September 01, 2016

by Clea Kahn, Humanitarian Worker

Our blog discusses strengthening accountability and transparency at the global and national level. In this series we look at positive examples to promote good accountability practice in the civil society sector. Feel free to debate, share and interact.

The guest author Clea Kahn has nearly 20 years’ experience in humanitarian work, in the field in a variety of posts in Africa and Asia, and in headquarters positions. She has worked as an independent consultant, with NGOs, the UN and DFID, and now works as Humanitarian Advocacy Manager with the British Red Cross. Clea holds an LL.M. in International human rights law and in recent years has focused on protection, particularly gender-based violence.



“Consultation is not the same as a conversation and the establishment of a suggestion box or a complaints mechanism does not obviate the need for the human touch.”

It was a hot, dusty medical centre in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. A group of women came to meet me to raise concerns about their situation. I invited them into a straw gazebo in the corner of the compound. In its shade and relative privacy, the women kicked off their shoes, pushed back their face coverings and, sharing around some tobacco and rolling papers, dived into a political discussion.
It remains one of my favourite memories. I enjoyed their company, I learned from our conversations, and I was touched by their trust.
That was 15 years ago, and a lot has changed in the humanitarian world. There has been a proliferation of organisations and an explosion in their size and the scope of their work. There has been scandal and reform in the sector. Today we recognise the need to be accountable not only to donors but also to the people we help, ensuring a professional delivery of assistance that involves them and takes their needs and expectations into account.
Professionalisation is a good thing. It is important to agree on standards and strive to uphold them. It is extremely important to consistently ensure that people can express their views and concerns and make complaints. This is all progress. But we must ensure that we do not throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. Consultation is not the same as a conversation and the establishment of a suggestion box or a complaints mechanism does not obviate the need for the human touch.
Over the years, I have worked in and visited a wide range of programmes in countries across Asia and Africa, and the best ones I have seen were not necessarily the most technically competent, but the ones that best united professionalism with humanity. This has been amply demonstrated in Europe during the past year’s refugee crisis.
At the peak of movement across the continent in 2015, as many as 10,000 people a day were making their way onto Greek shores and heading north. Exhausted, stressed, hungry, thirsty and vulnerable these people were in need of assistance and protection. Professional humanitarian organisations deployed to provide assistance, but so too did hundreds of volunteers with no humanitarian experience, but a strong humanitarian spirit.


For many migrants landing on the shores in Greece, ‘where am I?’ was just

the first of many questions. Humanitarian organisations did their best to provide answers. They drew upon experience from other emergencies to create online tools and websites to help orient people and give information. They made use of new technologies as well as old fashioned ones like bullhorns and radios.
But even early on, a survey of migrants indicated that what people preferred was to receive information face-to-face. At key moments during their journey, as people got on or off of buses or trains, waited in queues or picked their way across muddy fields, the difference made by a smile, a hand clasp or an encouraging word was palpable.
I have been humbled by the acts of compassion and even self-sacrifice that I have seen ordinary people make over the course of this extraordinary year. It has been a vivid reminder for me of where I started as a humanitarian and why, as much as our work can be assisted by technology, we can never be replaced by it.
It is a timely reminder, as we confront a world in which more people are forcibly displaced than ever previously recorded. But it also raises an important question: if we agree that presence and solidarity are key components of delivering humanitarian assistance, how do we preserve this in a world where access is increasingly a constraint?