SMS feedback in Haiti; radio outreach in the Philippines; community helpdesks in Darfur; a Humanitarian Call Centre in Pakistan: many such initiatives boost communication with disaster-affected communities, and in some cases improve accountability to communities, but most remain at pilot project scale because they are difficult to scale up.
Evidence of the benefits remains piecemeal and in some cases projects risk being tokenistic rather than meaningful, said participants at a meeting of the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Practice (ALNAP) in Addis Ababa last month.
Evidence of the benefits of improved communication with communities (CwC) is emerging: For instance, ALNAP is working with US-based non-profit CDA Collaborative Learning Project, to distil lessons learned in Haiti, Pakistan and Sudan on the impact of different approaches to beneficiary listening and feedback, but many agencies still do not have guidelines for best practice, and knowledge is piecemeal.
"There are so many scattered ideas [about accountability and best practice] and nothing is concrete," said Luz Gomez, humanitarian planning, monitoring, evaluation, accountability and learning (MEAL) officer at NGO Intermon.
CwC projects tend to remain small scale, partly because there is no one-size-fits-all approach: agencies have such different conceptions of what CwC, and accountability - mean.
How participatory are agencies going to be? Different contexts - for example, dialoguing with illiterate pastoralists versus with social-media-savvy urbanites - will demand very different approaches, said Gomez.
With no common definition of CwC, too often it is assumed to encompass accountability when it is in fact just a small piece of the accountability puzzle, stressed several interviewees.
Further, large organizations that tend to be more top-down and less transparent will take a very different approach from, say, a grassroots-oriented small NGO.
As David Loquercio, inter-agency coordinator for accountability to affected populations with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the Central Africa Republic (CAR), put it, "Big organizations have better defined policies on accountability but smaller organizations are more accountable... They can't escape. If things are not going well they get a knock on the door."
CwC is most effective when communities "own" it - for example, when people have a voice from the start. In Burkina Faso Intermon worked on drought reduction methods with communities, who partly paid for them, and as a result, it was far more effective, said Walden.
Feedback also works best when a multiplicity of media are used: a telephone hotline, community meetings, drop boxes, etc. There is no one generic "community member" so methods must aim to catch the views of everyone - the elderly, youths, children, women, the disabled, said Gomez.
Tensions can arise between embracing CwC and the time it takes - ALNAP's research stresses that face-to-face feedback is most valued by community members - and the command-and-control management that can sometimes speed up operations in a chaotic and stressful emergency operating environment.
While agencies are increasingly focusing more on following up on feedback - to improve accountability of aid, rather than just collecting it - the structure of the industry still veers towards being supply-driven, pushing accountability to donors rather than "clients".
A growing emphasis from donors such as the UK's Department for International Development on impact assessments is shifting this, and there are many examples of how feedback has shifted response. But there is still a way to go before CwC helps drive programmes on a wide scale.
High staff turnover and difficulty in scaling up every aspect of an emergency response make accountability difficult to implement if staff have not been trained in it prior to the emergency, said Loquercio.
"When nothing is there beforehand it's difficult to suddenly make accountability a priority in the context of a crisis. To mainstream accountability it needs to be part of staff induction trainings, briefing packs and budgeting."
This is part of the attitude shift that is needed across the industry - from seeing CwC as an add-on or a risk management tool, to addressing it as a core part of everything they do, said Gomez.
And it costs. "Participation is a great idea, but it comes at a cost," said consultant with Tufts Feinstein research centre Antonio Donini. Staff in CAR are struggling to respond to massive needs with minimal funding - the 2014 appeal is 22 percent funded - in an insecure working environment. These factors all play against accountability, said Loquercio.
But few aid agencies systematically mainstream accountability into their budget lines, and thus there is often little money for it in the response phase, said Loquercio.
The World Food Programme (WFP), for instance, pays contracted agencies US$60 per ton to deliver food (nothing if the food is not distributed due to insecurity or other problems), which leaves contracted agencies very little spending power to set up phone systems or feedback mechanisms.
Donors should demand feedback from communities and how agencies are responding to it. Donors also need to be flexible, as projects need to be given the space to change in response to feedback.
This is linked to timing, said CDA's Dayna Brown, listening program director at CDA. "If it comes too late then you can't change the programme."
Impact of multiple projects
Brown said problems arise when lots of individual, small-scale feedback mechanisms are set up as it can confuse people. "People want to know who to go to and who to expect assistance from."
But some see the benefits in keeping small, discrete feedback projects going. Vivien Walden, humanitarian MEAL adviser at Oxfam, says by standardizing large-scale single focal point systems "you risk losing the contact with communities ... Community participation is the key - you know them, they know you and you make decisions together. As soon as you systematize that, you lose it."
Oxfam runs a complaints hotline in Lebanon, run by a Syrian refugee. "If you have a water problem, you call the hotline in the camp, the refugee speaks to the engineer sitting next to him, and your problem will be addressed," said Walden.
A one-stop shop would probably be run by the UN, involving heavy bureaucracy and "answers would take weeks", she said. "Taking this contact away would take the relationship and responsibility away from NGOs".
The key, said Loquercio, is to keep intimacy with communities and to devolve decisions to staff working directly with them, when scaling up feedback mechanisms.
For the first time, UN humanitarian heads in the form of the Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC) have sent inter-agency coordinators on accountability to affected populations to emergency settings: with the Philippines and CAR as the guinea pigs. "It is a significant move because it is endorsed by the IASC and the humanitarian country team, so has high-level backing," said the CAR focal point Loquercio.
He is developing a work plan outlining accountability actions across agencies - both UN and NGOs, and is working with individual "clusters" (teams of responders) like the UNHCR-led camp management cluster for internally displaced people, to discuss how to improve accountability. Suggestions thus far have included: digital registration, post-distribution monitoring and digital feedback surveys.
By working through clusters, coordination on accountability ought automatically to improve. "If everyone knows what everyone is doing then if someone complains about a tent and it is not your responsibility, then you just pass on to them the complaint," said Loquercio.
Christian Aid, which works only through partners, now gives accountability training and follow-up complaints mechanisms training to all of its humanitarian staff and partners.
In the Philippines this means that every operational member of the 140-organization-strong ACT Alliance should have been accountability trained "so all members speak the same language", said Vicky Murtagh, humanitarian programme adviser on accountability at Christian Aid.
NGOs are also starting to cross-fertilize learning on accountability across countries. Intermon is currently running its first to-scale accountability initiative to put in place minimum accountability standards across seven countries in the Sahel (each tailored to the country).
Advocacy among humanitarian actors is also needed to boost accountability scale-up, and this will rest on a more robust evidence base.
Agencies and clusters will also be more likely to shift their approach if community feedback is backed up by other evidence such as market surveys, household assessments, and so on.
In Darfur, World Vision used this approach to push WFP to shift its approach to food aid and it had a positive impact, according to ALNAP.
But it is not just humanitarian agencies that need to communicate with disaster-affected communities and improve accountability, stressed Vicky Murtagh, humanitarian programme adviser - accountability, at Christian Aid: Governments, the military, development partners and others need to as well rather than putting all the onus on aid agencies. As one interviewee put it, "I'm always telling the Humanitarian Accountability Project (HAP) to drop the H."
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]