Since the 1990s, humanitarian organisations have increasingly committed themselves to the idea of “downward accountability” to the affected populations they serve, including displaced persons. In recent years this notion has further evolved into the concept of “Accountability to Affected Populations” (AAP). As re-iterated by the Principals of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) of the United Nations, AAP is central to principled and effective humanitarian action. “An accountable humanitarian system, where decision-making power is in the hands of those affected by crisis, is central to humanitarian action. (…) How communities experience and perceive our work is the most relevant measure of our performance. Hence, our accountability to them is paramount and must be acted upon. It is non-negotiable, at all times. We must be instructed by affected people to guide our actions and to measure how well we provide protection and assistance against their diverse needs, feedback and perceptions, throughout the humanitarian response”, the IASC Principals stated in April 2022.
Such principled and effective humanitarian action, which is guided by the needs and perspectives of displaced persons, is particularly vital for the work of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Indeed, according to UNHCR the notion of Accountability to Affected Populations is an integral part of its work: “Human rights principles guide all our work. Participation in decision-making is a right, and the rights-based approach is founded on the principle of participation and working with communities to promote change and respect for rights. These cannot be achieved without accountability mechanisms.”2 UNHCR’s AAP core actions and commitments are outlined in the UN Refugee Agency’s “Age, Gender and Diversity Policy” (2018).
However, despite the increased rhetorical emphasis on AAP in the past three decades, both within UNHCR and the broader international aid system, limited progress has been achieved to put this ambition into practice. This was also acknowledged by the then United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, during a speech delivered at an event hosted by the Center for Global Development. “Over the past decade there has been growing recognition that affected people should have more say over the type of help they get and how they get it. This has theoretically been part of every reform agenda in the system for the past 20 years. The impact of attempts to address this so far has been limited, unfortunately (…) I have reached the view that one of the biggest failings of the humanitarian system is that agencies do not pay enough attention to what people caught up in crises say they want, and then trying to give that to them. It’s because despite all our good intentions, the humanitarian system actually is set up to give people in need what international agencies and donors think is best, and what the agencies have to offer, rather than giving people what they themselves say they most need.”
This paper is based on an online conversation among 334 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, 12 Focus Group Discussions with 115 Syrian refugees, and 6 interviews with Key Informants (KIs). The paper therefore makes recommendations to the broader UN system in Lebanon as well, including the following recommendations towards the UN Resident Coordinator/Humanitarian Coordinator:
- Establish an AAP Working Group within the UN’s sector system in Lebanon, and ensure that such Working Group is coordinated by a full-time staff member.
- Ensure that a diverse set of Refugee-Led Organisations (RLOs) are systematically included in the proceedings and decision-making processes of this Working Group, and regularly invite representatives from refugee communities for a two-way discussion.
- Make AAP needs, activities and findings a standing item on HCT and sector meeting agendas, and have AAP as an early agenda item in such meetings.
- Actively encourage a more diverse number of representatives of local CSOs and RLOs to attend sector meetings and participate in decision making.
- Find ways for community voices to be more included in sector meetings (inviting community representatives to present, film/audio messages, written messages, regular simple surveys etc).
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