Accountability to whom? Keep asking.

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.

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