(I)NGO accountability

I’ve written in some of my earlier columns the importance of accountability and transparency in the NGO sector. I’ve mentioned that:

The proliferation of NGOs especially after the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, coupled with the growing strength and participation of well-established NGOs prompt many questions about the nature of their funding, their agendas, the nature of the reform they seek to promote etc. Most importantly, we need to address the central concerns of many who are opposed to NGOs – concerns of accountability, transparency and public legitimacy of the NGO sector.

News of the new INGO accountability charter is heartening in this light. The charter deals specifically with INGOs, but the fundamental principles are applicable to NGOs as well.

The Charter is comprehensive and covers a wide spectrum of issues, including reporting, audit, access to information, yearly reporting standard, codes of practice, gender sensitivity and transparency of actions. Ethical Corporation has a good review of the Charter, which underscores the need to develop further that which has been outlined in the Charter.

Important to recognise is the genesis of the Charter, which is international in perspective and not really rooted in any particular context or country. The nature of the august organisations who are initial signatories to the document – including ActionAid, Greenpeace, Oxfam, Save the Children Alliance and Transparency International – are all transnational organisations, with footprints in many continents, countries and regions.

The problems of applying the principles in the Charter may become evident when faced with local realities – for instance, in a political climate where NGOs are targeted as organisations engaged in activities that undermine the well-being of the State. In such an explosive context, it is unclear how NGOs can build public confidence in their initiatives and at the same time avoid the very real threat of violence against staff members, arson or the forced closure of its offices through political motivated groups.

As I’ve noted earlier:

The question of accountability is especially problematic with the democracy deficit in Sri Lanka, where measures that call for greater accountability in the NGO sector are often perceived to be devious ways to exercise State control. The backlash against accountability is also a global phenomenon – noted personalities such as Naomi Klein and Ralph Nader have been vehement in their opposition to any imposition of accountability to NGO activism.

While there is no simple solution on the need for accountability coupled with the need to maintain and further prise open the space for pro-democracy NGO initiatives in the midst of violence and war, it is a process that needs to start.

J.Bask, responding to my post on Moju, comes up with some interesting URL’s that are well worth reading. While I suspect the incumbents heading NGOs in SL will not sway to the calls for greater accountability in the near future, if only as a matter of enlightened self-interest, it is imperative that civil society in Sri Lanka use the emergence of global standards such as the INGO Charter to engender moves for a similar frameworks to strengthen the myriad of important initiatives in support of democracy, governance, peace and justice.

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