Friday, May 25, 2012
Accountability for people in crisis
Update: A reader pointed out this May 18 story in the Georgia Straight - certainly adds some interesting B.C. context to my post!
The organization I work for here in Honduras took me along to a rendición de cuentas yesterday – loosely translated, a surrendering of accounts. It’s basically an exercise in accountability intended for the people who are receiving services.
The practice is common in Honduras, where non-profits like the Comisión de Acción Social Menonita are considered to be serving an impoverished population in a near-constant state of crisis. CASM and its major funders belong to an association that requires its members to adhere to strict standards of accountability and transparency, in recognition of how important those are when delivering aid to impoverished communities during times of crisis and disaster. Things could go badly wrong after an earthquake, for example, if aid agencies gave first priority to friends and family.
It’s not a process that sees much application in Canada, where mega-disasters are thankfully scarce. But as I sat there watching my co-worker’s PowerPoint yesterday in La Cuchilla (baby turkeys underfoot, projector running off the battery of the truck we’d driven up in because the electricity was out for the day) it struck me that perhaps it ought to be for agencies serving people living homeless, who certainly meet the test of being an impoverished population in a near-constant state of crisis.
When I was doing work with the issues of homelessness in Victoria, one complaint I heard repeatedly from those living on the street was that a “homeless industry” had sprung up around them. Rightly or wrongly, people on the streets were of the opinion that too much government money was being channelled toward well-paid jobs for those tasked with solving homelessness rather than into housing and services for those in crisis.
I had no idea how to respond to such accusations, because who could say? Non-profits in Canada have to release a yearly financial statement to the public as part of their annual general reports, but not in the kind of detail that these people were looking for. And there’s no denying that opportunities for favouritism exist in the delivery of crisis services to Canada’s homeless population, where staff perceptions of “bad” or “undeserving” behaviour in a client can literally leave a person out in the cold.
In a rendición de cuentas like the one I attended yesterday, the people receiving services get a detailed presentation on how project money is spent, right down to the salaries of project staff and how much of the funds were spent directly on services to the people. If anyone wants to get even more specific, my co-worker had an itemized list specifying the benefits received in that community during the two years of the project. Families A, B and C got help to build new wood stoves. Families D, E, F and G got chicken coops. Senor Valdez got a biodigester. Senora Machorro got a pen for her pigs. You get the picture.
I know, I know – no confidentiality. Canadian social-service organizations are very big on confidentiality. But it’s hard to be truly accountable to the people you serve without some specifics. When homeless organizations in Victoria start talking broadly about how they helped 1,500 people get off the street in the past year, you can hardly blame the ones still out there for wanting to know just who got housed. They’re looking around and not seeing much change, which just fuels their suspicion that something funny’s going on.
I’m not suggesting that something funny IS going on, of course. Non-profits work hard for the money, and have to be accountable to their funders and donors. But public accountability to the people you’re serving – that’s a heck of a good idea.
Charities are expected to hold themselves to a higher standard of accountability when serving poor, distressed people in the developing nations of the world. Why shouldn’t the same be true in wealthy countries like Canada? Those living in poverty and crisis are literally at the mercy of those funded to provide aid. Let’s get those cards on the table.