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Humanitarian Aid on the move # 15, special issue: The Quality of Aid

How information management systems can help in the adoption of a Quality approach
Olivier Sarrat

Operational and institutional constraints make it difficult for humanitarian organizations to adopt Quality approaches and principles at the institutional level. However, if information management systems meet a certain number of criteria, they can help to overcome these difficulties, as shown by work done by Groupe URD on the issue of quality, and notably in connection with the Sigmah project.

 Specific difficulties in implementing Quality approaches

In the international aid sector, in contrast to the business sector, Quality is an ethical responsibility for organisations rather than an obligation, because the “clients” – that is to say, the beneficiaries of aid – have very little control over organizations. This specific characteristic explains why the sector finds it so difficult to make progress on the issue of quality.

There have been many initiatives to improve the quality of aid which have led to the development of standards and “good practices” and the creation of Quality assurance methods, and at the same time an evaluation culture has emerged. However, despite all this, aid organisations still have major difficulty including the principles of a Quality approach in their day-to-day practices. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • The heart of Quality resides in activities in the field, at the project level. It is through contact with the local population that Quality management can have a real impact on the results of a project and allow changes to be made based on the context. And yet, the adoption of a Quality approach necessarily needs to be viewed at the level of the whole organisation in order to allow collective learning, regular results and continuous improvement. There is therefore an issue of centralization in organisations which are extremely decentralized by nature.
  • Field staff are subject to a high level of pressure in terms of workload: they are unable to manage the everyday aspects of their project and also manage a large amount of documentation linked to respecting their organisation’s Quality approach. If Quality management is seen by staff as a substantial dose of extra work, there is a risk that it will be rejected.
  • Humanitarian organizations are extremely diverse. When an organisation adopts a Quality approach, it has to make adjustments because the mechanical application of reference frameworks developed for the sector often leads to failure and risks creating frustration.
  • The majority of humanitarian organisations suffer from too much information which they have difficulty managing – some use the term “infoxication”. And yet, not only can this lack of organisation lead to a loss in efficiency, but the difficulty of finding the right information easily reduces the capacity of organizations to use lessons learned, thus undermining the cycle of continuous improvement which is the basis of all genuine Quality approaches.

The international aid sector therefore needs to overcome the difficulties involved in implementing a formal Quality approach.