The most recent mass exodus of the Rohingya from Myanmar sheds light on the UN system’s failure to prevent and respond to the tragic predicament of this Muslim minority group.  While some parts of the UN system characterised the situation as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing, others, namely the in-country UN team led by the UN Resident Coordinator, chose to remain silent. Analysts have classified the UN’s shortcomings in Myanmar as “self-made”, blaming system-wide incoherence and the much-criticised Resident Coordinator system which entrusts the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) with the responsibility of appointing the senior-most UN diplomat or the Resident Coordinator in any country.

However, as we reflect on the UN’s failure in Myanmar, it is important to recognise that this trade-off between development and human rights - often seen as a trade-off between access (to host countries, counterparts, funds, etc.) and advocacy - is not unique to the United Nations; on the contrary, it is common to most development organisations. When faced with the dilemma of engaging in advocacy at the expense of losing access to funds and even in some cases access to the host country, most organisations choose the latter. I argue that this is an inevitable outcome of organisations’ failure to effectively institutionalise robust accountability regimes that would do more than prioritize upward accountability, placing equal emphasis on inward, horizontal and downward accountability.

The literature on organisations characterises upward accountability as a process where the accountability demands and interests of the most powerful players, such as host governments and donors, are prioritised over those of beneficiaries or the target individuals and communities of an organisation’s programmes. While the dominance of such a hierarchical accountability regime in a field that is supposed to be more democratic and egalitarian is far from desired, overemphasis on this kind of accountability can undermine the effectiveness of development programmes and interventions. There are several reasons for this.

First, such an accountability regime imposes burdensome structural and reporting restrictions on organisations, diverting their limited resources away from target communities to other actors. This effectively prevents organisations from forming long-term meaningful relationships with the most marginalised sections of the population that they claim to be serving. In the case of Myanmar, one wonders if the deplorable situation facing the Rohingya could have been prevented or even mitigated if the UNDP,  the primary agency tasked with eradicating poverty and reducing inequalities and exclusion, had spent more time cultivating meaningful relationships with members of the most marginalised communities within Myanmar, including the Rohingya.

Second, organisations that practise upward accountability face financial and operational sustainability challenges that lead them to utilise the “successful” implementation of development programmes as an avenue to extend existing contracts or to secure new ones that would bring in more funds to the organisation and ensure its sustainability. This creates a culture of overemphasizing successes and underreporting failures.

Inherent to the issue of overemphasising success is also the issue of how development programmes are monitored and evaluated. While most evaluations of development interventions tend to be summative (carried out at the end of the intervention), the majority of organisations will utilise some sort of system to monitor and measure the trajectory of their interventions. However, most of these monitoring systems have a preoccupation with narrowly defined deliverables and delivery (a measure of how much of the programme budget has been expended) and fail to take a critical look at how beneficiary communities are interacting with the designed interventions. In the rare case that an intervention is followed up with a summative evaluation, often times organisations fail to incorporate lessons learnt effectively into new cycles of programming. Such missed opportunities lead to perpetual repetitions of failed programmes and approaches and undermine an organisation’s credibility amongst communities.

One may argue that at the heart of this problem is the issue of who organizations consider to be their most important stakeholders and their own perceptions about these stakeholders. An honest exercise in search of answers to this question will reveal much about the power-laden nature of development and the dialectic process of negotiating and renegotiating power relations between various actors in society, relations that are inherent to development itself.

An accountability regime that places emphasis on downward, inward and horizontal accountability is an attempt to reckon with the above reality and to balance unequal power dynamics within the development industry. Operationally, downward accountability requires organizations to define individuals or communities that they aim to serve as primary stakeholders and to allow these stakeholders to have a say in the practices of the organisation. Similarly, inward accountability engages members, staff and volunteers to hold an organisation accountable to its own values, while horizontal accountability involves being accountable to peer organisations in order to encourage higher standards and to share best practices.

Some practice steps that could be instituted to establish such an accountability regime include:  seeking out flexible funding structures and strategies such as turning to donors that have fewer restrictions; relying on the collective capital of target communities or primary stakeholders to mobilize funds and other resources; creating effective strategies for harvesting failure stories and learning from them; cultivating horizontal linkages between peer organizations that could act as reflection mirrors for the organisation; investing more time and effort to train and familiarise staff with the organisation’s principles, values, code of conduct, etc.; and fostering an organisational culture that encourages staff to talk about the organisation’s own failures more openly with the aim of improving the way development work is undertaken.  

The UN’s failure in Myanmar might sound vaguely familiar to many who have also witnessed and heard about the UN’s failures in the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 and the more recent Sri Lankan civil war. Within the UN system, the concept of a human rights-based approach to development (HRBA) and the former Secretary General’s human rights upfront (HRuF) initiative could be characterised as attempts to learn from the UN’s past failures and to increase inward accountability.

HRBA is a framework that conceptualises development in terms of human rights, characterising the realisation of human rights, as given in the international human rights conventions ratified by States, as the end and means of development. It also emphasises the legal obligations of states (duty bearers) to fulfil rights and the rightful claims of people and communities (rights holders) to these rights. At an operational level, HRBA encourages practitioners to consider country-specific recommendations from the UN human rights system as a primary starting point for the design of interventions and draws the focus of development interventions to the most marginalised and vulnerable groups.  The HRuF is a recent initiative which reiterates the centrality of human rights to the UN system and seeks a cultural change, an operational change and a change in the UN’s engagement with member states to prevent large-scale violations of human rights and humanitarian law.

Implemented properly, both these avenues, along with the current Secretary General’s efforts to reform the UN development system, including changing the RC system, could go a long way toward ensuring that the global body is smarter in navigating the tensions between advocacy and access and incorporating human rights into the core of its development efforts everywhere.

Failures arising from the trade-off between human rights and development are a signet of the development field at large. The frequency and the scale of the human rights and humanitarian crisis caused by such trade-offs come with an urgent need for development organisations and practitioners to increase downward, inward and horizontal accountability as a way of addressing this issue. Given that organisations at any point will have to balance and negotiate between the interests of their various stakeholders including donors, host governments, and target communities, simultaneously practicing the four types of accountability desired for any effective organisations, i.e. upward accountability, downward accountability, inward accountability and horizontal accountability, will indeed be a challenge. However, it is a challenge worth pursuing.


Banner image: Kutupalong Refugee Camp. By John Owens (VOA) (SourceSource article) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kutupalong_Refugee_Camp_(John_Owens-VOA).jpg

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