In response to persistent criticism regarding the limited agency of affected populations, the notion of “Accountability to Affected Populations” (AAP) has risen to the forefront of reform efforts in the humanitarian sector. Consequently, it has been outlined in various agreements in recent years, including the 2015 “Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability”, the “Participatory Revolution” of the 2016 Grand Bargain Initiative, and the recently launched “Flagship Initiative” led by Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC) Martin Griffiths. Under these commitments and standards, aid actors are expected to ensure that the people they serve “have the right to say what they need, receive information on what is being provided, and have an opportunity to assess and provide feedback about the assistance they receive.”
The implementation of this type of agreements has been proven challenging for the aid sector’s major players. The “Flagship Initiative” is considered to be a new, promising approach for making the humanitarian response more bottom-up rather than top-down, but the success of its implementation requires redesigning the current funding system and addressing root causes of conflict – no easy task. In the initiative’s time frame of three years, experts caution this is overly ambitious and unrealistic. In addition to these concerns, critics have warned that the biggest UN organisations leading the current system may resist significant changes, just as they have in the past.
“I have reached the view that one of the biggest failings of the humanitarian system is that agencies do not pay enough attention to what people caught up in crises say they want, and then try to give that to them. […] It’s because despite all our good intentions, the humanitarian system actually is set up to give people in need what international agencies and donors think is best, and what the agencies have to offer, rather than giving people what they themselves say they most need.” – Mark Lowcock, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs between 2017 and 2021.
UNHCR and Accountability to Affected Populations
UNHCR, the UN organisation with a global mandate for the protection of refugees, has – as many others – theoretically committed to AAP, aiming to increase system-wide accountability in their operations. Through its AAP framework outlined in UNHCR’s Policy on Age, Gender, and Diversity, the organisation pledges to include people’s voices, respond to their demands, and to being accountable to the people it aims to serve – something they argue to be a core component to their mandate:
“AAP is not new or additional work: it is at the centre of UNHCR’s protection mandate, as set out in its age, gender and diversity (AGD) policy, and implemented through community-based, participatory approaches that are already well-established.”
Despite these documents and statements highlighting UNHCR’s dedication to AAP, affected populations’ growing discontent with their services is increasingly being noticed. In order to gain a better understanding of these concerns, Upinion and its partners 11.11.11 and Basmeh & Zeitooneh for Relief and Development of the Refugee Protection Watch (RPW) coalition, initiated dialogues with individuals familiar with UNHCR services, seeking their feedback and recommendations. These insights are critical for assessing UNHCR’s actual operationalisation of their AAP strategy, and for evaluating whether the promises are actually ‘already well-established’ in the eyes of those affected themselves. Although the report has not yet been officially released, we are offering a sneak peak of the results.
‘UNHCR is just a text message’
The upcoming report presents Upinion’s recent conversation with its online panel of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, which clearly highlights the disconnect between people’s perceptions and this UN body’s intentions to be accountable and inclusive. Syrian refugees – registered with UNHCR – express that despite the aim of UNHCR to “employ participatory methodologies” and “promote feedback and response systems”, the majority do not feel or only feel somewhat included in decision-making processes and feedback mechanisms. Shockingly, 87 per cent of the nearly 300 respondents have never been asked to provide feedback to UNHCR Lebanon following their participation in one of their programs.
Additional face-fo-face focus group discussions, held by partner organisation Basmeh & Zeitooneh further reveal the limited responsiveness and engagement of affected people in their decisions and programming:
“It’s not that I would not be interested to provide input into the way they work, but they never ask. [..] We never see them, we never hear them. For us UNHCR is just a text message.” – Syrian woman in Bekaa
The RPW coalition has outlined specific recommendations for UNHCR to change this: the organisation should develop an AAP Strategic Framework and Guide together with refugee-led organisations and communities, increase the budget allocated to AAP activities, and bridge the gap between the organisation and refugees by expanding the number of local offices, requiring staff to spend a minimal amount of their working hours doing community or home visits, and organising town hall meetings so refugees can be directly consulted for feedback. The coalition also urges UNHCR to critically review its existing communication channels with refugees, including the UNHCR hotline, to improve responsiveness to refugees’ needs. RPW’s report elaborates on these recommendations, as well as directs some of them to other relevant actors, including donor governments, UN OCHA Lebanon, the UN Humanitarian Country Team and Resident Coordinator/Humanitarian Coordinator.
Upinion has embarked upon the journey to increase the space for meaningful participation for vulnerable populations, amplify their voice, and improve humanitarian response in terms of accountability and effectiveness. It uses its online research platform – an approach allowing for safe and continuous dialogue with people affected by crisis situations – to gather research insights and to show that for the humanitarian community, it is time to not only promise, but to act.