Date of Award


Degree Name

PhD Leadership Studies

Dissertation Committee

Hans Peter Schmitz, Chair; Lea A. Hubbard, Member; Necla Tschirgi, Member; Angela Crack, Member; Roseanne Mirabella, Member


Downward accountability, international nongovernmental organization, international development, humanitarian assistance, development aid, evidence-based


International nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) face increasing accountability challenges stemming from past scandals and their claims to advance the public good. Since the 1990s, INGOs have responded with numerous reforms. The creation of the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership in 2003 and the INGO Accountability Charter in 2009 reflect sector-wide efforts to enhance accountability to mission, intended beneficiaries, and peer organizations.

Many INGOs have adopted a broad range of accountability reforms. This dissertation focuses on how World Vision, the world’s largest INGO, has done so. Downward accountability remains elusive due to such factors as INGOs’ lack of transparency toward beneficiaries; the power imbalance between them; donor pressures; and competition with other INGOs.

In the first phase, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 22 past and present staff members across nine countries and a wide range of seniority levels, using these sensitizing concepts: downward accountability, social accountability, humanitarian relief, development. The second phase comprised analysis of an internal dataset summarizing annual reports from 64 country offices; and review of documents including annual reports spanning 18 years.

Using a within-case comparison, the study demonstrates that World Vision has experienced most progress in the area of beneficiary feedback and complaints (as opposed to consultation, participation, or information provision). This has typically taken place within emergency relief rather than development projects. A principal reason is the comparative simplicity of relief aid, contrasted with the difficulty of achieving long-term change through consultation and participation. Another is the greater role of institutional funding (vs. individual donations) in humanitarian relief. However, these donor pressures can lead to a “tick-the-box” mentality in which routinized compliance substitutes for authentic accountability.

This study suggests that current downward accountability practices fall short of accomplishing a reconfiguration of power relations between the INGO and beneficiaries. They risk becoming another technical component in a large apparatus used to meet donor requirements. This is not surprising when we consider that service delivery comprises a significantly greater proportion of World Vision’s work than does advocacy. Consequently, the relationships between agency and beneficiaries are potentially more susceptible to clientelistic tendencies.

Document Type

Dissertation: Open Access


Leadership Studies