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Downward accountability in humanitarian aid: lessons from a hotline for refugees

The risks of corruption in humanitarian response can be reduced by aid organisations being answerable to their beneficiaries (‘downward accountability’). Interventions may also be more efficient and effective with measures in place to help recipients feedback to — and get a response from — aid providers. In a new U4 Brief, researchers use a helpline and call centre set up for refugees by UNHCR Uganda to explore lessons around this idea. This blog highlights some key findings from the study. These include the importance of involving beneficiaries from the start when designing accountability mechanisms, as well as the need to provide adequate training and resources.
30 November 2020
Grace Cahill/Oxfam

In a thought-provoking new U4 Brief, researchers use a detailed case study to explore downward accountability in humanitarian aid. The case features the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Uganda’s Feedback, Referral and Response Mechanism (FRRM). The mechanism provides a toll-free helpline and call centre for Uganda’s many refugees. Its aims are to collect feedback, provide information, and point refugees/Persons of Concern in the direction of support and services. It also allows callers to report fraud and corruption. And, crucially, it encourages ‘whistle-blowing’ on cases of violence, abuse, and sexual exploitation.

The aim of the research was to see if FRRM might be adaptable as a model to reduce fraud and corruption in other settings. As this blog outlines, the researchers broadly conclude that there are successful aspects of FRRM that other mechanisms could adopt. There are also lessons to be learned in the challenges the mechanism still has to overcome.

Feedback, Referral and Response Mechanism

In Uganda, UNHCR has often been in the news with reports of mismanagement, fraud, and corruption within the refugee protection system. This corruption costs UNHCR millions of dollars each year. Examples include a conspiracy between staff of UNHCR and the Office of the Prime Minister to exaggerate refugee figures, excessive fuel use by official vehicles, and payments to ‘ghost workers’ (Biryabarema 2018).

UNHCR is hoping that FRRM will improve accountability, empower communities, and increase protection for vulnerable refugees

Through FRRM, UNHCR Uganda is hoping to improve accountability, empower communities, and increase protection for vulnerable refugees. FRRM has sought to build on existing tools available to the refugees such as protection desks, suggestion boxes, and structures that allow reporting to leaders in particular zones. These have been combined with the establishment of the toll-free helpline and call centre that refers callers to focal points for further information and reporting.

An important part of the mechanism is confidentiality. People reporting sensitive cases of fraud, corruption, or abuse can do so anonymously.

No ‘one-size-fits-all’

Part of the research involved a literature review. This showed that downward accountability does not always show clear benefits. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ design. Every mechanism has its challenges.

The study then analysed data from FRRM’s interagency dashboard during the start-up period (October 2018 to July 2019). Researchers also interviewed staff from UNHCR Uganda and five of its partner organisations, as well as refugees in Bidibidi refugee settlement in the West Nile region of Uganda.

It was not possible for the researchers to document examples of sensitive cases dealt with through the mechanism. This was because of the nature of such cases, which might feature abuse or sexual exploitation. FRRM respects confidentiality if callers want to remain anonymous. In addition, as a risk-mitigating measure, the location of FRRM’s call centre remained undisclosed. As such, it was not possible to conduct interviews with any of FRRM’s helpline agents.

FRRM widely used and accepted

FRRM registered a total of 52,749 calls and handled a total of 19,756 individual queries/complaints in the first 12 months from when piloting began. Of these calls, 475 were sensitive reports of fraud and corruption.b7ebc7bc31f8 In September 2019 alone, some 5,015 calls originating from 25 individual refugee settlements were received through the helpline. The researchers expected the number of monthly calls to rise with further upscaling of FRRM. However, they noted that this would need to be combined with awareness-raising within refugee settlements and improved mobile network coverage across Uganda.

People feel comfortable using the platform to access information, make referrals, and lodge sensitive complaints

The study concludes that the evidence demonstrates the mechanism has been embraced by the refugee community. People feel comfortable using the platform to access information, make referrals, and lodge sensitive complaints.

Challenges and recommendations

Key challenges to the system’s effectiveness included lack of resources, lack of organisational commitment, and an absence of guidance and/or expertise. Some more specific issues involved poor telephone network coverage or users not having access to a phone. An unintended consequence of the mechanism was that it resulted in the bypassing of existing channels. For example, calls were received on issues that could have been better handled by community leaders or the police.

Nonetheless, the researchers found that corruption control measures could be more effective if they were to adopt particular successful aspects from FRRM. For example, if a mechanism is seen to be investigating problems and complaints, its public image will improve. Downward accountability measures would also benefit from finding solutions to common challenges — for example, whistle-blower protection, information sharing, and commitment of resources.

A number of recommendations came out of the research featured in the U4 Brief. These included that participatory approaches should be used in the design of accountability mechanisms, the need to improve communication methods, and the importance of involving beneficiaries in their planning, design, and roll-out. Better training was also found to be important, as well as making downward accountability a requirement of donor funding.

Finally, confidence on the part of beneficiaries to continue to participate in accountability measures will depend on them witnessing real change as a result of their involvement. As the brief notes, this calls for ‘walking the walk and talking the talk’.

  1. UNHCR. 2019a. Feedback, referral and resolution mechanism: refugee helpline newsletter. UNHCR.

About the authors

Sophie Komujuni

Sophie Komujuni is a lecturer at Uganda Martyrs University. She holds a PhD in Political Science and a master's in International Law and Human Rights. She has engaged in several research projects and is currently an individual research fellow with the Africa Peacebuilding Network of the Social Sciences Research Council (2020 cohort). She has consulted for organisations organisations including Chr. Michelsen Institute, IGAD Center of Excellence for Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism, and Institute for Peace and Security Studies. Her areas of interest are: peace and conflict studies, human rights, violent extremism,international law, production of authority, and NGO accountability.

Saul Mullard is a senior adviser at the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre and a civil society specialist with a background in historical sociology, development studies and South Asian studies. His research interests include the relationship between corruption and climate change and the role of local communities and indigenous peoples in addressing corruption and environmental protection. Mullard holds a doctorate and master’s in South and Inner Asian Studies from the University of Oxford, as well as a BA in Development Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.


All views in this text are the author(s)’, and may differ from the U4 partner agencies’ policies.

This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International licence (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


Uganda, accountability, humanitarian assistance, aid