It still shocks me a little when a colleague will look at me and ask, “Now, what do you mean by ‘downward accountability’?”, as if I’ve just uttered an oxymoron.

It shouldn’t surprise me. I’ve written about how accountability is often looked for in all the wrong places. But it’s not as if I’m saying something that should be so foreign or new, right?

Here’s a definition from Keystone’s 2006(!) report, “Downward accountability to ‘beneficiaries’: NGO and donor perspectives”:

Downward accountabilityHOW an organization engages with its ‘beneficiaries’, builds relationships, and is accountable for results in ways that enable learning and improvement towards the achievement of its mission.

We all know why those we supposedly serve should come first. But when just sharing the concept of downward accountability in a meeting seems baffling to fellow aid professionals, I know that more significant effort, time and resources to understanding accountability beyond funders are long overdue.

Downward accountability is ultimately about defining impact in a way that places beneficiaries’ perceptions center-stage. I think funders would easily jump on board to if aid agencies knew how to better operationalize this, which is more possible than ever before in the aid industry’s history. GlobalGiving is leading the way.

Maybe funders should start judging organizations not on the "impact" of their projects, but on their ability to create, utilize, and maintain feedback loops with beneficiaries. It's time for such efforts to no longer be "nice-to-have's" but a central measure of success of organizational success. This would mean re-focusing everyone on the demand, rather than the supply side of NGO activities.

Accountability to whom? It may be a tired question, but one we all must continue to ask…until we don’t have to anymore.

I, for one, can’t wait for that day.


This post originally appeared at:


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Tags: GlobalGiving, accountability, accountability”, aid”, development”, donors, effectiveness”, enterprise”, philanthropy, workers”, More…“aid, “downward, “international, “social


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Comment by ANDEBO PAX PASCAL on May 16, 2012 at 8:12am

Downward Accountability? I hope I got you right there, Jennifer. I have been looking at how this could become part of the 'standard procedure' in the development projects, activities, and planning processes. It seems to me that the beneficiary(ies) are not worthy to be accounted to since they are only mentioned in the proposals; when soliciting for funding and in reports. In implementation, they only 'see construction going on, attend meetings (without their views being considered), participate in celebrations the organization plans, receive keys of new buildings, etc. They are not supposed to see how much the funds for this building were or if they could suggest anything about it; they do not certainly have the technical 'know-how'. In case of an evaluation, there are even attempts to guide them (beneficiaries) on what to mention or what message to give in the songs of 'appreciation'. Any suggestion they (or their representatives) present on negative aspects of implementation are considered 'accusations'. Oh the beneficiary! so low and insignificant and yet so central in the development process. How do we redeem thee?

It is certainly true that one of the attributes to 'project approach' to development is being 'time-bound'. This often eventually translates as being time-constrained to a point that time is not allocated in such a way to dialogue with the people who are to benefit from the development initiatives. This eventually leaves them as unable to sustain the initiative as they were before. I agree with you Jennifer, that 'maintaining feedback loops with beneficiaries' through open and appropriate communication in ample time for implementation would leave them stronger and certainly they would be the centre of the development projects-development with the people. The question I still ask is, how much do we value them so that we could account to them?

Comment by Jennifer Lentfer on May 15, 2012 at 8:31pm

Great point @Miranda and very important! I experienced this also while working in Zimbabwe. Godifri Mutindi also explains it well in this post entitled "Aid, Africa, Corruption, and Colonialism: An Honest Conversation:

"1. The racist and nationalist employment policies of international organisations, especially at top management level. It’s almost a law that an NGO from such a country has to have the Country Rep, Finance, Operations and Project Director from the same state or at least, of pale skin. Many a time these so-called specialists have very low qualifications and are appointed through connections.

"2. Very large gaps between the locals and the expatriate conditions of service, even for people with the same qualifications. One cannot stop wondering how an organisation using the US$ pays its personnel in local currency and denies them a decent living.

"3. Top-down management, even for rights-based approach’ organisations...There is no engagement and consensus on issues. The expatriates and a few handpicked nationals generally agree on self-serving policies and report these externally as the developing countries’ consensus."

Comment by Miranda Myrberg on May 15, 2012 at 11:11am

Good call, Jennifer. I agree that this is really important. To this I would like to add the concept of inward accountability to include accountability towards the staff members of the NGO themselves. Working in different NGOs I have witnessed a number of cases where human rights organisations themselves exploit their employees, violating their human rights through denial of reasonable working conditions and refusal to pay salaries that enable the employees to sustain themselves and their families. What I witnessed at one NGO was that only certain employees were classified as employees, enjoying perfectly acceptable salaries and working conditions, whereas the maintenance staff at the NGO (i.e the chefs, cleaners, janitors and security staff) was not regarded as proper employees and therefore were denied even minimum standards of labour rights and social security. To me it was devastating to see that the salaries the maintenance staff were given did not suffice to cover the basics, not even to mention school fees for their children, whereas the managers were able to send their children to elite schools in the capital. So, yes, downward accountability AND inward accountability. Thanks.

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