The Inherently Contested Nature of Nongovernmental Accountability: The Case of HAP International

  • Denis KennedyEmail author


While the principled case for humanitarian accountability is relatively straightforward, the practice is demonstrably more complicated, necessitating constant negotiation among stakeholders. However, despite the wave of research into nongovernmental accountability, few empirical studies have grappled with the phenomenon’s inherently contested nature. This paper foregrounds tensions arising in the elaboration of nonprofit accountability. Its approach is informed by critical constructivist theory, an international relations approach attuned to social power, identity and exclusion, and conceptual contestation; its conclusions are supported by interview data with key stakeholders. Focusing on the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) International, it finds that initial consensus on the desirability of beneficiary (downward) accountability quickly gave way to principled disagreements and operational difficulties. Specifically, the initiation stage of HAP was marked by two conflicts—a debate about enforcement and a turf war over control—culminating in rebranding and relocation. The implementation stage was characterized by tensions over certification and intra-organizational struggles over leadership. The contemporary practice of accountability is shown to be a contingent and contested social process, with humanitarian identity and practice ultimately at stake.


Accountability International nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) Humanitarianism Constructivism Self-regulation 



This article benefited from the financial support of the Andrew Dickinson Memorial Fellowship (University of Minnesota) and the Individual Faculty Development Account (College of the Holy Cross). For helpful discussions and feedback on drafts, I thank Michael Barnett, John Borton, Elizabeth Heger Boyle, Brooke Coe, Lisa Disch, Ralitsa Donkova, Raymond (Bud) Duvall, Moira Lynch, Giovanni Mantilla, and Veronica Michel. I am also grateful to the reviewers and editors at VOLUNTAS for constructive suggestions. All errors and omissions are my own.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical standards

The interviews conducted for this study were approved by the Institutional Review Board at the University of Minnesota as IRB #0906E68221.


  1. Barnett, M., & Duvall, R. (Eds.). (2005). Power in Global governance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Bendell, J. (2006). Debating NGO accountability. Geneva: UN Non-Governmental Liaison (NGLS).Google Scholar
  3. Berghmans, M., Simons, M., & Vandenabeele, J. (2017). What is negotiated in negotiated accountability? The case of INGOs. VOLUNTAS, 28(4), 1529–1561.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Borton, J. (2004). The joint evaluation of emergency assistance to Rwanda. Humanitarian Exchange Magazine, 26, 14–18.Google Scholar
  5. Borton, J. (2012). Draft chronology of the origins and early evolution of HAP and other Q&A Initiatives (unpublished manuscript).Google Scholar
  6. Callamard, A. (2003). Humanitarian exchange Article 23. Humanitarian exchange magazine. March. 23. Available at:
  7. Campbell, D. (1998). Writing security: United States foreign policy and the politics of identity. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  8. Carpenter, C. (2014). “Lost” causes: Agenda vetting in global issue networks and the shaping of human security. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Christoplos, I. (1999). Humanitarianism, pluralism and ombudsmen: Do the pieces fit? Disasters, 23(2), 125–138.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Coule, T. M. (2015). Nonprofit governance and accountability: Broadening the theoretical perspective. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 44(1), 75–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Crack, A. M. (2018). The regulation of international NGOs: Assessing the effectiveness of the INGO accountability charter. Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 29(2), 419–429.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Davidson, S. (2002). The accountable organisation. Geneva: Humanitarian Accountability Project.Google Scholar
  13. Davis, A. (2003). Accountability and humanitarian actors: Spectulations and questions. Humanitarian exchange magazine. July. 24. Available at:
  14. Deloffre, M. Z. (2016). Global accountability communities: NGO self-regulation in the humanitarian sector. Review of International Studies, 42(4), 724–747.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Dhanani, A., & Connolly, C. (2015). Non-governmental organizational accountability: Talking the talk and walking the walk? Journal of Business Ethics, 129(3), 613–637.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Doane, D. (1999). Briefing papers: Background document for the steering committee retreat, 15th–16th September 1999. Royal Chace Hotel, Enfield: Humanitarian Ombudsman Project.Google Scholar
  17. Ebrahim, A. (2003). Accountability in practice: Mechanisms for NGOs. World Development, 31(5), 813–829.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Edwards, M., & Hulme, D. (1995). NGO performance and accountability in the post-cold war world. Journal of International Development, 7(6), 849–856.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Eriksson, J. (1996). The international response to conflict and genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda experience. Synthesis Report. Copenhagen: Steering Committee of the Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda.Google Scholar
  20. Everett, J., & Friesen, C. (2010). Humanitarian accountability and performance in the Théâtre de l’Absurde. Critical Perspectives on Accounting, 21, 468–485.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. George, A. L., & Bennett, A. (2005). Case studies and theory development in the social sciences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  22. Gugerty, M. K., & Prakash, A. (2010). Voluntary regulation of NGOs and nonprofits: an introduction to the club framework. In M. K. Gugerty & A. Prakash (Eds.), Voluntary regulation of NGOs and nonprofits: An accountability club framework (pp. 3–38). New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. HAP. (2003a). 1st Board meeting minutes. 12 December 2003. Geneva: HAP International.Google Scholar
  24. HAP. (2003b). Board and advisory committee meeting. 11–12 september. Meeting and decisions. Geneva: HAP International.Google Scholar
  25. HAP. (2004a). 2nd Board meeting minutes. 11 June 2004. Geneva: HAP International.Google Scholar
  26. HAP. (2004b). 2nd General assembly: Approved minutes. 8 December 2004′. Geneva: HAP International.Google Scholar
  27. HAP. (2004c). Accreditation: The HAP way forward. Geneva: Humanitarian Accountability Partnership.Google Scholar
  28. HAP. (2006). The humanitarian accountability report 2005. Geneva, Switzerland: Humanitarian Accountability Partnership.Google Scholar
  29. HAP. (2007). The humanitarian accountability report 2006. Geneva: Humanitarian Accountability Partnership.Google Scholar
  30. HAP. (2008a). 6th General assembly: Approved minutes. 23–24 April 2008. Geneva: HAP International.Google Scholar
  31. HAP. (2008b). The guide to the HAP standard: Humanitarian accountability and quality management. London: Oxfam GB.Google Scholar
  32. HAP. (2008c). HAP international statute. 11 December 2003, revised 8 December 2004 and 24 April 2008.Google Scholar
  33. HAP. (2008d). The humanitarian accountability report 2007. Geneva: Humanitarian Accountability Partnership.Google Scholar
  34. HAP. (2009). The humanitarian accountability report 2008. Geneva: Humanitarian Accountability Partnership.Google Scholar
  35. HAP. (2010a). 8th General assembly: Draft minutes. 6–7 May 2010. Geneva: HAP International.Google Scholar
  36. HAP. (2010b). The 2009 HAP secretariat report. Geneva: Humanitarian Accountability Partnership.Google Scholar
  37. HAP. (2010c). HAP 2010 standard in accountability and quality management. Geneva: Humanitarian Accountability Partnership.Google Scholar
  38. HAP. (2010d). Strategy 2010–2012: Making humanitarian action accountable to beneficiaries. Geneva: Humanitarian Accountability Partnership-International.Google Scholar
  39. HAP. (2011). The humanitarian accountability report 2010. Geneva: Humanitarian Accountability Partnership.Google Scholar
  40. HAP. (2013). 2013 Humanitarian accountability report. Geneva: HAP International.Google Scholar
  41. Havercroft, J., & Duvall, R. (2017). Challenges of an agonistic constructivism for international relations. Polity, 49(1), 156–164.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Hilhorst, D. (2002). Being good at doing good? quality and accountability of humanitarian NGOs. Disasters, 26(3), 193–212.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Hopf, T. (1998). The promise of constructivism in international relations theory. International Security, 23(1), 171–200.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Katzenstein, P. J., & Seybert, L. A. (2018). Protean power: Exploring the uncertain and unexpected in world politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Kennedy, D. (2019). Humanitarianism, governed: Rules, identity, and exclusion in relief work. Humanity, 10, 2.Google Scholar
  46. Knox-Clarke, P., & Mitchell, J. (2011). Reflections on the accountability revolution. Humanitarian Exchange, 52, 3–5.Google Scholar
  47. Krause, M. (2014). The good project: Humanitarian relief NGOs and the fragmentation of reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Lawday, A. (2006). Accountability: A report card. Humanitarian Exchange Magazine, 36, 39–41.Google Scholar
  49. Lloyd, R. (2005). The role of NGO self-regulation in increasing stakeholder accountability. London: One World Trust.Google Scholar
  50. Lloyd, R., & de las Casas, L. (2006). NGO self-regulation: Enforcing and balancing accountability. London: One World Trust.Google Scholar
  51. Mattern, J. B. (2004). Power in realist-constructivist research. International Studies Review, 6(2), 343–346.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. McGee, R., & Gaventa, J. (2011). Shifting power? Assessing the impact of transparency and accountability initiatives. Brighton: Institute of Development Studies (IDS).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Mitchell, J., & Doane, D. (1999). An ombudsman for humanitarian assistance? Disasters, 23(2), 115–124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Niemann, H., & Schillinger, H. (2017). Contestation ‘all the way down’? The grammar of contestation in norm research. Review of International Studies, 43(1), 29–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. O’Dwyer, B., & Unerman, J. (2008). The paradox of greater NGO accountability: A case study of Amnesty Ireland. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 33(7), 801–824.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Ombudsman Project. (1998a). DRAFT project proposal [unpublished manuscript, 24 November 1998]. London: Ombudsman Project.Google Scholar
  57. Ombudsman Project. (1998b). Steering committee meeting minutes. 2 December 1998. 16 September 2005. London: British Red Cross.Google Scholar
  58. Ombudsman Project. (1999). Consultation report to project steering committee. 24 Sept–7 Oct 1999. London: Ombudsman Project.Google Scholar
  59. Pallas, C. L., & Guidero, A. (2016). Reforming NGO accountability: Supply vs. demand-driven models. International Studies Review, 18(4), 614–634.Google Scholar
  60. Power, M. (1999). The audit society: Rituals of verification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Ramalingam, B., Scriven, K., & Foley, C. (2009). Innovations in international humanitarian action. In ALNAP 8th review of humanitarian action.Google Scholar
  62. Salkeld, G. (2009). Report on an evaluation of the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership-International. Geneva: Humanitarian Accountability Partnership.Google Scholar
  63. Schmitz, H. P., Raggo, P., & Bruno-van Vijfeijken, T. (2012). Accountability of transnational NGOS: Aspirations vs. practice. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 41(6), 1175–1194.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Stein, J. G. (2008). Humanitarian organizations: Accountable-why, to whom, for what, and how? In M. Barnett & T. Weiss (Eds.), Humanitarianism in question: Politics, power, ethics (pp. 124–142). Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  65. Stockton, N. (2000). The ‘code of conduct’ in practice: A personal view. In N. Leader & J. Macrae (Eds.), HPG report 6: Terms of engagement: Conditions and conditionality in humanitarian action (pp. 17–21). London: HPG (ODI).Google Scholar
  66. Stockton, N. (2005). Complaints and redress-the HAP experience. Presentation to one world trust. Accessed 12 July 2011.
  67. Stroup, S. S. (2012). Borders among activists: International NGOs in the United States, Britain, and France. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Terry, F. (2002). Condemned to repeat? The paradox of humanitarian action. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  69. van Zyl, H., & Claeyé, F. (2018). Up and down, and inside out: Where do we stand on NGO accountability? The European Journal of Development Research. Scholar
  70. VanRooyen, M. (2013). Effective aid: Ensuring accountability in humanitarian assistance. Harvard International Review, 35(2), 12–16.Google Scholar
  71. Wendt, A. (1999). A Social theory of international politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Williams, A. P., & Taylor, J. A. (2013). Resolving accountability ambiguity in nonprofit organizations. Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 24(3), 559–580.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© International Society for Third-Sector Research 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.College of the Holy CrossWorcesterUSA

Personalised recommendations