lot of controversy, in particular in relation to the Sphere Project for standards of aid. This is followed by addressing the relationship between quality and accountability and, finally, a discussion of some of the current methods of quality enhancement. Although the discussion on the quality of humanitarian assistance has focused mainly on the implementing humanitarian organisations, it is important to note that they are certainly not the only ones responsible for the quality of humanitarian assistance. The humanitarian complex is composed of many other actors that all have an impact on the quality of assistance. Among these are foreign policy actors, donors, UN organisations, peacekeeping forces, the media and a range of local institutions. Although many of the points raised about NGO quality sometimes apply equally or more to these other actors, this is outside the scope of this paper. I shall return to this point, however, in the section on quality and accountability.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Accountability
  • Humanitarian NGOs
  • Humanitarian principles
  • Quality

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  • Dorothea Hilhorst

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