The changing face of accountability: welcome note by our new Board Chair

Colm Ó Cuanacháin

Board Chair, Accountable Now

Leaders of international organisations are operating in an increasingly complex environment, where the level of scrutiny and expectation is growing.  Stakeholders are rightly demanding effectiveness, quality, safety, and compliance across all areas of operations. We are seeing increasingly complex, unpredictable, and game changing trends and events across the geopolitical, social and environmental landscape.


International organisations working with communities to address injustice and inequality aim to enable people to have healthy lives and happy livelihoods.  To achieve this goal in the current disruptive global context, organisations know they need to innovate and to respond swiftly.  However, organisations also need to be transparent, more engaged with stakeholders and focused on strong accountability practices to ensure the solutions they deliver are appropriate, resilient, and impactful. 


The quality of the global response to humanitarian, development, and environmental crises and needs has grown significantly since the 1990s.  Various developments coincided – Mary Anderson’s book titled Do No Harm, and the learning from the response to the Rwandan Genocide, to mention two – forcing international governmental and non-governmental organisations to think differently about accountability, effectiveness and quality. 


In the 1990s and 2000s humanitarian response organisations were leading the way on accountability.  The Humanitarian Accountability Project, the Sphere Project, and People in Aid contributed greatly to setting the standards and monitoring needed for humanitarian response work.  Their subsequent merger to form the Core Humanitarian Standards has strengthened this essential accountability frame further.

Leaders in organisations that focussed on long term social change work across a range of sectors – development, environment, human rights, anti-corruption, capacity building, peacebuilding, etc – were equally exercised about the need for accountability standards and approaches.


There were a number of reasons why groups like Greenpeace, Survival International, Transparency International, ActionAid, Oxfam, Civicus, Amnesty International, Save the Children and others developed the International NGO Accountability Charter in 2006.  To highlight just a few, the organisations used different tools and approaches that might not often have been used by humanitarian response groups (more so today certainly) – partnerships, advocacy, campaigning, litigation, education, etc.  Secondly, these organisations have a commitment to long term solutions and to addressing structural issues.  Thirdly, there is an understanding across these organisations that their work in different sectors and in different ways is interdependent.


Accountable Now is continuing to innovate and to support members as they respond in the current uncertain global context. The Global Standard provides the framework and approaches needed to ensure organisations can address the imperatives in areas such as quality assurance, reputation management, and dynamic response. Importantly, we are committed to these global standards not just because they ensure increased effectiveness and impact, but also because they reflect our values and bring the integrity and legitimacy that is core to the mission of our member organisations.


The obvious question facing Accountable Now members and international organisations is how to continue delivering on their mission to ensure coordinated delivery of the SDGs against a very challenging global context? The climate crisis and environmental degradation, rising ethno-nationalism and hate based politics, increasingly frequent global shocks such as coronavirus with related economic uncertainly, and automation, are some of the major complexities impacting on the quality of development and humanitarian responses. 


In parallel, the way responses are delivered is changing, and Accountable Now members are looking at their theory of change and innovating with organising models to remain effective.  The traditional organising model for INGOs and the membership base for Accountable Now is being overtaken by dynamic start-ups and innovative organising structures.  Models include online tech-based organisations, mass social movements, increasingly effective local and national NGOs, private companies providing development solutions and public private partnerships.  The number of international NGOs continues to rise, but we are also seeing mergers and formal partnerships at new levels. 


The good news is that leaders in Accountable Now member organisations that are embedding the global standards in to the culture and work of the organisation will have the wind at their backs.  The Accountable Now initiatives that members have been engaged in together do ensure that there is a culture of learning, testing and responding to identified needs. They also provide for a proactive approach to change and the development of dynamic solutions.  And they ensure that the work is relevant, legitimate and responding to the needs of communities, staff and all stakeholders.  The challenge is to ensure all our organisations are delivering against these standards.


As the new chairperson of Accountable Now I am looking forward to working with the board, the staff, and the members to progress three priorities that have been identified by the board: continuing to build strategic alignment with the Core Humanitarian Standard, striving for greater consistency and simplicity across the platforms and aiming for broader ownership of the Global Standard among members, funders and across the sector; strengthening our communications and messaging about the Global Standard, Dynamic Accountability and the work of Accountable Now, and developing a growth strategy with directions and targets for expanded membership in the global south.


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