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Who’s Listening? Accountability to affected people in the Haiyan Response

Summary of case study report1

Report front cover image 

Thanks to Margie Buchanan-Smith and Sarah Routley, researchers and co-authors of the original report, for sharing this work with ENN and reviewing this summary.


Location: Philippines

What we know:  Humanitarian agencies are investing more effort into accountability to affected people. Many channels of communication are used. International and national agencies employ different approaches.

What this article adds: Qualitative research following the Typhoon Haiyan response explored affected peoples and agencies respective perspectives and experiences around accountability efforts. Substantive collective efforts were made by agencies on AAP though there was limited engagement of government. Community consultations were common but tended to be ‘one way’ communication on programmes. Local people preferred face to face communication rather than technological approaches, e.g. hotlines or SMS, a reminder that dialogue and building relationships are at the heart of AAP.  Beneficiary selection and providing critical feedback were both contrary to Filipino culture. Feedback rarely changed agency strategic or programme direction, but instead triggered minor adjustments to programming. Most agencies had no dedicated funding for AAP; WVI was an exception and example of excellence. 


International humanitarian agencies invested more effort and energy into being “accountable to affected people” (AAP) in the Typhoon Haiyan response than ever before. A recently published case study explores how affected people experienced these accountability efforts, comparing their perspectives with the perspectives of the agencies themselves, and investigates the organisational and systemic factors that enabled some agencies to place AAP centre stage in their programming, and that inhibited others from doing so. The research was carried out between November 2014 and February 2015 using a range of predominantly qualitative research methods. It is part of the Pamati Kita project, designed to promote a more collaborative and collective approach to AAP in the Haiyan response.

As a middle-income country with one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia and a well-defined legal structure, the Philippines is a conducive context for promoting accountability and transparency. One of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, the government of the Philippines has disaster risk reduction and response policies and structures in place, although these were quickly overwhelmed by the scale of the Haiyan crisis. The United Nations (UN) declared it a Level 3 humanitarian response.

Most international agencies used a suite of mechanisms as channels of communication with affected people, including visits by agency staff, community consultations, suggestions and complaints boxes, help desks and hotlines. Technology played an important role, especially for larger agencies, including the use of smart phones for surveys for assessments, baselines and monitoring; computerised databases to record and analyse feedback; and technological links between hotlines and databases. Most agencies developed their own systems for categorising feedback (although this lack of consistency hampered collective analysis of feedback data), and recorded whether action was taken. For the larger agencies, this was a somewhat formalised system of AAP in which they struggled to capture and accommodate less formalised forms of feedback from face-to-face interactions - for example, daily contact between staff and affected people - and from community consultations.

National non-governmental organisations (NGOs) had a different approach. Those that were local to the area and/or with local staff, with a community-development orientation, felt more naturally in touch with the perspectives of local people and therefore did not see the need to set up dedicated AAP mechanisms, nor did they have the resources. But not all national NGOs fell into this category, and some spent so much time on project delivery they had less time for community consultation. The more activist national NGOs tended to engage with the concept of “accountability” as holding government to account.

There were substantial efforts to promote collective AAP in the Haiyan response. OCHA deployed AAP and Communications with Communities (CWC) coordinators from the outset, separate AAP and CWC Technical Working Groups were established (eventually merging) in five hubs, and a consortium of agencies—Plan International, International Organisation ofr Migration (IOM), and World Vision International (WVI)—came together to establish a common services project, Pamati Kita, from July 2014.

Collaborative practices and common services established included community consultations carried out by OCHA in the early response phase, which provided feedback on the overall response, the introduction of Community Feedback Forms to consolidate feedback from individual agencies, and multi-actor community consultations facilitated by the Pamati Kita project during the recovery phase.

Although WVI’s database shows that feedback boxes, SMS hotlines, and help desks were the most widely used channels for affected people to feed back to the agency, consultations with local people show that they overwhelmingly preferred face-to-face communication, because of the human interaction and the opportunity for dialogue. Community consultations could be effective ways to air concerns, but local people reported that they tended to be “one-way” as agencies used them to communicate programme details, such as beneficiary selection. Hotlines were treated with scepticism because of the impression that they did not generate meaningful responses and local people did not know who was at the end of the hotline. Better use was made of SMS if the community already had a relationship with the agency.

Agencies had surprisingly little disaggregated data on who was using which AAP mechanisms. According to the research, users of SMS channels were mostly under 40 or 50 years old and female. Older people preferred direct contact. Despite some AAP initiatives targeted at young people, this group generally participated little. Overall, the perspective of affected people is that agencies were not as accessible as they may have believed themselves to be. In terms of closing the feedback loop, agencies gave greatest attention to individual redress, particularly through hotlines and SMS. Although this was generally a weak part of the AAP chain, there were some good practice examples of agencies feeding back at community level, for example to validate the findings of community consultations.

The major concern raised by affected people through these feedback mechanisms was beneficiary selection. There was deep-rooted unease with the conventional humanitarian practice of targeting according to need, which cut across Filipino culture where neighbours are regarded as extended family. Selective targeting triggered social divisiveness within communities and a deep sense of shame amongst the excluded. Although agencies discussed these concerns early in the response, they did not change their targeting practices, apart from making minor adjustments to beneficiary lists. As a result, some barangay officials chose not to receive aid at all.

There are a number of examples of how feedback triggered minor changes in programming, but very few examples of substantial changes to programming or to strategic decision-making. There are also cases of agencies not responding to issues raised and not communicating with those excluded from relief programming. Utang na loob, or debt of gratitude, is the key moral principle underpinning social relations in Filipino culture, especially to those who provide help beyond normal expectations. Assistance from international agencies falls into this category, creating an immediate disincentive for local people to express criticism. This is compounded by the patron-client culture in which humanitarian agencies are regarded as the patron in a highly unequal power relationship. There was also an underlying fear that support might decrease if communities complained. Overall, the relationship between international humanitarian agencies and affected communities was quite distant, characterised by a sense of ambivalence on the part of the latter. While agency branding (especially by international agencies) contributed to high levels of agency recognition by local people, they made a distinction between international agencies, which were seen as service providers, and some national agencies, which were seen as accompanying communities on their journey.

How agencies engaged at the barangay level was a key determinant of how residents engaged with their AAP efforts. Where agencies had a weak relationship with the community, the influence of the barangay captain as “gatekeeper” was strongest; this could hinder feedback where barangay officials discouraged residents from raising concerns, partly to “maintain face” to the outsiders. Where agencies had a strong relationship with the community, they were more likely to receive honest feedback. The barangays that expressed the most positive experiences of the relief process each had an international NGO embedded in the community, and therefore had the deepest relationship. These relationships were mostly created during the humanitarian response, not before, and positively impacted contentious practices such as beneficiary selection, as well as accountability.

The international humanitarian response is believed to have “reactivated” barangay assemblies. But the record of how international organisations worked through national NGOs and their channels of communication with affected communities is less impressive. While national NGOs were overwhelmed with the scale of the response, international agencies prioritised delivery over partnership. There was little government participation in agencies’ collective AAP efforts; ongoing agency collaboration was too resource-intensive for limited government capacity and there is little evidence that agencies tried to build on existing government channels.

Most agencies had little or no dedicated funding for AAP, which was usually located within their M&E (monitoring and evaluation) departments. WVI provided a model of excellence in the way it mainstreamed AAP organisationally in its response to Typhoon Haiyan. There were five key inter-related factors. First, through early deployment (in the first week of the response) of an experienced and assertive accountability officer, the mindset of AAP was established in the programme from the outset and did not have to compete for attention later on. Staff had also been trained in advance. Second, senior programme managers were strongly committed to AAP, regarding it as a fundamental part of humanitarian programming. Under their leadership, AAP was built into management systems and they modelled decision-making based on information and feedback from communities. Third, AAP was passionately championed throughout the response, particularly by a series of dedicated AAP managers. Fourth, organisational structures and processes to support AAP were put in place, including a separate unit and dedicated staff for AAP. Fifth, there were reinforcing factors as WVI was recognised for the work it was doing in being accountable to affected people and as staff connected with this essence of humanitarian work. But this did not mean that WVI got it right on its own. Periodically checking in with communities was essential to get their perspective, to find out if the agencies’ communication channels were working for them and to make adjustments accordingly. Other agencies’ experience is a reminder that a rhetorical commitment to AAP, even at the most senior levels, means little if responsibility for AAP is not clearly assigned and located in management structures. Ultimately, mainstreaming AAP requires will, resources and capacity to succeed.

In the Haiyan response, there is evidence that upwards accountability to donors squeezed out downwards accountability to affected people, for example in the allocation of staff and resources to donor reporting as opposed to listening to affected people. Although few interviewees felt that donor requirements prevented them from making programme changes in response to feedback from affected communities, the time it took to secure such donor approval was itself a disincentive.

While AAP was given much greater attention as an organisational and sector-wide priority in the Haiyan response, there were limitations in the way it was done. First, feedback tended to focus on existing agency programmes: “are we doing things right?”, rather than on bigger strategic issues: “are we doing the right things?” Second, local people’s preference for face-to-face communication highlights that dialogue and building relationships are at the heart of AAP. This may require spending substantial time at community level - a challenge for agencies with large programmes early in the response - but actions like setting up help desks in early distributions can be a stepping stone in providing much-valued face-to-face contact. While technology should be used to support interaction between local people and agency staff, it should not become an end in itself. Third, while humanitarian agencies tend to see the aid transaction as between themselves as service providers and individual vulnerable households, the Haiyan experience demonstrates the relevance of the wider cultural and societal context. Fourth, this case study highlights the importance of working through local government structures in an informed and nuanced way, alert to power dynamics at local level.

The three main reports from this work are:

 Who’s Listening: A case study of accountability to affected people in the Haiyan response

Who’s Listening Briefing Paper: A short summary of the full report, above.

Obliged to be Grateful: How local communities experienced humanitarian actors in the Haiyan response

All are available at:


Alex Jacobs, of Plan International, has been invited to be the 'focal point for accountability to affected populations and community engagement' for the secretariat of the World Humanitarian Summit. He will help shape analysis and recommendations in this area for the summit. Working documents are also available at Please feel free to contact him via with any suggestions.




1Buchanan-Smith. M et al (2015). Who’s Listening – Accountability to affected people in the Haiyan Response. May 2015. Report published by Plan International, World Vision, IOM and UKAID.

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Who’s Listening? Accountability to affected people in the Haiyan Response. Field Exchange 50, August 2015. p20.



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