Power and accountability: Lessons from Nepal about the value of community ownership and devolution of power

5/2020 | Ujjwal Amatya

On April 25th, 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal – the strongest earthquake to hit the country since 1934. An estimated 8.1 million people were affected across the country. Emergency aid poured in from the national government, international aid agencies, and local organizations. And yet, the voices of affected communities were not taken seriously and their complaints were not considered a high priority for the organizations responding to the crisis. In general, communities did not get timely or appropriate information, people were not able to provide feedback properly, and when they did manage to give feedback, no one responded. At the time, I was working in the humanitarian response for an INGO and I watched as community needs were ignored and feedback requests were completely disregarded.

Amid this crisis, I also watched as political elites misused funding intended to rebuild a school. I saw the school management committee, who was motivated by personal financial gains, cut corners, and use low-quality materials and disregard building codes. Local community members complained about the committee’s misuse of power and authority, but their voices were ignored. A few months after the school construction was completed, there were visible cracks in and damage to the building. The children were unable to use the newly constructed classrooms – all because of greed, power, and corruption that went unheard and unchecked.


Why do we not learn?

Five years after the earthquake, I am still surprised that accountability to communities is still not a priority for those providing interventions. Stories like the one of the school are commonplace, and so even with all of the post-earthquake investment, communities in Nepal have not been able to recover. Five years later, a huge number of affected people are still living in terrible conditions.

If we do not take community accountability seriously, then the scenario will be the same for any future disaster or emergency.

Accountability refers to how we listen to, engage with, and respond to those we serve. In this case, accountability means respecting the needs, concerns, capacities, and disposition of those with whom we work, as well as answering for our actions and decisions. Accountability is an important way to show respect to others and to hear their needs, concerns and suggestions in order to improve programming and have a greater impact on people’s wellbeing. Accountability approaches and processes are critical to the effectiveness of giving better services to people in need.

In Nepal, community accountability is often not seen as a priority because of a lack of understanding by government representatives, leaders, and development and humanitarian workers. Leaders, in both organizations and the government, are often scared of receiving negative complaints from their constituents. Similarly, communities are often not aware or empowered to advocate for their needs. Further, most organizations do not have mechanisms to capture community feedback. Many INGOs, government officials, and local organizations do not consider community perspective and choice important in decision-making.

As a development and humanitarian practitioner in Nepal, I have been advocating about the importance of accountability to communities since 2011. Because of my passion for greater accountability across the sector, I am doing my best to strengthen communities’ understanding about their rights to express their opinions about the assistance they are receiving.

To do this effectively it requires the sector to take concrete actions by establishing systems that facilitate engaging with, listening to, and responding to local communities. Communities should have access to information and opportunities to voice their opinions and to respond to their feedback and complaints.


Accountability and local leadership

Local organizations play a large role in promoting community accountability as communities have more trust in them. Most local organizations are represented by local people so they have better understanding of the community needs, as well as a strong and existing relationship with the people they are serving. If the capacities of local organizations are built on strengthening community accountability, they can bring significant positive changes to the communities they serve. If international and national agencies could more effectively work together with local organizations, it would enhance the sector’s overall ability to be accountable to communities. Because of these advantages, local organizations should be more integral in response efforts and should be consulted, collaborated, and coordinated with. Together with these organizations, we can create spaces for dialogue that allow for the active participation of local people, which will allow for greater ownership and pave the way for more sustainability in our interventions.

However, there is still work to be done to improve the appreciation and application of accountability among many local organizations and leaders. In the context of countries like Nepal, power is social prestige, and those with it often take social benefits and resources at the cost of others. People in leadership positions hold forms of political, financial, or social power. Just like the school management committee example, I have seen too many instances where leaders, bureaucrats, and even the employees of development and humanitarian agencies misuse their power to the detriment of the community. I have seen people in power use their bias to make decisions or hesitate to share the accurate information with communities because of other interests. Obtaining and maintaining power often determines how decisions about communities are made, rather than community suggestions.

In humanitarian situations, there is also an inherent power imbalance between those with resources and those we aim to assist. The leaders typically give priority to their political cadres and followers when it comes to services and benefits. Favoritism and nepotism are widely adopted by leaders in the response. In many cases, this bring negative feelings in communities towards the leaders, which can even lead to violence. These confrontations mostly happen during the distribution of relief materials to affected communities.

In the context of Nepal, most leaders do not understand standards like the Core Humanitarian Standards, Sphere, Humanitarian Accountability Partnerships (CHS Alliance), etc., which promote community accountability. Even some leaders who are aware of these standards simply refuse to follow these standards. If these leaders used their power wisely in humanitarian context, they would listen to affected communities, which would increase community satisfaction.

In my view, when we hold the power, it should benefit the people, particularly those affected by disaster and deprived from development. In my journey, I have seen organizations that put the people first, and these organizations are almost always seen positively by the community. The leaders of these organizations use their power generously and listen to the voices of people, which leads to high-level impact and communities taking ownership of their interventions. The strength of these partnerships and collaborations are visible.  For me, accountability means the responsible use of power – at every level, in every organization.


But who are we accountable to?

However, even though accountability to communities is fundamental to effective programming and long-term sustainability, we (local leaders) often have to be more accountable to international donors, governments, and INGOs. Our funding contractually binds us to meet certain program outputs and requirements, we are forced to prioritize ‘upward accountability’ as opposed to accountability to those we are serving. We are asked to measure and report on our performance against agreed objectives, deliverables, and budgets, rather than the satisfaction of or sustainable impacts on the community.

Communities, despite being our primary stakeholders, have traditionally had the least power. Yet, isn’t it interesting that in prioritizing communities we are focusing “downward” as opposed to focusing on what is important? Even our language to describe levels of accountability perpetuate the aid hierarchy and exploit problematic power dynamics.

Most of the time we try to meet the requests, demands, and priority of donors. However, by prioritizing the needs of the donors over the real need of communities, we ultimately undermine the trust of communities in us. Therefore, we should be giving more priority to communities through greater consultation and convincing the donors that their voice is essential for effective programs. The feedback of the communities can be shared with donors to help set their priorities. In my experience, donors can be convinced of the importance of community engagement by seeing how it contributes to stronger and more sustainable interventions.


Who should have the power?

Giving communities greater power means taking community perspectives into account. It means respecting their needs, concerns, capacities, feelings, culture, and disposition while at the same time being able to answer for our actions and decisions as a development or humanitarian organization. This change is not easy, but if we try to do it more consistently, we will pressure donors, INGOs, and local leaders to see the value of community accountability. It is important for donors to understand what community accountability looks like in the specific context.

Strengthening partnerships between INGOs and local organizations will give greater opportunity for communities to have their voices heard and can devolve more decision-making power to communities. Communities should be involved in making decisions about the project, such as selection criteria, project activities, and the timing and place of the activities we will be implemented.

The leaders of local organizations should promote community accountability mechanisms in their culture and through their behaviors and actions. They are the ones who are on the ground. Local policies, guidelines, and mechanisms should be developed at local level to promote community accountability. Standard compliance measures will not be enough, as every context and community is unique!

My suggestion for leadership, no matter who we are or for whom we work, the key is to ensure community accountability. We should be actively listening to the needs, concerns, and views of the people we support. Accountability should not be taken as an extra burden but rather as a core part of how we do business.


To be successful, we need to ask ourselves: are we giving our power back to communities or not?

Photographs and graphics from top to bottom: Photo 1: Meeting with local leader in Nepal Photo Credit: Ujjwal Amatya. Photo 2: Receiving feedback from local communities. Photo Credit: Ujjwal Amatya. Photo 3: Portrait of leader of village council taken outside his community. Photo Credit: Ujjwal Amatya. Photo 4: Attending meeting of local leaders. Photo Credit: Ujjwal Amatya.

About this article

This blog was written as part of the “From where I stand: Unpacking ‘local’ in aid” series. Each weekCDA will create a space to help bring  these critical and fresh, though often neglected, voices – from local practitioners to those working alongside them (including those who work on the policy and programming agenda) – to the forefront. 

Our hope is to expand our collective thinking and understanding about what “localization” actually looks like in practice, no matter how messy it may be. In doing so perhaps we can begin to answer the question: What if the evidence-base for local leadership, aid policy, and INGO practice was instead based on the diverse experiences and ideas of those leading humanitarian, aid, and peacebuilding efforts in their contexts?

For more blogs in this series check-out:

And many more to come soon! If you are interested in contributing to the series please contact Sarah Cechvala at [email protected]. We would love to hear from you and include your perspective.  

About the author

Ujjwal Amatya is from Kathmandu, Nepal. He has an extensive background in humanitarian and urban-rural development with an academic background in Forestry and Rural Development. Ujjwal has over 19 years of experience in the fields of development, humanitarian assistance, and scientific/social research. In his many years of experience, he has directly managed bilateral, multilateral, private, foundation, corporate, and charity projects in community-based disaster preparedness, water and sanitation, agriculture, forestry, environment, climate change, HIV/AIDS, and education and accountability across Nepal. Currently, he works as a Country Representative for Mission East Nepal, a Denmark-based International NGO. In the past Ujjwal has also worked for Rural Education and Environment Development Center, World Vision International, Japan International Cooperation Agency and International Center for Integrated Mountain Development in Nepal.