Accountability for humanitarian aid has remained a central subject for donors and practitioners since the 1990s, and discussions have become more pressing with the calls to localise and decolonise humanitarian aid. Little is known about how accountability is understood and practiced by civic humanitarian actors such as local and refugee led groups, committees, associations, and organisations. Moreover, collective sociocultural practices of helping and sharing remain invisible in mainstream humanitarianism. I document these less visible humanitarian practices and explore through them how accountability is defined and practiced locally at the meeting point between civic and mainstream humanitarianism in protracted crises. However, these more relational forms of assistance are frequently viewed as conflicting with principles like neutrality, impartiality, and independence, as well as the humanitarian ethos of 'aiding the stranger.' Consequently, they are often excluded from the humanitarian system based on both a narrow definition of humanitarianism, and a restricted understanding of accountability.
Based on fieldwork among South Sudanese refugees in the Bidibidi refugee settlement and in urban refugee neighbourhoods in Kampala, Uganda, the thesis aims to answer the following questions: Who are civic humanitarian actors in Uganda, and how do they operate? How is accountability understood and practiced in different forms of civic humanitarianism? What social and cultural underpinnings inform relational aid in this context, and what can mainstream humanitarianism learn from civic humanitarianism and relational aid? These questions encompass a comprehensive exploration of civic humanitarianism in Uganda and the potential insights it offers to the broader humanitarian sector speaking to debates about localising and decolonising humanitarian aid.
Fieldwork for the thesis involved narrative and life history interviews with refugees, interviews with key informants, focus group discussions, and participatory observation of daily practices. It was conducted in four phases: an exploratory phase in late December 2020, a more extensive fieldwork period between June and October 2021, follow-up fieldwork in August 2022, and a final feedback session in early July 2023. A total of 43 in-depth interviews, 10 key informant interviews, and 8 focus group discussions were conducted. The PhD project forms part of a larger research project funded by the Norwegian Research Council called Holding Aid Accountable: Relational Humanitarianism, in Protracted Crisis (AidAccount). The AidAccount project team was instrumental for developing several of the concepts and reflections in this thesis through regular team meetings, discussions, and collective capacity building.
The thesis consists of three academic articles and a superstructure that introduces the work, gives a summary of the main findings and conclusions, and puts the individual works in into an overall perspective documenting the coherence of the thesis. Theoretically, the thesis draws on literature on new, alternative, and vernacular forms of humanitarianism as well as crises response conceptualised as resilience humanitarianism - all of whom brings attention to the wider eco-system of humanitarian actors. The thesis contextualizes these theoretical contributions within two important ongoing debates within humanitarianism: the efforts to localize and to decolonize aid. It addresses the potential challenges of idealizing 'the local' while emphasizing how mainstream humanitarian practice can engage with and gain insights from civic actors, relational aid, and alternative accountability frameworks embedded in everyday practices with communitarian cultural and social foundations.
The thesis presents significant findings regarding the humanitarian landscape in Uganda, particularly in the context of refugees. It underscores the presence and importance of diverse civic actors, including community groups, committees, associations, and organizations, many of which are led by refugees themselves operating at different levels. Furthermore, the research explores in-depth the ways refugees draw upon communitarian traditions to provide essential support during times of adversity. Among South Sudanese refugees, this support encompasses various forms of financial aid and emotional support facilitated through kinship networks. Additionally, community members extend their help through socio-cultural practices such as extended childcare, funeral assistance, the establishment of rotational agricultural schemes, and the utilization of various crowdfunding methods. Importantly, these practices, although less documented within the broader humanitarian discourse, emerged as indispensable elements in the lives of refugees. They highlight the resilience and resourcefulness of refugee communities in Uganda and challenge established conventional humanitarian binaries used to categorize actors and forms of aid such as non-principled-principled, informal-formal, non-professional-professional, and local-international. Additionally, they prompt a re-evaluation of established understandings of accountability within humanitarianism.
Accountability in mainstream humanitarian practice has traditionally focused on formalization and accounting. Local civic humanitarian actors such as community groups, associations, and organizations may lack the necessary resources to meet reporting criteria or to develop the systems required to acquire funding. These actors operate within social networks and are embedded within their communities; in such embedded forms of humanitarianism, accountability is based on trust and long-term arrangements. Accountability is explicitly relational and tied to responsibilities and reciprocity formed through kinships, clans, tribes, communities, location, shared experiences, religious beliefs, and political ideology. Within these relationships, the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence may not be adhered to, in which case local actors come into direct conflict with Western aid agencies or donors that prioritize those principles. However, this does not mean that accountability is not practiced in civic and local spaces. On the contrary, the findings of this thesis is that accountability is highly present, but is informed by connectedness, embeddedness, and social relations more than by formal accounting principles and guidelines as seen in mainstream humanitarian practice.
The central contribution of this thesis lies in its call for a more inclusive form of humanitarianism that acknowledges the diverse array of humanitarian actions present in crises. It argues for expanding the humanitarian register drawing on various geo-histories of care in order to move towards localizing and decolonizing humanitarian aid. This involves creating equitable partnerships with ‘local’ actors, including refugees themselves, and to incorporate community feedback practices and culturally and geographically appropriate aid delivery mechanisms. Furthermore, the thesis enriches existing frameworks by broadening the understanding of accountability beyond the narrow Western perspective of individualized ethical registers. By combining scholarship on socializing forms of accountability with indigenous epistemologies of relational accountability, the thesis contends that the conventional approach to accountability, characterized as formal, unattached, and hierarchical, is just one among several ways to understand and practice humanitarian accountability. While mindful of the caution against romanticization, it argues that embracing a more relational understanding of accountability might be exactly what humanitarianism requires to progress towards localizing humanitarian aid and addressing the power imbalances necessary for its decolonization.
 AidAccount is a project funded by Norwegian Research Council (2020-2024), that aims to map, document and analyse the moral and social dimensions of accountability as understood and practiced by civic and professional humanitarian aid providers in protracted crises of Uganda, Somalia and Sri Lanka
The Role of Refugee Peace Initiatives and Everyday Assistance(s) as Tools for Harmonizing Land Conflicts Between Refugees and Hosts in Protracted Crisis
Unsettling humanitarian binaries: Relational aid and civic humanitarianism among South Sudanese refugees in Uganda
LectureViga, Emmanuel; Serwajja, Eria; Refstie, Hilde. (2022) Feedback session to refugee representatives and Makerere University researchers from fieldwork in Holding Aid Accountable - Relational Humanitarianism in Protracted Crises (AidAccount) . Makerere University Feedback session AidAccount , Kampala 2022-08-12 - 2022-08-12