key considerations for accountability development (Myanmar case study)

Accountability underpins Merlin’s humanitarian and transitional work as it characterizes organizational commitment to putting beneficiaries at the heart of programming.  The concept of accountability to beneficiaries is still relatively new to the sector and like many agencies Merlin is new to the development of specific accountability focused mechanisms within its programming. This is not to say that Merlin lacks downward accountability; accountability mechanisms are integrated throughout the organization as a consequence of following good practice, but many improvements can be made operationally and pro grammatically to ensure that beneficiaries remain central to Merlin’s work. Merlin’s membership to the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) in December 2008 has added support and incentive to guide country programs globally towards becoming increasingly accountable.[1]

What is accountability? Merlin supports the HAP definition of accountability “the means by which power is used responsibly”. This means that accountable practice is what stabilises the imbalance of power between agencies and beneficiaries thus ensuring that those involved are able to take an active part in the regulation of agency service provision. The provision of methods that enable stakeholders to hold agencies to account is a central concern for all stakeholders. From a donor perspective, accountable practice is now a key expectation, especially in terms of beneficiary impact and how agencies spend their funding. By implementing accountability activities, Merlin’s programs will be of a better quality, more accurately addressing the needs of the beneficiaries and providing a better service with less waste of resources.

How is Merlin committed to accountable practice? Merlin’s system of reporting and benchmarking against good practice drives and shapes organizational programming. Its public commitment to meeting minimum standards of accountability and quality management ensures that Merlin voluntarily elects to hold itself to; measure itself against; and is measured by others against both its own and sector wide standards, for example, the standards set by HAP International , established in 2003, and  the humanitarian sector’s first international self-regulatory body.

MERLIN’S ACCOUNTABILITY CASE STUDY Some examples of good practice have developed within Merlin’s Myanmar Program in a context where relationships with communities and partners are under significant scrutiny.  The developments are the result of a number of factors and depend on the accessibility of the range of resources that are generally more available to well established, financially secure programs with external support. The Merlin team in Myanmar took advantage of contextual events in order to develop good practices but it is vital to note that in no way does this negate the fact that similar developments are more than possible in other country programs. A number of tools for accountability development have been produced by the Myanmar program and will contribute to the other documents that accompany these key considerations; namely a ‘How to – Beneficiary Accountability’ and an Accountability Toolkit. The aim of this document is therefore to allow other country programs to understand the operating environments necessary to focus on and build a momentum for accountability by including details of opportunities that were taken and factors that were key in driving good accountability practices.


Post Tsunami 2004

Merlin begins operating health programs in two regions of Myanmar, Laputta District in Ayeyarwaddy Division and Chin and Sagaing States. Merlin’s initial approach to program development in Myanmar was predominantly community-based programs with members of the community playing a role in all activity planning and implementation.


Merlin develops a CHW and VHC network and builds strong relationships with communities through the utilisation of existing community forums.

May 2008 – Cyclone Nargis

Merlin’s activities in Myanmar significantly increase through the Nargis emergency response and later with an early recovery strategy.

June 2008

Merlin is present at the Accountability and Learning Working Group (ALWG) from the second month of the emergency response, sharing information and discussing accountability technical support and operational issues which were fed down to field level. A designated human resource, the Accountability Focal Point, was responsible for attending ALWG meetings and conducting the pilot assessment.

October 2008

An initial pilot assessment is conducted the findings of which are fed into a draft Accountability Report which provided the foundations for Myanmar’s Country Accountability Framework. This first pilot is implemented in the form of a survey, guided by the HAP Benchmarks, and conducted with Sector Managers, Office Manager, Operations Coordinator, M&E Coordinator and Logistics team in order to gain a better understanding of what Merlin is doing to ensure accountability to its beneficiaries and identify areas for improvement.

December 2008

Merlin Becomes a Member of HAP.

January 2009

Watsan consultant requests accountability training for the Watsan team from an ASEAN contact from a former mission, Sok Phoeuk. Training was successful, resulting in positive action points and approaches to work and it is agreed that all staff should be trained in accountability. This recognition and support for accountability paves the way for involvement with the Inter-Agency Quality and Accountability Coordinator (IQAC), an accountability initiative funded by DFID and hosted by Save the Children in Myanmar.

Through involvement with the IQAC, Merlin is approached to participate as one of eight agencies to receive agency-specific support from the IQAC with additional support from HAP and Sphere. The aim of this support process was to support and strengthen agency quality and accountability practices in relation to disaster survivors of Cyclone Nargis.

March 2009

The IQAC initiative invites Merlin to participate in a HAP-supported self assessment of the Laputta project, also as an opportunity to pilot the HAP methodology in Myanmar. This moves forward with the agreement of the CD followed by discussions with CMT explaining the approach and expected outcomes of the self-assessment.

The subsequent field visit to Laputta coincides with the HAP baseline assessment at Merlin’s Head Office in London. Myanmar’s Accountability Focal Point, the Quality & Accountability Coordinator and HAP-Geneva’s representative travel to the Laputta field office to conduct the field review. This includes workshops and consultations with program managers and program staff, as well as field visits to implementation sites, including focus group discussions with beneficiaries.

June 2009

Merlin field staff in Laputta receive training in Accountability. Merlin staff attend various trainings provided by HAP and IQAC.

An Accountability Report on the Self-Assessment of the Laputta program is finalized, written by Accountability Focal Point with contributions from HAP/IQAC and accompanied by recommendations for improvements presented as a draft Action Plan.

July 2009

Findings of the field visit are presented at the Myanmar Program Country Strategy Workshop, thus opening a discussion highlighting strengths and challenges, existing gaps, and potential obstacles and possible solutions of the accountability self-assessment process. Consequently, action points are developed and the complete findings are presented to CMT and thoroughly discussed and analyzed. This results in the identification of a number of key areas of weakness for which internal Working Groups are established in order to rectify identified weaknesses.

Sept 2009

A self-assessment of the Chin and Saging program is conducted and the findings and recommendations are documented. Findings contribute to the Myanmar Program Accountability Framework. Specific objectives are drafted into the Working Group documentation and shared throughout the program.

Nov 2009

The Accountability Coordinator (previously expat Accountability Focal Point) and Accountability Officer (national counterpart retained after the completion of the DRR program) positions are formalized with the intention to focus on Accountability practices in Myanmar and their ability to act in these roles. The posts are therefore freed to follow up and develop recommendations which arose following the Self-Assessment processes. [2]

The Action plan is consequently addressed, following up on the development of field tools and focusing on information sharing, participation and complaints handling. These areas are addressed through further consultation with staff and communities on programmatic approaches and the development and piloting of tools over the following months such as pilot mobile notice boards and a pilot CRM.

The Working Groups that were established in July in order to implement proposed accountability activities are led by members of staff with relevant responsibilities; in this case the Accountability Coordinator and the Finance and Administration Manager. The process is largely participatory, involving both staff and beneficiaries in the development of tools and systems which are currently being employed within the Myanmar program.

Feb 2010

The Myanmar Accountability Framework based on the MAF, is finalized (all relevant internal and external accountability and quality standards, codes, guidelines, and principles committed to by Merlin are documented). The Myanmar Accountability Framework and action plan are presented to management and are explained and discussed with the team. Lead staff members are appointed and priority areas highlighted.

Project-specific support is given to the Chin/Sagaing program, including field visits and trainings, later followed up by Accountability Officer who visits all field sites.

March 2010

Accountability Coordinator leaves, handing over work to various staff to take forward, supported by the Accountability Officer. At this time, information sharing guidelines and tools are available at project sites; participation guidelines are developed for field staff; staff CRM is operational in Laputta and piloted in Yangon and Chin/Sagaing; community CRM is designed and pilot planned; and HR and M&E teams have received specific support to be more accountable.


The key objective of this document is to investigate why a focus on accountability was so prominent in Myanmar. The answers to this question contain valuable learning that is vital to Merlin’s efforts to improve its accountability practices. It is useful, where possible, to attempt to separate the factors that contributed to Merlin’s success between those which were internally driven and those which came about by virtue of external influences.

The table is split into three time periods; Pre-Nargis, Emergency Programming and Transitional Programming. It should be noted that an ‘Initial Response’ section is missing from the timescale. To clarify, Merlin was not working on accountability activities in Myanmar prior to the Emergency and therefore accountability practices did not feature in Merlin’s initial response to the cyclone.


Prior to Nargis, and due to the particular constraints upon programme design in Myanmar at that time, Merlin’s health programme in Myanmar focused upon an entirely community-based approach to healthcare delivery. This may have contributed to stronger relationships with local communities than might have otherwise occurred (if the programme had focused upon facility-based delivery of health services).

Merlin’s presence before Nargis helped build its profile throughout the sector mainly because it was one of very few operational agencies in the area with a well establish programme.

The lack of activity regarding the creation of a formalised feedback mechanism in Myanmar resulted from the non-investment in CRMs from the sector as a whole. Merlin’s country analysis had previously shown that this kind of activity was not viable in Myanmar.  Restricted agency access to communities by the Myanmar government meant that Merlin had to be particularly vigilant regarding programme planning and development, keeping community participation informal and information sharing mostly verbal.


Constraints upon programme design in Myanmar means recognising the parameters of permitted operation. All activities are affected as Merlin is required to negotiate not only on activities to be implemented, but also all aspects of programme operation. Although participation was highly restricted in Myanmar, the relationship between Merlin and CHWs and VHCs (highlighted in the adjacent point) meant that Merlin was able to develop activities in line with what was feasible and did not waste time on gaining permissions.

Merlin, at this time, was not a member of HAP. However, inter-agency communication and information sharing around accountability were active in Merlin at an international level and allowed Merlin to engage in the inter-agency training programme. Merlin’s relationship with HAP, pre-Nargis, acted as a forum for sharing knowledge and information and enabled Merlin to have a presence and a profile both in Myanmar and at an international level.


Emergency Programming: 

Community familiarity with Merlin, (more than agencies new to the area), meant that many beneficiaries were already familiar with Merlin and were therefore supportive to Merlin entering villages to conduct assessments and provide emergency assistance. Merlin staff were familiar with the area and had a network of Community Health Workers (CHWs) and Voluntary Health Coordinators (VHCs) in hundreds of villages.

The designation of a specific accountability focused position in Myanmar was a key factor in the development of accountability practices. It took several months of attendance at regional inter-agency meetings before Merlin was in a position to contribute meaningfully but this would not have occurred at all without the participation and encouragement of the individual involved.

The Accountability Focal point/Coordinator was responsible for overseeing the working groups which, prior to this point, was considered additional work for the team and so had proved difficult to move forward. This demonstrates that it is essential to have dedicated HR resources that can focus on accountability practices and put them into action.

Emergency Programming: 

Merlin’s programming benefitted from partnerships with other leading agencies whose staff shared accountability mechanisms, although many agencies were also lacking formalised systems of accountability. Sphere training was conducted with field staff in the first month of emergency operations, and all sector managers encouraged the practice of participation, information sharing and feedback operations where possible.

Merlin’s strength during the emergency was partially due to local relationships but more significantly due to external circumstances after the establishment of the TCG and the ability to have much greater autonomy over programming Coordination amongst agencies was easier because there were a limited number involved and also because many agencies knew each other from prior to Nargis.

Merlin’s process of accountability development in Myanmar was directly and significantly affected by the timing of events surrounding the ALWG, at which Merlin was present from the second month of the emergency response. Merlin was sought out in Myanmar to take part in the ALWG as a consequence international engagement with other leading agencies. The Accountability and Learning Working Group was hosted by the Local Resource Centre[3] and through participation in the ALWG Merlin learned about what activities other agencies were practicing to improve their accountable practice. This was a valuable forum for discussing good practice and better understanding the cultural factors that influenced programming.  It was similarly due to support and resources made available through the ALWG and from the deployments of HAP and Sphere advisors that Merlin was able to develop their Accountability Strategy.

Transitional Programming: 

The One key internal factor for the focus on accountability practices was that Merlin had a well-funded substantial programme with considerable budget flexibility.  Through links with the Cluster system and DFID, Merlin recognised accountability as a priority for strategic programming. However it took 8 months for Merlin to move forward on this due to a lack of institutional experience and knowledge in accountability, as well as an acknowledgement of the risks involved in implementing accountability in the Myanmar context.

New approaches, such as a focus on accountable practice, were incorporated into programming following the significant growth that saw Merlin’s Myanmar programme expand from a small health operation into a multi-sectoral emergency response.

The Working Groups in Myanmar were largely headed up by the Accountability Coordinator and the Finance and Administration Manager as the majority of themes fell under their responsibilities. However, the process was largely participatory, involving both staff and beneficiaries in the development of tools and systems.

The resources, tools and trainings currently used in Merlin’s Myanmar Country programmes AS A RESULT of their process of accountability development are available at all field sites, on the office server and are available in English and Myanmar. The team in Myanmar took a cultural and problem-solving approach to developing the tools, i.e. they  were all developed to respond to  a weakness identified in the field, not so much because they were prescribed by HAP. This certainly helps in the tools usability.

Myanmar has appointed an Accountability Officer who is responsible for overseeing the implementation of the ACC Framework throughout Merlin’s programmes in Myanmar. The Accountability Officer is working within the M&E team, ensuring that M&E tools address processes of implementation as well as outcomes, and to provide support to all the field programmes.

Transitional Programming: 

It is important to consider what it was that placed accountability high on the agenda during Nargis and why HAP were in Myanmar in the first place. The timing of the cyclone in relation to events within the sector played a major part in subsequent events. A sector wide focus on accountability from donors and agencies led to support for an inter-agency accountability movement in Myanmar in which HAP invested due to the growing number of members working in Myanmar. Although there was some non-members participation in the initiative, Merlin was sought out due to its relationship with HAP at and international level and its presence in Myanmar.

Merlin Myanmar benefitted from valuable training through the Inter-Agency Coordinator and Accountability working group which guided the Accountability Focal Point in the development of the Country Programme’s Accountability Framework. The ALWG also operated as a peer learning forum through which agencies could present and share field tools and approaches, from which Merlin gained ideas and templates for developing their own programme-specific field tools.

Prior to the field visit the QAC and HAP training coordinators were provided with relevant documents, including programme proposals, reports and strategies, as well as the original draft Accountability strategy, which all contributed towards the development of agency and sector-specific assessment tools to be used during the field visit.

The IQAC-supported Self-Assessment process (March 2009) acted as a catalyst for the progress of Merlin’s accountability work. It involved group discussions and training exercises, allowing staff and CMT to understand the role of accountability in their work and to assess and discuss issues related to them. The CMT meeting in which the findings of the IQAC assessment were discussed generated the buy-in needed to fully implement such an assessment, giving essential recognition and support to the importance of accountability in the programmes. Once this process started, it was much easier to proceed with; the main difficulty being the coordination of discussion meetings. Through discussions, suggestions and significant changes in programming and field activities, staff have been empowered to offer further feedback and recommendations for accountability practices which have since been incorporated into Myanmar’s Country Accountability Strategy.



The following points represent a set of key considerations for any programme in the beginning stages or in the process of developing accountability practices. They are a result of the case study of Merlin’s experiences in Myanmar and have been identified through analysis of the internal and external factors that created an enabling environment for implementing accountable practices. Each consideration is intended to be relevant to all country programs and should be possible to replicate in a number of different contexts.

  • Quality programming needs to be defined as quality service provision and quality of relations. Building community relationships increases accountability and programmatic ability to deliver quality services.
  • External engagement with other agencies, community leaders, and local partners, especially in terms of decision making, represents an invaluable support mechanism for the development of accountable practices. Even if opportunities for this kind of interaction are limited, attempts can be made to facilitate a similar level of support to all country programmes by advocating for increased national and international involvement in HAP and Sphere led initiatives, as well as cross-country programme dialogue.

  • Increased involvement as host of or advocate for inter-agency Working Groups as vital forums for the discussion of good practice and better understanding of cultural factors that influence programming will result in a more enabling environment for accountable practices.
  • Investing in accountability focused personnel has been shown to be successful in the rolling-out of organisational policies. This relies on the creation of specifically focused accountability roles, the availability of resources which are essential to the success of accountability practices and the mainstreaming of accountability in HR procedures.
  • Ultimately, early buy-in by management and CMT is necessary and is instrumental in determining how successful any programmatic change will be. Merlin HO is advocating for the development of country programme accountability initiatives and have tools and guidance to support programmes to improve their accountability.

  • Programmes should recognise the systems and tools that they are already using and look to consolidate existing systems and strengths. The adoption and adaption of existing tools as opposed to the development of additional resources demonstrates good practice and efficient approach to programme development. It capitalises and builds on internal and external experiences and learning, ultimately strengthening programmatic and organisational coordination and impact.

  • All Tools should be adapted to the cultural and programmatic context in order to be more effective.  Additionally tools should be developed in response to a recognised weakness or issue.


ACC – Accountability

HAP – Humanitarian Accountability Partnership

MoH – Ministry of Health

IQAC – Inter-Agency Quality and Accountability Coordinator

ALWG – Accountability Learning and Working Group

ASEAN – Association of Southeast Asian Nations

CD – Country Director

CMT – Country Management Team

M&E – Monitoring and Evaluation

MAF – Merlin’s Accountability Framework

TGC – Tripartite Core Group

CRM – Complaints and Response Mechanism

TMO – Township Medical Officer

CHW – Community Health Worker

VHC – Village Tract Health Committee

DFID – Department for International Development

DRR – Disaster Risk Reduction

[1] Merlin Myanmar HAP Implementation Report 1

[2] The terms ‘expat’ and national’ are used here to demonstrate that expat positions are intended to be interim capacity building roles whereas national positions should ideally be permanently contracted.

[3] IQAC emerged independent of the Cluster system, but was led by Kerren Hedlund, a consultant who had been in Myanmar pre-Nargis and who took on the role as NGO liaison post-Nargis. Kerren and the HAP deployment agreed that a forum/meeting would be good, hosted out of the Local Resource Centre (for NGOs, at the Save office)


This case study has been prepared by Merlin’s M&E team within the Chief Executive’s Office and is based on a selection of documents produced by members of Merlin’s Myanmar County Team (2008/9) to ensure accountability in Merlin’s Myanmar Programme.

Many thanks to Dr Paul Sender, Myanmar Country Director, Clemens von Heimendahl, former Deputy Country Director (now currently Country Director in Zimbabwe) and initiator of the HAP implementation in Myanmar and Isabelle Risso-Gill, Myanmar Accountability Officer (now currently Accountability Officer for Haiti) for their input and comments.

Produced by Hannah Sanderson, Merlin’s M&E Team 2010

One comment

  1. Interesting post, this was really useful. thanks!

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