Civil organisations should come clean

With increasing influence, status and resources on the part of civil society groups also comes the burden of increased public accountability.

Civil society organisations (CSO), particularly those involved in advocacy work, are coming under pressure to improve their transparency and accountability. Two primary arguments have been advanced over the years: firstly, it is the ethical and appropriate course of action by CSOs and, secondly, critics of civil society would use any deficiencies in CSO’s individual and collective governance, and overall performance to question the role of civil society, mainly in the governance and policy arena.

At national and global level civil society networks are investing in improving their accountability, transparency and legitimacy, and these efforts are growing in scope and scale. It is important to clarify some of these terms.

Firstly, accountability has three levels to consider.
With regard to upward accountability to funders and meeting the formal requirements of regulatory provisions, this is probably where CSOs are the strongest.

As far as downward accountability to the people who are being served, or the constituency in whose name the rationale for existence is achieved, there is room for improvement, even though resource constraints often militate against this.

Horizontal accountability — or peer accountability — requires much greater effort and attention. Failure to address this question could lead to unnecessary duplication, the failure to forge appropriate synergies and the wastage of resources.

There are many positive examples of how civil society groups are working together more closely — the joint campaign against small arms by Oxfam International and Amnesty International is a case in point. The Organisational Self-Assessment for NGOs (Osango) tool, developed by CSOs in South Asia and Latin America, has been a positive step forward in building an internal organisational culture about the effectiveness of CSOs in achieving their mission.

Overall then, accountability is concerned with the obligation to justify words and deeds to society in general and to a specific set of internal and external stakeholders. It embraces the actors, mechanisms and institutions by which CSOs are held responsible for their actions, and would include financial accountability as well as performance accountability.

Transparency refers more to the processes, procedures and values that ensure accountability and characterise an organisation’s day-to-day work. They are prevalent in civil society’s method of work and the existence of appropriate systems and how these relate to the functioning of CSOs. They can be fairly and accurately judged by stakeholders using benchmarks that measure the levels of openness about issues such as clarifying programme approach and content, from who and where resources are raised, and how they are spent. The use of “public hearings” at community level and “social audit” processes are gaining momentum.

Legitimacy is a heavily contested term. It usually implies that an organisation is authentic and justified in its actions. Legitimacy could be derived from many sources, including membership or constituency, legal recognition, experience or relevant knowledge of the issues at stake. Sometimes the positive result, and effect, of their work make organisations legitimate to a considerable extent. CSOs face a critical challenge in their justifications to voice their opinions or speak on behalf of others, especially vulnerable or marginalised communities. A distinction is made here between legitimacy and representativity. Few CSOs or professional associations claim to formally represent their members. This does not, however, detract from the question of CSOs having a legitimate right to bring citizens concerns into the public sphere.

There is a powerful accountability measure built into the public life of citizen organisations. It is what we call the “perform or perish” principle. Unlike governments, which are guaranteed a revenue stream from taxation, not a single cent raised by CSOs is raised on the basis of obligation, irrespective of whether the resources come from individuals, foundations, businesses or government entities. If CSOs do not perform on the basis of their stated vision, mission and programmes, they essentially perish.

Importantly, for almost two decades now CSOs have led several efforts in trying to improve the regulatory environment governing their institutions as well as exploring complementary self-regulation efforts.

At national level — just to quote a few efforts — in the Philippines there exists a code of conduct as well as a formal process led by the Philippines NGO Certification Council, which is led primarily by CSOs. In South Africa, in 1997, a code of ethical conduct was developed by the NGO community. Similar efforts are under way in about 40 countries.

Civicus, an international alliance dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world, and its allies have argued that recent attacks on CSO legitimacy and accountability should be viewed as an opportunity as well as a threat. We need to use this opportunity for a new governance offensive that fundamentally challenges the governance dysfunction we currently experience in many national contexts and within global governance institutions, such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation and the World Bank.

Civil society must strive for maximum transparency and accountability. At the same time we must be willing to defend the rights of citizens and their organisations to participate actively in public life. To ignore the issue, or to fail to address it adequately, will leave the sector open to further and perhaps more effective attack in the future.

Kumi Naidoo is secretary general and CEO of Civicus: World Alliance for Citizen Participation. Jagadananda is senior fellow of Civicus: Legitimacy and Transparency Programme

Kumi Naidoo

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