Humanitarian giving in the absence of feedback.

Isn’t it time the opinions of service users started to inform our choices?

Transparent feedback in the aid sector is neither radical nor unsound. Said to build confidence, trust and credibility of programmes, being open about feedback could at the same time provide the evidence of impact that public supporters consider important to know. It could engage the aid sceptic and cast a light on areas that require public advocacy as well as funds. In theory, it is painfully simple– shelve for a moment the awards and achievements you bestow upon yourself — please tell me instead, what do your service users: refugees, crisis affected, displaced people; actually think of the services you provide?

I for one would like to know.

Occupying this deafening void instead, are the familiar media contradictions. Despairing images of barefooted children whose tented shelters are caving under the weight of snow sit alongside exposes of aid budgets that have failed to meaningfully materialise on the ground.

Shame. Anger. Confusion. Paralysis.

How do you support?

Who do you trust?

The public are frequently reminded to give cash instead of items that are not wanted, often however by those whose large overheads the public are wary of in the first place.

Outsiders are required to dig deep to identify the grassroots and local groups that might better suit their giving preferences, they are there, but even then, how do you really determine their effectiveness? For me, the opinions of service users, utterly absent in the public domain, would have been a significant, if not the guiding factor.

This gut feeling, that something all too obvious is seriously missing, an open secret if you like, has been the primary motivation for the conceptualisation of re:viewed — a review platform for service users to review humanitarian service providers specifically and services in general. The conviction is that reviews, independent and anonymous, could both strengthen accountability in the sector and inform giving.

Validating the need for an independent and anonymous mechanism, unfacilitated as far as feasible, my technical partner — a Syrian programmer in exile — has shared accounts where in person feedback has been explicitly requested by NGOs without ensuring the anonymity of the informant. Doing so has endangered jobs and possibly access to services as a result and now her peers are too afraid even to be seen discussing the project with her. Her involvement and contextual insights are invaluable and a key priority is to find funding for her salary to utilise her skills in developing the next site.

Requests by refugees for channels to communicate their needs and feedback on services have been made, yet despite widespread acknowledgement of smart phone use amongst crisis affected people in Europe and the Middle East, there have been no independent and direct channels. That anyone interested in delving a little deeper need contact each and every NGO for comparable information on service user opinions, resolutely does not make sense.

And even when laboriously requested, this information is inaccessible. During the research phase of my master thesis, I sent a survey request for specific information on humanitarian services — including a request to see ‘beneficiary’ feedback — to seventy-nine medium to large, primarily international, NGOs. Out of which four were returned. Only one mentioned feedback.

Whilst NGOs undoubtedly lack the capacity to reply to every request for information the question must be asked — why then continue to be the gatekeepers of the same when the opportunity exists to challenge this privilege?

What is really preventing the humanitarian sector from engaging meaningfully in transparent feedback?

Perhaps, firstly because the implementation of feedback loops and accountability mechanisms, despite being generously accommodated for within the Common Humanitarian Standard (See commitments 4 and 5 below), and becoming now mainstream thinking, remain weak in practice — constituting relatively little to be transparent with.

The 9 commitments of the Core Humanitarian Standard

Some specialised initiatives aimed at strengthening feedback and accountability do and have existed. IRC attempted to invite unstructured service user feedback via their service info site piloted in Lebanon (2015–16), but stopped short of publishing the feedback citing the unfairness of anonymous reviews as the reason for the omission. Internews’ ‘In The Loop’ magazine, conducted interviews with refugees in Greece and published their feedback, uncomfortable truths and all, in an online magazine.

“Most of us suffer from skin problems because of sleeping on the ground in tents. We are all tired and sick from the environment we live in, the food we eat and the insects and creeping animals we are surrounded with. This is not a life. It’s more like a jungle” (Algerian Male 36–49, Samos in In The Loop #42: May 10, 2017)

Similarly, Ground Truth Solutions have been collecting and publishing feedback via surveys and focus groups on behalf of the Mixed Migration Platform. These last two provide the best example of transparent ‘general feedback’ as far as I have found. Unvarnished comments read as a trustworthy depiction of what people are reporting and their thematic and contextual framing provides necessary depth. The area that remains vague however is the intended follow up. Without specifying actors at any stage, it could be easy to shift the burden of responsibility. And I, the average Joe, am non the wiser as to whom is, or is not, deserving of my support.

If we are concerned with exploring the effect of triangulating the relationship between the service user, the service provider and the public (Fig 1 below), all examples have different links broken — public engagement or being specific about the service provider. Two of the three examples have also been discontinued, sounding an alarm on the limitations of short term feedback mechanisms that operate largely at the behest of organisations.

Fig 1: the re:viewed perspective on informed giving and humanitarian accountability.

Although any feedback is better than no feedback, typically, existing examples point to a process that is owned by the system, overwhelmingly top down and prescriptive — what we want to hear, when we want to hear it, not necessarily what you want say, when you want to say it.

Transparency is undoubtedly uncomfortable and allowing feedback to influence an organisations public image has its risks. There is the need to balance reviews with contextual understanding that reflects the fact that accountability extends beyond the remit of the organisations on the frontline. There are real considerations around review validity, relevance and actionability of feedback, and in demonstrating the positive value and impact that reviews could have. Developing a mechanism based on appropriate and accessible communication methodologies whilst finding a way to balance the necessary engagement of all user groups (reviewers, the public and organisations) are all challenges we know we face.

None of which we consider to be insurmountable, and allowing the risks and challenges to outweigh the benefits would be disingenuous. Because the real discomfort of re:viewed is it’s real intention — to make a dent in the underlying attitudes and power dynamics in the humanitarian sector. These are the kind of attitudes and power dynamics that subtly, or not so subtly, expects gratitude, assumes it knows more and can articulate better than the people it intends to help, and grants itself moral immunity that seeks to avoid questioning its own entitlements.

Freedom of expression amounts to the right to tell the world when our pizza arrives cold but an inconvenience when living conditions are unsafe and unsanitary, when shelter is unfit for habitation and food unfit for consumption.

Because organisation commitment to listening and responding to feedback is integral to the whole process, our starting strategy is an opt in model using a crude pilot site that will help us test the concept and initiate discussions. This period of seeking collaborations and (ongoing) consultation, has been an enlightening one. The idea of re:viewed has been met with a relatively balanced mix of excitement and suspicion, sometimes both. Veteran humanitarian insiders have shared their interest that something like this is finally shaping up and many have generously offered their advice and support. Countless have told me how obvious it is. But on the other hand there are unnerving warnings about making enemies and I have been advised that organisations fearing potential criticism, and what they risk losing as a result, will strongly resist engaging.

Invariably, I am coming to anticipate the most positive responses from smaller grassroots organisations. Unhindered by layers of bureaucratic decision making or internal politics, they are in a better position to make flexible quick decisions to engage with new ideas. And there has been interest, in part maybe indicating a confidence that reviews received will be positive, and therefore useful for public outreach upon whose support they are primarily dependent.

But I also sense that this openness might also be related to a refreshing new attitude to aid, particularly it seems in Greece, that has taken hold in the grassroots post 2015. Examples include inclusive cooperative management structures, or crypto-currency based shops determined to humanise the experience of receiving essential items, as well as new and innovative ways to give that seek to connect global giving with local supply and demand. One organisation that started as a volunteer initiative in Calais, has since grown into a huge grassroots funding umbrella, channelling public donations raised under their appeals directly to grassroots groups right across Europe and the Middle east.

These are big deals.

Something very interesting is happening — that fundamentally reconceptualises the way aid can be done. And we think that being transparent about feedback is part of it.

We are at the beginning of a long and challenging journey. Much work, lots of talking and gatekeeper navigation, probably slow results. But we are committed and excited, and whilst we have only a handful of reviews to date they already demonstrate articulate and thoughtful contributions.

“… There are lots of organization helping refugees with the cloths food and shelter I know these are the most important needs and I appreciate what they all have been doing But beside their basic needs they also need to have access to a better education system and various activities in order to not feel depressed and homesick…” (General review: Athens, July 2017)

Winter is at the doorstep and already there are urgent appeals circulating to meet the needs of refugees still inexcusably stuck in deplorable conditions. It is important to give. But it is also important to do so in an informed way that respects the dignity, agency and voice of the people you aim to support.

Money talks. Challenge the organisations you choose to support to honour your patronage by being open about the opinions of their service users. And if they don’t have this information ready to share, point them in our direction!

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