Nicholas Stockton, executive director of the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership, told delegates at a conference for international NGOs last week that most organisations had no unified policy on accountability or clear complaints and feedback procedures.
"Many still think that accountability is a nice ethical add-on that can and should be dispensed with in the heat of a major humanitarian emergency," said Stockton.
"Their argument goes that accountability is really a politically correct but essentially redundant burden that gets in the way of the important business of saving lives."
He said reports this year by Save the Children of sexual exploitation of children by aid workers (Third Sector Online, 27 May) were "egregious examples of a culture of impunity that seems to prevail all too often in humanitarian crises".
He added that "a steady drip-feed of leaked evaluation reports" showed that exploitation was "unacceptably common".
Stockton criticised the "almost medieval secrecy" of charities, saying that they regularly chose not to publish documents that were critical of their performance.
He told the conference at the accountancy firm Horwath Clark Whitehill that most NGOs currently had a "compost heap" of different policies that needed to be replaced by a single, coherent framework, independently accredited by an organisation such as his own.
Tearfund is the only UK organisation accredited by the HAP, but other NGOs expect to follow. Juliet Parker, emergency officer for accountability at Christian Aid, is spearheading a HAP accreditation project in her organisation.
"The accountability issue is something we've recognised," she said. "We've got a complaints procedure project going on at the moment.
"We've already done a lot of informal work on this, and now we are trying to formalise that work."