Section 7: Programming in Emergencies


Accountability in emergencies

Accountability is defined as the responsible use of power; it can be understood as an obligation on the part of decision-makers or those with power to account for the use of their power. Accountability is usually seen as being about compliance and counting: assigning performance indicators and safeguards against corruption and inertia. But accountability is fundamentally about shifting the balance of power. Through raising their voice and exercising their rights, people can demand just and accountable governance.

In disaster situations there is an increased risk of mismanagement and misappropriation of available funds and resources, which deprives people living in poverty and exclusion of the support they are entitled to. Accountability therefore has to be a key part of ActionAid’s approach to emergencies.

We are committed to being accountable to the following stakeholders:

  • the communities we work with who are affected by disasters and conflict

  • donors and supporters

  • governments, international laws, standards and practices. Overarching guidelines

Overarching guidelines

  • Accountability to the communities we work with is both a process (programme approach) and an outcome for communities and the programme.

  • ActionAid views accountability as more than programme management compliance. It is a political process that aims to enable the communities we work with to hold duty bearers accountable, and thus shift power dynamics in their favour.

  • ActionAid implements specific accountability programmes as a core component of all emergency responses. ActionAid and partner staff, as well as volunteers, must demonstrate their commitment to delivering accountability to the communities we work with through their attitudes and behaviour at all times.

  • A risk register for the emergency response is developed, reviewed and updated in Oversight Group meetings.

  • ActionAid’s open information policy requires us to share financial information through our websites and/or locally available means.

Accountability to disaster-affected communities

ActionAid has developed a number of mechanisms for delivering accountability to disaster-affected communities during emergency responses, including social audits, community reviews and people’s hearings. These mechanisms aim to support communities to empower themselves to ask questions and challenge the typical ‘donor/recipient’ mindset, facilitating a shift in a person’s view of her/himself as a beneficiary/recipient of aid to that of a person with a right to assistance and active agency in the process of their recovery. ActionAid’s experience shows that by going through such processes with ActionAid, the communities we work with can gain the confidence and skills necessary to demand accountability from duty bearers.

What does accountability to disaster-affected communities mean?

There are five key areas of accountability to disaster-affected: communities; participation; transparency; complaints; review and reflection; and sanctions.


  • Humanitarian response should prioritise the participation of the affected communities at all stages, including needs assessments, selection of people to receive support, decisions on which relief items are to be provided, procurement and delivery of items, programme reviews and evaluations, etc.

  • Recognise that people within the communities we work with have different capabilities in utilising accountability mechanisms. Often the most marginalised people are not aware or lack the necessary skills, knowledge, capacity or time to hold duty bearers (including humanitarian organisations) to account. ActionAid should invest in building the capacity of communities to engage successfully with accountability mechanisms.


  • Clarify programme objectives, ActionAid’s role and limit of our programme as part of being transparent.

  • Conduct a contextual analysis to understand the type of information the communities we work with may need to be aware of, and ensure that any information shared is contextualised as part of the overall emergency response.

  • Consider using transparency boards to share information on the emergency response with communities, but be careful to consider issues such as literacy and language. Be open to alternative ways of sharing information as suggested by disaster-affected communities.

Complaint mechanisms

  • Develop locally appropriate and culturally acceptable complaints mechanisms that enable the communities we work with to feed back their thoughts on all aspects of the Emergency Response and Resilience Programme. These may include installing complaint boxes, setting up a phoneline/SMS feedback mechanism, etc. Always consider issues of accessibility and the differing abilities of various groups to engage with such mechanisms. Ensure communities are clear on the purpose and how to use complaint mechanisms, and be sure to communicate what people can expect from ActionAid in terms of response to their queries.

  • Allocate sufficient resources for handling complaints in the form of grievances, protests, objections or criticisms. Handle specific complaints against individual staff members or volunteers through their line manager in the first instance, seeking support from your in-country HR officer as necessary.

  • ActionAid has a complaints mechanism policy that can be accessed here.

Review and reflection

  • Put in place locally appropriate mechanisms such as social audits and community reviews to enable the communities we work with to analyse our work – and provide feedback.

  • Ensure programme plans and budgets are flexible enough to accommodate feedback from the communities we work with.

  • Adopt decentralised management processes that enable partners and field offices to incorporate the community’s feedback.


  • Sanctions are a vital component of accountability. If there are no consequences for state actors and humanitarian agencies when they don’t meet commitments and standards, the entire accountability process fails. Even with the most comprehensive and insightful information on performance, no-one can be held accountable unless there are sanctions for misconduct and non-achievement.

  • Communities targeted by the emergency response must be empowered so that they can impose sanctions on humanitarian agencies, e.g. people may reject the support that is provided in their community, people may take legal recourse against agencies who act improperly.

  • ActionAid should support communities to advocate for appropriate sanctions against duty bearers. For more information on the role of civil society in holding state actors to account, see ActionAid’s Accountability handbook, part of the Just and Democratic Local Governance series of HRBA tools.

  • Sanctions must be coupled with answerability. Those who have the obligation to deliver should also have a binding duty to answer questions and explain themselves when things go wrong.

  • Sanctions must be enforceable. It is insufficient for sanctions merely to exist, without being put into practice. When monitoring reveals that obligations have not been met, sanctions should be enforced as a matter of course, and not as an exception to the rule.

Monitoring our commitments and ensuring compliance

ActionAid’s Accountability Charter commits us to monitor compliance on our agreed minimum standards, policies and accountability principles and their implementation in practice. Each entity in the federation is responsible for implementing the accountability standards that follow from this charter. Governing bodies have the responsibility to monitor compliance and sanction non-compliance. We will monitor and report on progress as appropriate, and take responsibility as members for upholding our commitments.

What does accountability to disaster-affected communities look like in practice?

ActionAid has developed different tools and mechanisms to operationalise accountability to disaster-affected communities. Many of these are used in ActionAid’s longer-term development programmes – these practices do not stop after disasters – they become even more important.

Tools and resources can be found in the ActionAid Accountability in Emergencies Resource Book

Community-led participatory change plan (CLPCP)

CLPCP is an approach to learning and social change wherein the initiatives of planned change are from the people, for the people, and by the people. The primary objective of CLPCP is to build the capacity of local communities to analyse the causes of their poverty, establish appropriate local response mechanisms, and access available resources by creating meaningful networks and alliances with other stakeholders so that their voices can be heard at the provincial and national levels. The community itself takes up the leadership, and acts as catalyst for its own empowerment and transformation.

CLPCP emphasises the following essential elements:

  • Support of community groups to analyse their own situation using participatory tools such as social, resource and mobility mapping, historical transects, wellbeing ranking, etc.

  • Use of participatory methods to address the key issues. This involves using participatory methods to decide how to act on the concerns and problems the community experiences, which have surfaced in their analysis of their situation. The participants then prioritise what actions to take.

  • Provision of space for individual planning in the context of community ownership.

  • Involvement of key external stakeholders to help build links between local communities and the resources they require.

Social audit

ActionAid has adopted social audit as a participatory and transparent process of ensuring public accountability, as well as a process by which all stakeholders jointly review and evaluate programme achievements, shortcomings and learnings. Social audit enables an organisation to: account for its performance to all stakeholders, especially the poor and excluded; maintain transparency and check corruption; learn to improve future performance; understand better its impact; promote wider participation and community ownership of the programme; and build a social platform at the village level for poor and excluded people to question and demand their rights.

Social audit is delivered through three key processes:

  • Transparency or display boards: the name of the village and objectives, coverage, activities and budget of the initiatives under implementation are displayed on a board in a public place in the village (i.e. temple, road junction, or bus stand) and updated on a regular basis.

  • Vigilance committee: community selects a group of volunteers mainly comprising members of excluded groups with equitable gender representation, to monitor and supervise the day-to-day implementation of the projects, including procurement. These volunteers receive training to enable them to take up larger responsibilities in community-based institutions.

  • Community auditing the bills and vouchers of expenses: copies of vouchers and bills for expenses incurred by partners and community members in implementing project activities in the village must be shared. The community must accept the role of the vigilance committee and approve the bills and expenses vouchers incurred in the village by passing a resolution. Any complaints against the vigilance committee or partner implementing the project must be acted on immediately. It is useful to invite other civil society organisations and government representatives to these interactions. This helps the community to ask for similar processes to be done in the village by other actors.

Community review

Community review is a process held every three months whereby nominated members from vigilance committees from different villages form a team and physically verify the programme direction and achievements in each of the villages. The reviewers move from village to village to observe the programme and verify the quality of work in each village, with the primary aim of learning from others’ experiences, facilitating networking around issues, building wider solidarity in the neighbouring villages, and helping them gain a sense of ownership. The process changes the status of the community from ‘the source of information’ to ‘the owner of the information’.

The steps in community review include:

  • Clustering of villages in a functionally feasible way. Clustering is to enhance networking with government and other agencies.

  • Formation of the review team comprising at least two members (one of whom is a woman) from each village.

  • Orientation to the programme including: what is planned in the village, the intended coverage, intended outcome, the process planned, and agreement regarding the implementation of the programme.

  • Village-wise physical verification through village visits by the team. In each village this coincides with the community auditing of the bills and vouchers of expenses in the social audit process which is described above.

  • Reporting the community review – sharing lessons learnt, good practices and programme effectiveness.

  • Dialogue around issues emerging from this community review.

Through the community review process, the community in general and members of the vigilance committee in particular learn about the finances in neighbouring villages, and can undertake comparative analysis which supports them to ask questions about the expenditure of partners and other agencies.

Public hearing

The public hearing is a large gathering held once a year, usually at the level of the district or a wider region. It is attended by disaster-affected community members, vigilance committees, community review committees, partners, ActionAid staff, government officers and other stakeholders such as academics, the media and members of religious institutions.

In the public hearing, partners display and present the programme progress against plan and budget details. Groups of people from the disaster-affected community observe all the details, and achievements and missed opportunities are openly discussed. Partners, ActionAid and government officers sit together to answer questions posed by the community.

Economic literacy and budget accountability for government (ELBAG)

ActionAid views economic injustice as a core denial of rights, and we regard economic literacy and budget accountability work as a crucial instrument for strengthening governance and public policy. Government budgets play a crucial role in the economic activities of a nation, especially in poverty eradication. The overall objective of ELBAG is to build, democratise and demystify knowledge on budgets and public finance, and to look at them as political processes and priority setting mechanisms of the government, rather than merely technical processes or documents. It focuses on building capacities of communities and their organisations to engage with economic processes and to challenge economic injustice at the micro and macro levels.

Specifically ELBAG aims to:

  • Build people’s capacities to monitor, track and question budgetary policies by institutionalising accountability mechanisms like local level budget analysis, social audits, community reviews and public hearings, such that the poorest and most excluded people can challenge injustice in their daily reality.

  • Strengthen community and civil society organisations’ engagement with budgets on a sustained and continuous basis from the local to the national levels, in order to advocate for reform of the budget formulation process, and to influence budget allocation priorities.

  • Empower communities and civil society to understand the manifestations of economic injustice around them, and to be able to challenge them.

Accountability to donors and supporters

All staff involved in the Emergency Response and Resilience Programme should read and understand ActionAid’s contractual obligations to donors and ensure these are integrated into the programme. ActionAid also has an obligation to ensure that we provide timely and accurate programme and financial information to donors and supporters. Any changes to the programme response that require amends to a donor contract should be communicated to the donor in advance, to seek any necessary approvals.

Accountability to government and compliance with international standards and laws

In any emergency response the government is the primary duty bearer and should be responsible for providing support to the communities affected. ActionAid establishes links with government at different levels, informing officials of our plans and reporting on progress in our response. ActionAid’s Emergency Response and Resilience Building Plans have to demonstrate our accountability to the government at various levels – unless they are contravening international standards and laws such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

ActionAid is a member or signatory of various international standards and conventions that guide humanitarian response. As an organisation we have an obligation to adhere to these standards and to operationalise them in our work in disasters.

Sphere standards

The Sphere project is a voluntary initiative established in 1997 that brings a wide range of humanitarian agencies together around a common aim – to improve the quality of humanitarian assistance and the accountability of humanitarian actors to their constituents, donors and affected populations.

The Sphere handbook, Humanitarian charter and minimum standards in humanitarian response, is one of the most widely known and internationally recognised sets of common principles and universal minimum standards in life-saving areas of humanitarian response. These tools set out standards and guidance for different areas of humanitarian response including shelter, WASH, protection, food and non-food items.

ActionAid staff responding to disasters should be aware of the standards that apply in relevant sectors and ensure that the assistance provided by ActionAid meets these standards. They are also a useful tool for advocacy and holding government and other providers to account, as they provide a framework for identifying where response is falling short.

The Sphere handbook in multiple languages can be accessed free of charge here. Hard copies can be ordered through the website, with subsidised prices for NGOs.

A free Sphere e-learning course in multiple languages is also available here.

Many countries have national Sphere chapters, where humanitarian agencies come together as a community of practice to discuss and operationalise the Sphere project.You can find information on these communities, as well as training opportunities here.

Interagency Network for Education in Emergencies

In order to achieve a minimum level of educational access and quality in emergencies, as well as to ensure the accountability of the workers who provide these services, the Interagency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) has developed the INEE Minimum standards for education: preparedness, response, recovery.

The INEE minimum standards are designed for use in emergency preparedness, response and recovery and in humanitarian advocacy. They are applicable in a wide range of situations, including natural disasters and armed conflicts. The standards give guidance on how to prepare for and respond to acute emergencies in ways that reduce risk, improve future preparedness and lay a foundation for quality education. They provide flexibility in responding to needs at the most important level – the community – while providing a harmonised framework to co-ordinate the educational activities of national governments, other authorities, funding agencies, and national and international agencies.

The INEE minimum standards are companion standards to the Sphere project minimum standards in humanitarian response.

INGO Accountability Charter

The INGO Accountability Charter is an initiative of International NGOs to demonstrate their commitment to accountability and transparency.

The charter seeks to:

  • identify and define shared principles, policies and practices

  • enhance transparency and accountability, both internally and externally

  • encourage communication with stakeholders

  • improve our performance and effectiveness as organisations.

The charter text codifies practices for INGOs in the areas of respect for universal principles; independence; responsible advocacy; effective programmes; non-discrimination; transparency; good governance; ethical fundraising; and professional management.

The full charter and more information can be found here.

Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP)

The Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International is a multi-agency initiative working to improve the accountability of humanitarian action to people affected by disasters and other crises. HAP members range from agencies with a mandate of emergency relief and development activities to institutional donors. They are committed to meeting the highest standards of accountability and quality management.

HAP members commit to developing a code of conduct for staff responding to disasters, and to integrate the HAP principles into organisation policies and processes. Members have to report annually wo progress, and have to meet further requirements to fulfil the HAP certification process.

The 10 HAP principles are:

  • Humanity: concern for human welfare and respect for the individual.

  • Impartiality: providing humanitarian assistance in proportion to need, and giving priority to the most urgent needs, without discrimination (including that based upon gender, age, race, disability, ethnic background, nationality or political, religious, cultural or organisational affiliation).

  • Neutrality: aiming only to meet human needs and refraining from taking sides in hostilities or giving material or political support to parties to an armed conflict.

  • Independence: acting only under the authority of the organisation’s governing body and in line with the organisation’s purpose.

  • Participation and informed consent: listening and responding to feedback from crisis-affected people when planning, implementing, monitoring and evaluating programmes, and making sure that crisis-affected people understand and agree with the proposed humanitarian action and are aware of its implications.

  • Duty of care: meeting recognised minimum standards for the wellbeing of crisis-affected people, and paying proper attention to their safety and the safety of staff.

  • Witness: reporting when the actions of others have a negative effect on the wellbeing of people in need of humanitarian assistance or protection.

  • Offer redress: enabling crisis-affected people and staff to raise complaints, and responding with appropriate action.

  • Transparency: being honest and open in communications and sharing relevant information, in an appropriate form, with crisis-affected people and other stakeholders.

  • Complementarity: working as a responsible member of the aid community, co-ordinating with others to promote accountability to, and coherence for, crisis affected people.

The 2010 HAP standard and more information on HAP can be found here.

Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross, Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief

The Red Cross Code of Conduct is a voluntary code that seeks to safeguard high standards of behaviour and maintain independence and effectiveness in disaster relief. In the event of armed conflict, its clauses are to be interpreted and applied in conformity with International Humanitarian Law.

The 10 principles of the code of conduct are:

  1. The humanitarian imperative (saving lives and alleviating human suffering) comes first.

  2. Aid is given regardless of the race, creed or nationality of the recipients and without adverse distinction of any kind. Aid priorities are calculated on the basis of need alone.

  3. Aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint.

  4. We shall endeavour not to act as instruments of government foreign policy.

  5. We shall respect culture and custom.

  6. We shall attempt to build disaster response on local capacities.

  7. Ways shall be found to involve programme beneficiaries in the management of relief aid.

  8. Relief aid must strive to reduce future vulnerabilities to disaster as well as meeting basic needs.

  9. We hold ourselves accountable to both those we seek to assist and those from whom we accept resources.

  10. In our information, publicity and advertising activities, we shall recognise disaster victims as dignified humans, not hopeless objects.

ActionAid’s humanitarian assistance is neutral in the sense that we never take sides with actors in a conflict or with political parties. However, ActionAid does take sides with people living in poverty and exclusion. In our analysis, the assertion of people’s rights in emergencies is a political process and in this sense humanitarian assistance cannot be neutral.

The full code can be downloaded here.

A short film on the ICRC code of conduct has been produced and can be found here.

People in Aid

People In Aid is a non-profit organisation that aims to improve organisational effectiveness within the humanitarian and development sector worldwide by advocating, supporting and recognising good practice in the management of people. People in Aid supports organisations whose goal is the relief of poverty and suffering to enhance the impact they make, through better management and support of staff and volunteers. Members have to fulfill certain obligations to achieve certification.

The People in Aid code is an internationally recognised management tool that helps humanitarian aid and development agencies enhance the quality of their human resources management.

It covers seven areas:

  • human resources strategy

  • staff policies and practices

  • managing people

  • consultation and communication

  • recruitment and selection

  • learning, training and development

  • health, safety and security.

The ActionAid International Secretariat and its 26 associates and affiliates worldwide have been accredited with the first People in Aid quality mark called: Committed to the People In Aid Code of Good Practice in 2013.

The code and more information can be found here.

Further Reading