The #MeToo movement has exposed the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace and elsewhere. And the recent reports of sexual misconduct by staff employed by charities sheds new light on an age old debate around accountability for humanitarian organisations.

Yet, says Joakim Daun, a field/legal researcher on the Refugee Law Initiative’s RECAP (Research capacity building and knowledge generation to support preparedness and response to humanitarian crises and epidemics) project, we have not seen the affected people themselves speak up about the abuse as we have in other sectors.

While power dynamics exist in all sectors, in the humanitarian sector the balance between those in power and those receiving assistance is even more skewed. Crisis-affected populations, whether displaced by natural disasters or war, famine and persecution are among the most socially and economically vulnerable. Therefore, accountability in the humanitarian sector is even more relevant. It is sometimes the only way people can have a say in what happens to them and the only path they can use to seek redress when their rights have been violated.

Most humanitarian organisations have implemented three strands of accountability:

(1) The first focuses on setting technical standards for services, such as the Sphere standards that outlines the minimum requirements for programmes addressing WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene), food security, health and shelter.

(2) The second looks at results-based management frameworks that define expected results and monitor progress. Emphasis is also put on integrating lessons learned into management decisions and reporting on performance. Here, accountability is seen as way of making best use of resources and using feedback from affected populations to improve effectiveness.

(3) The third, rights-based or client-based approach, focuses on affected populations as rights-holders whose voice should be included in projects implemented for them. This requires humanitarian actors to involve crisis affected populations in key decisions and processes and provide effective communication and feedback channels that engage all groups without discrimination, especially the most vulnerable or marginalised populations.

Most humanitarian organisations now have frameworks that incorporate these strands. Yet, crisis-affected populations including forcibly displaced persons still have no formal control, and often little influence, over decisions taken by humanitarian organisations. There is evidence to suggest that these approaches have failed to ensure refugees’ voices are listened to and acted upon.

Humanitarian accountability has generally been donor and government driven, and not a grassroots movement.

In 2016 The Grand Bargain called for a ‘participation revolution’ asking aid organisations to ensure that the voices of the most vulnerable groups are heard and acted upon. Last year through the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, States committed to putting ‘those most affected at the centre of planning and action’.

The swift reaction of Penny Mordaunt (the UK International Development Secretary) to the Oxfam scandal was welcomed by donors, who have been pushing for better accountability. She called on humanitarian organisations to show moral leadership and warned that the UK government will not work with those that fail the required high safeguarding standards.

If accountability is not fully prioritised by all parties and only seen as a requirement on paper, there is a danger that it will become yet another task for staff who are already overworked. Asking them to do more without the appropriate tools and incentives might not be the solution.

Humanitarian organisations have to compete for funds so they put a lot of time and resources in developing reports and other documentation to show the impact of their work and maintain a ‘positive image’. The fear of having their image damaged might actually make them less likely to be open about accountability issues.

In hindsight, Oxfam’s financial loss and reputational damage might have suffered less if all the facts were revealed from the beginning and it had taken proper action to ensure the abuser was sanctioned. However, the charity’s reaction says something about the environment in which these organisations operate.

The newly launched RECAP project, which will bring together leading international organisations to shape and improve humanitarian policies, aims to offer further insights into some of the complex issues around accountability in the humanitarian sector.

The research at the Refugee Law Initiative will investigate legal and other frameworks and mechanisms related to protection and displaced populations and explore better ways to achieve accountability. By asking what meaningful accountability means in practice we hope to produce research that can be both critical and useful for practitioners.

This is an extract from Humanitarian accountability for displaced persons: where are we at?, which is published on the Refugee Law Initiative’s blog.

Joakim Daun, holds a master’s degree in international human rights law from the University of Oxford. He has ten years of experience with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and has worked in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and Europe.