Accountability and social assistance in protracted crises online discussion, Wed 22 - Thurs 23 June 2022

Welcome to day one of a two-day e-discussion where we will be looking at accountability and social assistance in protracted crises, co-facilitated by Paul Harvey (Co-director of BASIC Research) and Louisa Seferis (BASIC researcher). This online discussion is the third in a series of four, which will run throughout June, as part of the Better Assistance in Crises (BASIC) Research programme and kindly co-hosted by This online dialogue builds on an informal hangout that was held on 15 June on politics and accountability. It will look at the following themes:

  • Accountability pathways
  • Participation and people-centred assistance
  • "Accountability to whom"

To participate, please make sure you have registered on the platform (see instructions in attached guide). You will then be able to add comments/replies to the thread below. If you have any difficulties please reach out to the moderator of the discussion, Tina Nelis, via email at: [email protected]. We kindly ask all participants to be respectful of the views of others.  


Tomorrow (Wed 22 June), we will kick off with Acccountablity pathways … watch this space!


Welcome all and congrats on navigating the annoying log-in process. We're interested in having a discussion about the mix of development and humanitarian accountability approaches for assistance in crisis contexts. So the question to kick things off is:

In protracted crises are people able to hold governments or aid agencies (or both or neither) to account for assistance they get or don’t get?


Thanks Paul for kicking off the discussion and welcome everyone!

It's interesting to reflect on what "holding to account" means contextually and culturally - and who within aid providers are considered the decision makers that influence social assistance and therefore how accountable it is.

In protracted crises where communities have interacted with aid providers for a long time, they have a different relationship with government vs. non-government entities, national vs. international. In CAR, perception research (from Ground Truth Solutions as part of the interagency AAP platform) showed that NGOs (local + INGOs) were perceived to be more responsive and inclusive than other social assistance actors, especially outside of Bangui, often because they had been present in those areas over the years. Affiliation and representation seems to matter quite a bit across the globe in terms of how comfortable communities feel raising issues and identifying how they want to participate on which issues. Local government may be perceived as more receptive to community engagement and feedback on social assistance but at the same time considered a separate entity from national authorities who are perceived as the ultimate "decision makers," as has been observed in Borno State, Nigeria. 

And to add what Valentina Barca and Véronique Barbelet have noted in different contexts (Nigeria, Colombia, etc.): many issues related to aid accountability, whether social protection benefits or humanitarian assistance, are addressed at the point of contact by frontline teams who have developed relationships with communities and with whom aid recipients often feel most comfortable. This often makes a programme appear more accountable for aid recipients, but it's difficult to capture on-the-ground problem solving and informal consultations. Still, proactive feedback from communities can help understand whether these relationships exist and how they influence the accountability of social assistance.

I'm wondering if others have come across similar dynamics or have different perspectives on what it means to hold aid providers to account?

I was just reading a new report by Susanne Jaspars, Nisar Majid and Catriona Murdoch on digital technologies this morning - .  Given Louisa's points above about the importance of trust, relationships and proximity - it seems to me that there's an issue with the increasing move to digital technologies for accountability (call centres and third party monitoring) 

Paul, Louisa, thanks for diving head first into the deep-end of accountability in protracted crisis... trunks donned, I'm joining you now, so let's see if my response sinks of swims!

A key consideration for me is to somehow disaggregate what we mean by accountability, and critically, go beyond the typically individualised approach (in simplest form, individuals receiving effective responses to complaints and feedback they've raised about assistance) towards a wholesale response-level accountability to affected communities writ large. Not just, "did individuals receive what they were due and, if not, has something been done to rectify it" (far from perfect, but substantive improvements having been made), but what mechanisms (or pathways if you like) do or should exist to ensure affected communiites can collectively critique and shape the very countours of the response in real time and seek genuine accountability and justice, in whichever form is deemed appropriate, in its wake. 

In which fora is the humanitarian complex held to account for its profound and all-to-frequent systemic shortcomings... not to mention their real world implications? Thoughts turn to various means and mechanisms, formal and informal, legal and otherwise, through which accountability and, indeed, justice has previously been sought and how these may be applied in the specific case of social assistance... But which is(are) best suited for the task at hand? 

This is not to discount the importance of individual-level, let's say "transactional", accountability relative to the systemic, simply that at best, the latter is altogether absent and, at worst, the humanitarian complex cowers behind the proverbial human shield of individual accountability to protect itself from deeper critique, accountability and pursuit of justice...

So to answer your question, Paul... in some ways yes (though much still to be done), but others most certainly not!

Thanks Ed - and I think I agree that the approach at the moment is too focussed at the individual level (can an invidivual complain) and not enough at the wider system. As you note what that would look like in practice terms is harder than setting up a call centre and is perhaps why there is less of it.

I guess my list would include - funding and support to civil society actors who might be able to hold agencies and govenrments to account - local media, human rights organisations etc. - as part of M&E.

Funding for mechanisms and approaches from the development side in humanitarian crises ( ). I'd lvoe to see social audits, community scorecards and expenditure tracking surveys carried out in crisis settings. 

And much more engagement from aid actors (development and humanitarian ) with local justice mechanisms - but here I'm really starting to stray from any proper expertise. 

Ed and Paul off to a great start!

The humanitarian need for attribution and accountability of each sector's (or organisations') own programmes often contradicts the broader accountability and shaping that you're talking about, Ed. We see this in the Ukraine response, where the Cash Working Group is mandated to coordinate multipurpose cash programmes but not cash assistance "for" a sector-specific need like food vouchers. That distinction makes sense to humanitarian organisations, but starts to muddy the waters for people affected by crisis and their representatives when it comes to identifying who is ultimately a decision maker. Another intrinsic aspect of a humanitarian response that can impede accountability is the need for a rapid response - resulting in many actors doing variations of the same thing, accountable to "our beneficiaries" (a possessive term that needs to die in 2022). If you're receiving aid or just trying to get information, you'll need to contact the organisation that assisted you. If you're not a recipient of that organisation, many communication channels are not available or designed for you. If you call the wrong number and you are lucky, that person will give you the contact info you need. But there are so many "ifs" in this system inherently designed by and for humanitarian actors that hinder accountable assistance. And all of this is still just on the reactive (complaints or info gaps) individual aspect of accountability... 

But it's still important to highlight the positive experiences from the humanitarian side. The reactiveness of humanitarian organisations is often viewed positively by communities who were previously excluded from social processes. They can help bridge gaps between local and national government ways of delivering social assistance. The sudden onset of a crisis brings attention and resources that can increase the coverage and sophistication of social assistance programmes (whether or not it happens is another story).

On the social protection side, Paul is right to highlight development approaches to participatory evaluations/audits, scorecards, etc. It would be so important to see more of this across social protection and development programmes. And peaking of scorecards, Meena Bhandari is working with the AAP working group in Somalia and hoping to adapt the South Sudan active citizens scorecard to the context (see Ground Truth Solutions 2018: But beyond participatory evaluation, Meena and others in Somalia have highlighted the big gap in participatory DESIGN. MIT's D-Labs summarises the concepts here:

A very welcome milestone in the coming years will be to talk about the dynamics of accountable social assistance in crises rather than have to present the humanitarian vs. social protection approaches. I would love to see positive elements from both types - and beyond, such as peacebuilding, market-based programming, etc. - brought together in a way that puts people first. "People first" is another topic to unpack... 

Morning all. Two questions from Louisa to kick things off. Any thoughts or responses welcome. 

A lot of accountability approaches, in social protection programmes and humanitarian responses as well as beyond, talk about participation and "meaningful engagement." But what does that mean in reality? Who decides who participates - and how? Please share your experiences, whether positive or negative. 

Accountability approaches and mechanisms in crises often focus on complaints and feedback from aid recipients or "beneficiaries," sometimes going as far as only communicating with those directly enrolled in the particular programme. Do you have any examples of accountability going beyond aid recipients? Do these examples include approaches from social protection and humanitarian actors? 


Interesting discussion and questions. Thinking about broader accountability, participation and inclusion, I'm wondering if there are any examples of local voices being formally included in programme governance mechanisms for assistance in crises? I haven't found much from an initial search, and I'm wondering whether people are doing it but not writing it down or just not doing it.

It's been really fascinating to read these inputs. 

@Becky - on your last question about formal inclusion of local voices in programme governance mechanisms, I think Colombia is an interesting case to look at there, on the social assistance side. The Victims' Law of 2011 guarantees IDPs and other conflict victims the right to effective participation in the design, implementation and fulfilment of the plans, projects and programmes created under that law (which includes preferential access to social assistance). One of the mechanisms for achieving that participation is the national and local-level "Mesas de Participación". There's plenty of criticism of how they've been run (e.g. recently by  Iversen 2022). But even so, I do think they could be an interesting model to study more. And certainly in our UniAndes-ODI study on Social protection responses to forced displacement in Colombia, we found that enshrining IDP rights and assistance entitlements in law did seem to go some way towards enabling IDPs to hold the state to account for those provisions. IDPs were significantly more likely to be receiving social assistance than the local non-displaced population in the low-income neighbourhoods surveyed in Bogotá and Cúcuta, and were also significantly more likely to have made an official complaint about the assistance that they received.

In case of interest, Bex Holmes, Caterina Mazzilli, Marcela Rubio and I have a paper coming out soon on Adjusting social protection delivery to effectively support displaced populations. One of the sections is on Accountability Mechanisms, and it brings together our quant and qual findings on awareness and use of grievance mechanisms in both social protection and humanitarian assistance programmes, from Colombia (IDPs, Venezuelans and host communities), Cameroon (IDPs, Nigerian and CAR refugees, host communities) and Greece (refugees, asylum seekers, host communities).

Admittedly, the survey data mainly explored accountability for individuals rather than the system level and among recipients rather than the affected community as a whole (thanks @Edward and @Louisa for highlighting those important distinctions!) but still has some reasonably detailed findings that may be of interest. In line with earlier research on social protection grievance mechanisms, our overarching finding was that complaints processes and grievance mechanisms were rarely known or used by either displaced or host population recipients - for either social protection and humanitarian schemes.

The only case where the majority of recipients were aware of who to contact in case of an issue was Greece for the host population (in relation to social assistance) -but even then the awareness rate was barely over half. Whatsmore, only 3% of Greek social assistance recipients had actually made an official complaint, which didn't necessarily seem to be because of being satisfied with the provision, but could be related to the fact that Greek recipients trusted the government less than non-recipients, even after controlling for various individual and community level characteristics that might otherwise influence trust. That maybe goes back to @Louisa's earlier comment about the impact of trust on use of accountability mechanisms. E.g. in the qualitative research in Cameroon, several interviewees (displaced and non-displaced) mentioned that they wouldn't raise issues about assistance provision because they feared it would reduce their access to assistance in future (true for both humanitarian and social assistance).

One other dimension that could be helpful to get further insights and evidence on is who within the affected/recipient community has access to accountability mechanismsms and feels comfortable raising issues. In the paper mentioned above, we found that female-headed households were often less familiar with complaints mechanisms, or submitted complaints at lower rates. And in Colombia, the percentage who wholly agreed that their social assistance complaint was fairly dealt with was also significantly lower for female-headed households than male-headed households among the host community. Sample sizes were very small though once we had narrowed down to recipients who were aware of complaints mechanisms and had made use of them... so I'd definitely be keen to see more evidence on some of those areas!

Finally @Paul, thanks very much for sharing that paper on Digitalisation in humanitarian aid- I hadn't seen it and it looks very useful! FYI on the SP front, we published a new paper today on the digitalisation of social protection delivery and there's a couple sections in there on technology's impact on accountability - both in the opportunities and in the challenges categories.

Sorry for all the links - hope some may be of use and thanks all for the great food for thought this week!