Accountability in disaster By Mansoor Raza - Wednesday 13th April 2011

ACCORDING to the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, Pakistan lost an estimated $8.74bn to $10.85bn in the aftermath of last year`s floods — about a third of its 2009-2010 budget. Until January 2011, the amount received as foreign aid for relief was $2.1bn.
Earlier, after the 2005 earthquake, Pakistan received $1.16bn in foreign aid, while during the IDP crisis during the Swat operation, $16.8m was given by outside donors.
The hue and cry raised in the country about the considerably less aid received led aid-giving agencies to allege insufficient and unsatisfactory accountability procedures, the primary reason for their condensed support.
The experiences of various governments and crisis-management bodies, around the globe have led to the recognition of disaster management as a scientific discipline in itself and the fact that the Disaster Risk Reduction strategy is more efficacious than disaster response.
In the aftermath of any disaster, multi-pronged actions are initiated by humanitarian agencies. While there are differences in their workings, the traditional route taken by the humanitarian, primarily aid-implementing, sector, is to rapidly assess the damage caused and the requirements of the people, arrange funding, identify target groups and calibrate a response before attempting long-term rehabilitation.
For many, the experience of undertaking immediate relief work is helpful in formulating long-term rehabilitation interventions and methodologies. But such a long-term response can only be effective if there is monitoring and transparency at each step. Conversely, non-adherence to accountability standards results in more harm than good.
It is interesting to note that from 1947 to 2010, 32 major initiatives were undertaken worldwide to improve the quality of aid implementation and accountability while drawing potent lessons from good practices in the humanitarian sector.
Until 1990, only two disaster codes — comprising crucial components of disaster management — were drafted while between 1990 and 2010, around 30 ventures were initiated to make humanitarian assistance more accountable. Some of the most widely known initiatives are the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action, the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership, People In Aid and the Sphere Project, all setting standards for immediate relief and rehabilitation.
The 1990s were an important decade for disaster response as 17 initiatives were launched, the highest number in any of the decades since there was far greater realisation of the importance of the professional aspect of humanitarian work. This realisation notwithstanding, accountability of funds provided by various aid-giving bodies to any country hit by disaster remains a challenge.
The humanitarian sector often takes refuge behind its `good intentions` in response to any criticism regarding aid implementation, citing the tyranny of urgency or other difficult circumstances. Often, the entire exercise of accountability is reduced to negotiations between the fund-givers and fund-takers — with more or less verbal agreements on the lessons learned. The exercise is hardly conducted within a legal framework that could make such `lessons` more binding.
At another level, there are no lessons learnt. A closer look at the methodology of disaster management reveals — and this is more true in under-developed societies like ours — that once aid has been disbursed, feelings of spiritual satisfaction and personal fulfilment set in. Often the self-righteousness that such feelings cause makes it difficult to reflect impartially on the exercise; hence any lapses in the exercise may not be indicated in future drafts of disaster response.
In fact, the absence of a well-thought-out response often paves the way for ad hoc, unsystematic methods in humanitarian interventions as witnessed in initial assessments which form the foundation of the entire process of disaster management.
Inaccessibility to the disaster-affected areas, cultural restrictions, the absence of an experienced staff, reliance on local influentials for information and logistical ease as well as the tendency to exaggerate the damages for increased funding are major challenges. At times, there is an unwelcome streak of `contractorship` on the part of the implementing agencies, which is an obstruction in the way of accountability and rehabilitation.
A solution to this would be the long-term presence of the aid-implementing body itself in the disaster zone, while at the national level, an effective response would require the identification of vulnerable areas — which, over the years, have become quite clear — with accurate demographic profiles. This would provide a better idea of what is needed and what is provided.
To include the voices of women and children and to eliminate discrimination against minorities are another challenge staring a polarised society in the face. A one-size-fits-all approach in designing relief packages actually adds to the sense of deprivation of the survivors, reducing them to the status of mere recipients with no voice in decision-making. Monitoring humanitarian interventions is often a quantitative exercise and there is little debate on how the targets have been met. Besides, monitoring is largely perceived as donor-steered and kills the dynamics of learning.
Unfortunately, transparency is only selective, as seen in the final reports of aid-implementation bodies — and the disaster survivors, for whom the entire process has been designed, are kept out of the loop.
At a conceptual level, the biggest challenge is to devise a way of putting quality and accountability at the heart of the value system of an organisation and to free it from the clutches of stratified mindsets. At the methodological level, the challenge is to improve on existing systems and to institutionalise the learning of quality and the accountability process. n
Greater accountability of the humanitarian process is bound to give dividends in the form of better quality. And in the wake of any disaster, accountability is all about balancing the power equation between those without resources and those that provide these. The desired equilibrium can only be achieved by cultivating a rights-based approach at the grass-roots level. How to bring this about and on what scale is something that policymakers in the humanitarian sector should be debating.
The writer is an independent researcher.

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