Accountability continues to be a hot topic in the aid industry. Different kinds, such as vertical, horizontal, mutual or beneficiary accountability, have been developed and implemented. Some demand it others claim to provide it, but success has been limited. The impact on aid recipients is unknown or doubtful. Instead, the main consequences seem an increasing obsession with measuring impact, value for money and wastage of money on consultancy fees. This has been going on for decades and if the avalanche of new initiatives is any indication, the aid industry will continue to invest in accountability. Despite the efforts, at the onset of the digital age I think the the aid industry is running out of time.
I suspect that within the coming decade accountability will largely be no longer a choice for the aid industry, but organisations will be held accountable by the very people they seek to aid in the developing world. A short anecdote that was shared with me will hopefully explain this. An aid organisation in London received a phone call from a man in Kenya. This man was a Somalian refugee living in Dadaab camp. He obtained the telephone number through an internet connection within the camp and used a simple mobile phone to make the call. He called to share his dissatisfaction with the services provided by the organisation. Here it is no longer the aid organisation that takes the initiative or controls the narrative around accountability, but it is the person receiving the aid. I think this change is happening faster and has a bigger impact than the average aid organisation is presuming.
I heard one aid worker describing this as the aid organisations “worst nightmare”. I think this refers to the possibility that aid organisations no longer can decide on accountability to beneficiaries, but they will be hold accountable by beneficiaries. Modern communication technology is and will continue to change the relationship between the beneficiary and the aid organisation. Kapuscinski, in his book “The Other” tell us that “[a]s a consequence of these changes, other cultures, which are very numerous, yet which until now have been dominated or marginalised, have awoken, come to life and started to demand an equal place at the world’s round table”. Similar changes are described in “The New Digital Age” by Erich Schmidt and Jared Cohen. There seems to be a general consensus that access to the internet and mobile communication technology shifts the power in relationships on both the local and global level.
Increasing access to modern communication technology and the internet allows the aid recipient to share his or her opinion with the world, instantly. Those aid workers claiming this will not happen in their life time are I think either very old or naive. For instance, according to the ITU the amount of mobile broadband subscriptions in the developing world has more than doubled since 2011, from 8.2 to 19.8 per 100 inhabitants. In 2005 only 8.1 % of all households in the developing world had access to the internet in 2013 this is 28%. Mobile-cellular subscriptions in Africa are soaring from 87 million in 2005 to 545 million in 2013. Being connected to a global network with the opportunity to share your opinion with the world will soon be available to the majority of the world population, including those in the developing world. The connections will not always be equal, some will be have greater access than others. Nevertheless, if people such Kapuscinski, Erich Schmidt and Jared Cohen are correct, I foresee that international aid organisations will have to adapt to a world where the accountability narrative is no longer dominated by them. In the future, I imagine, that not the for istance Humanitarian Accountability Partnership, but the beneficiary dominates the narrative around accountability. Their feedback will be read by those who provide aid organisations with their funding, such as governments and institutional donors, but also people like you and me. Globalisation at work in the digital age.
At last the aid worker can finally provide the beneficiary with a real “voice”. There are already examples where the aid organisation helps the beneficiary to share his experience of receiving aid, such as the TB & Me blog by Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders. I think it is time for the next step, a digital platform, such as a micro-blogging stream generated by beneficiaries and accessible to all. Contributions could be made through the internet, but also through the mobile telephone network (SMS). Even voice messages can automatically be processed into text to feed the stream. The contributions can be geo-tagged and analysed to provide overviews and graphs, so donors can assess how the projects they fund are perceived by those receiving the aid. There will be hurdles, possibly the biggest will be verification. How do you ensure all those contributing are really beneficiaries, just geo-tagging will not be sufficient. Unrealistic expectations and bias are other issues that could undermine the value of such a platform. Important is to ensure that the management and the access to the digital platform is truly independent from those providing or funding the aid, financially and in thinking. It is time for the aid indutry to embrace the idea that accountability will soon no longer be a choice and face the reality of aid recipients in the developing world connecting to the global community with their own ‘voice’.