Certifying NGOs … again! What are the lessons from last time?

Where did the tracks lead last time?

Where do the tracks go?

Have you seen the current call for comments on a new initiative to certify humanitarian organisations?

It’s a big deal. It aims to ‘professionalise the humanitarian sector’. It’s backed by the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (a group of 9 big independent humanitarian organisations) and some major donors.

The discussion paper makes specific proposals. Feedback is sought on whether they are “feasible, achievable and would meet the requirements of the sector”. Revised deadline for comments: 22nd November.

This train is gathering steam. The project is committed to piloting certification in early 2014 and finalising a certification model by the end of Aug 2014. But is it on the right tracks?

Dara’s highly experienced Ed Schenkenberg calls it a cosmetic exercise that should not be pursued. I’m not convinced either.

The proposal: certifying organisations

The proposal is to set up an independent body that will establish standards, criteria and rules for certifying humanitarian NGOs. Then NGOs would be audited by independent auditors against these standards every four years, with an interim review every two years. NGOs would be certified as being at one of four levels of compliance.

Donors, national governments and others could then rely on this certification to help them decide which NGOs to support, fund and allow to work.

Good intentions

There’s a lot to agree with in the discussion section of the paper (particularly section B), such as:

  • The need to improve the quality and accountability of NGOs’ humanitarian work.
  • Certification is just one approach among many for achieving this.
  • Any certification model needs to focus on humanitarian principles and results for affected populations.
  • The process needs to be open to all NGOs, regardless of size, including local, national and international organisations.
  • Host governments would  need to validate and support the certification model.
  • Any certification model has to be accessible and affordable to all organisations who might be affected.

Haven’t we been here before?

Plenty of previous efforts have set out to reform the NGO sector and improve the quality and accountability of NGOs.

For example, HAP and the IANGO Charter have previously set standards (or ‘commitments’) for the criteria proposed in this new model.

In 2003, HAP was set up with almost identical goals to the organisation that’s now being proposed. It sets standards specifically for humanitarian action, based on humanitarian principles, that are used for independent auditing in order to certify organisations.

HAP has had some substantial successes and faced some significant challenges. I’m a fan. (Disclosure: I sat on the committee that drafted the original standard & was briefly on the board.)

But HAP hasn’t achieved the critical mass of membership and support needed to make certification succeed. It has faced consistent concerns of being too bureaucratic, too expensive and too inaccessible to smaller NGOs. And of course the politics in the sector around collective action have not been easy. IANGO has faced similar issues.

Not (yet) condemned to repeat

Disappointingly, the new initiative’s background papers don’t examine all the lessons from this rich – and expensively and painfully acquired – experience.

Instead, they assume that the best way to improve quality and accountability is by certifying organisations. But maybe HAP and other experiences suggest otherwise.

Certification can clearly meet donors’ immediate concerns, helping them allocate funds. But all sorts of other approaches might do more to enhance NGOs’ actual performance, such as:

All of these focus on systematic ways to manage individual programmes better. This is surely a necessary first step before we can reliably certify organisations.

So, the new approach would feel much more robust if it explicitly:

(a)    Identified the real lessons from HAP’s experience and explained how it would avoid falling into the same traps. That would need a thorough evaluation of HAP’s experience.

(b)   Considered a range of the most significant options available for strengthening humanitarian quality and accountability and explained why it has chosen this one.

The opportunity to invest even more resources in collective action is so precious and important – especially as these resources could be used to give direct help to people suffering life-threatening crises – surely we need to make the best possible use of them, based on our combined experience?

How will pilots be assessed?

The discussion paper doesn’t say much about how the pilots will be assessed. If they really do go ahead, could they test some of the key assumptions, including:

  1. Certifying organisations is one of the most effective ways of improving the quality of work carried out on the ground. (This would require transparency about real costs and benefits.)
  2. The certification model will be affordable and accessible to small NGOs, who often do a lot of the front line work.
  3. The certification process is not too burdensome for staff at all levels of the organisation and does not distract them unduly from field work.
  4. The unintended and negative consequences of certification are substantially less than the benefits, for all major stakeholders. (This would require transparency about these consequences.)
  5. Enough influential donors use certification as a major factor in deciding which organisations to fund.
  6. Enough host governments use certification as a major factor in deciding which organisations to authorise and support.
  7. The Joint Standards Initiative will develop a powerful and widely adopted common standard, as the basis for this new initiative.
  8. The sector’s collective experience of certification justifies the on-going costs of developing, administering and promoting it.

5 Responses

  1. Great post! Many of the issues you raise have been discussed by a group of French NGOs (the report of the meeting – in English – can be accessed here http://www.coordinationsud.org/wp-content/uploads/Minutes-certification-workshop-20-Sept-2013.pdf). One of the things that strike me most about this certification initiative is that the issue of leadership and coordination (or the lack of it) is not addressed, although it has largely been documented as a key factor for increasing (or decreasing) the quality and effectiveness of humanitarian actions.

  2. Alex, great to see you still engaging with these issues and I thought you might like to know that many colleagues were also raising similar concerns and points in Bangkok during the coffee breaks of the HAP / SCHR event on “Can certification contribute to humanitarian effectiveness?”held this week. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear much in the way of open discussion during the formal sessions.

  3. I really don’t get how certification would improve humanitarian practice, at least not on its own. The same organizations that do great work in one situation can fail in another one. Improving the consistency, quality and accountability of humanitarian practice is a process, not an event. Moreover, these certification schemes can, potentially, undermine the power of the most legitimate judges of humanitarian practice — the “beneficiaries.”

  4. […] the one hand, it’s not clear how previous lessons have been learned. 10 years ago, HAP was set up with almost identical aims. After massive effort, it has not made […]

  5. […] that it would focus on certifying organisations, like HAP. That proved controversial (e.g. here and here). I’m delighted that the name has changed, and hope this signals that other, more powerful, […]

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