What should the new Humanitarian Quality Assurance Initiative do?

Lesbos refugee

Greece 2015: Who holds the humanitarian system accountable?

A new member of the humanitarian family is being born this month. The Humanitarian Quality Assurance Initiative is taking life. The first board meetings are happening in the next few weeks.

It’s a member of a small and select group of organisations that shape international humanitarian action.

It’s got immense potential. But how can it make the most difference to our collective work? Here are a few ideas. What do you think? Please make your comments below. Right now, there’s a rare opportunity to help it get off on the right footing.


The HQAI was going to be called the “Humanitarian Certification Initiative” (see point 3.2 on these minutes from HAP, 8/6/15). The idea was 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, approaches are being considered.

The CHS Alliance also stands to gain, by making it crystal clear that the Core Humanitarian Standard is separate from certification. I’ve talked to various UN agencies and major donors who have not wanted to adopt the CHS because they think it’s still linked to certification.

Now, it should be easier to promote the CHS as a common tool that any organisation can use however they think best. We all gain by using common standards.

Independent monitoring

The vast consultation process for the World Humanitarian Summit brought up various ideas about ‘independent monitoring & reporting’. Any of them could be a powerful direction for the HQAI.

Within a specific humanitarian response, the work of individial agencies could be reported on. Or the collective response as a whole could be monitored. Or the way that the highly influential donors work could be monitored. Or compliance with international humanitarian law could be monitored.

Monitoring could be undertaken in various ways. There’s a strong zeitgeist towards feedback directly from affected people. An independent body could scrutinise financial flows, which are increasingly transparent, or commission focused research. By publishing any of this, they could influence the decisions that matter.

Any of these ideas could improve quality and accountability. Some concrete suggestions include:

  • The Humanitarian Response Index used to independently monitor how well major donors met their commitments to “Good Humanitarian Donorship”. It influenced their behaviour. The WHS consultation included calls for an “HRI 2”.
  • The 2011 Sphere Standards include a requirement for agencies to monitor & report performance compared to the standards. An independent mechanism could monitor & verify their reports.
  • The HQAI could champion the views of affected people on the assistance they receive (e.g. building on surveys commissioned by the Fritz Institute or Groundtruth). This was recommended by the influential 1996 Rwanda Joint Evaluation, but not taken on. It was subsequently promoted by the Start Network among others in the WHS process. This way, the HQAI could encourage agencies to address the most urgent gaps in humanitarian action, globally.

Humanitarian action is often influenced by political considerations. So there’s a particularly important role for independent oversight that shines a spotlight on how well authorities and agencies live up to their commitments.

Adding most value

The key question is: how can the HQAI use its precious collective resources to make the most difference to humanitarian action, over the long term?

HAP spent 10 years working on the model of certification. Only 17 organisations were certified and the model did not deliver the benefits hoped for. (Though HAP achieved a great deal else.)

Any monitoring or ‘quality assurance’ process should connect directly to the most significant decisions that shape humanitarian action. There are often about: respect for humanitarian law, access to affected populations, the availability & allocation of funds, and managing operational projects.

It’s notoriously hard to get traction on the first two areas. They are inevitably bound up in high level diplomacy, which is beyond my ken.

I’d think that the HQAI could add real value to the second two areas, through a combination of any or all of the concrete suggestions in the bullet points above.

Who decides?

But I’m not on the board. These people are (scroll to the bottom). The Executive Director has just been announced. SCHR has been much involved, so the SCHR Principals and Working Group may still be influential, along with the handful of government donors funding the HQAI.

Our ability to make collective decisions is one of the most limited and precious resources in the whole sector. So what would you suggest to these decision makers about how to make best use of the new body they are bringing into being, for the common good?

Could they consider an open process to set the HQAI’s goals and strategy, that strengthens its legitimacy, impact and support?

2 Responses

  1. Hi Alex – enjoyed this . A very interesting and potentially powerful set of suggestions.

    One aspect particuarly jumps out at me. Quality … a great word, and at the heart of what we strive to do, but through who’s eyes…. quality as determined by who? There is a crying need for the views and perceptions of those we purport to be assisting to be represented, and heard by those in positions of power. This requires a champion.

    Currently we see a situation where accountability activities that do take place in responses are …….
    a) limited to an individual agency/ project activity… not at the response level.
    b) shouting into a vacuum ….. there is no mechanism for ensuring that perceptions and view of communities are actively considered by response senior management, by donors and govt response agencies.

    A non delivery body, promoting quality, with links to key sectoral players, could be the champion needed for such a process, and would at the same time strengthen the hand of the CHS – providing evidence based on community perception.

    well worth pursuing ….

  2. Dear Alex,

    Hi I hope you still remember me Orlen fro ACDI VOCA on Farmers Voice.
    I am also the Program Quality in charge of Action Aid Myanmar and we are developing also our own Program Quality contextualized standards and guidleines .
    Hope to link with you and your NGO Performance and help us in developing it.
    I just want also to keep our ties going on , the light of our friendship to keep burning.
    Hope you can come to Myanmar, we worked with Plan on the BRACED projects , other consortiums


    Orlen Ocleasa | Program Quality , Impact & Learning Advisor | ActionAid Myanmar
    Tel: +95 (1) 546 671 ext -203 | Mobile +95 9256223710
    Email: Orlen.Ocleasa@actionaid.org |Skype: orlen.ocleasa

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