What strategies can be used by NGOs to counter criticisms that they lack accountability? by ptcotter


									What strategies can be used by NGOs to counter criticisms that they lack accountability?

João Cotter Salvado London School of Economics and Political Science

November 2009


1. Introduction During the late 1980s, theories of development began to focus on the role of NGOs in the development process. All through the 1990s NGOs have grown in terms of scale, scope and their role in the international development process was seen as essential (Lewis, 2001). Nowadays, several critiques to NGOs have been arising and there is a more realistic view about what NGOs can and cannot achieve. The main critiques are the idea that NGOs undermine the centrality of the state in developing countries, that they impose their own agendas, and finally that they are not as accountable as they should be (Lewis and Kanji, 2009). The critiques were initially more focused in international NGOs, but progressively turned its attention to local NGOs (Hearn, 2007). In this work we will focus on this last critique. The main objective of the work is to provide various strategies that can be used by NGOs to counter present criticisms that they lack accountability. We will begin with a discussion about the concept of accountability, then we will discuss why accountability is increasingly important and finally we will present some strategies and solutions that can be used to overcome the need for better accountability.

2. The concept of Accountability Several definitions of accountability have been given from researchers and professionals from the development sector. One of the most accepted is presented by Edwards and Hulmes (1995), “Accountability is means by which individuals and organizations report to a recognized authority, or authorities, and are held responsible for their actions” (Edwards and Hulme, 1995: 3). Examining the cited definition it is clear that there are many aspects and different features included in the concept of accountability and that this concept is dynamic and complex (Ebrahim, 2003a). Particularly, we can identify in the literature distinct classifications of accountability: Short-term or functional (related to resource use and direct impact) and long-term or strategic (general impact assessment of actions and relationships with other organization) (Avina, 1993); 2


accountability directed


their beneficiaries, partners, and

supporters; and “upwards” accountability directed to their donors and governments (Edwards and Hulmes, 1995); “Accountability to patrons” (relationships with both internal and external donors, for example members and foundations respectively), “accountability to clients” (relationships with both direct and indirect beneficiaries, for example individuals to whom the NGO delivers services and the community itself where they are included, respectively, and “accountability to themselves” (for example for the staff, for the partners and for the NGO community as a whole). (Najam, 1996a). Ibrahim (2003a) mentions that accountability, as defined previously, can be seen: “...not only as a means through which individuals and organizations are held responsible for their actions, but also as a means by which organizations and individuals take internal responsibility for shaping their organizational mission and values, for opening themselves to public or external scrutiny, and for assessing performance in relation to goals” (Ibrahim, 2003a: 815).

3. Why the need for accountability? The role of NGOs in development processes has changed completely in the last twenty years. Previously there was no recognition of the role of these organizations; however they are now widely accepted as significant contributors to the development process by all other actors in this process. As referred in the introduction, some factors contributed to the increasing attention in NGO accountability. In the last twenty years, the number of NGOs has increased tremendously. Including both formal and informal organizations the number will be near one million. If we concentrate only on registered NGOs the number will be a mere hundred thousand and if we focus on the large established NGOs the number will be around 35000 (Lewis and Kanji, 2009). The scope and scale of their actions


have also changed very much in these years. They are working in local, national or international levels with a wide range of actions and roles. After the tremendous growth in the late 1980s and 1990s, a more realistic view of NGOs is now being supported by the other development actors regarding their different roles and how their work can be improved to attain more effective results. One of the major challenges is the one concerning accountability. As Edwards and Hulme (1995) refer, “performing effectively and accounting transparently, are essential components of responsible practice, on which the legitimacy of development intervention ultimately depends” (Edwards and Hulme, 1995: 4). Jordan (2005) identifies four reasons to strongly address the issue of accountability. The first one is to avoid complex systems that do not answer the organizational learning neeeds. The second is to effectively respond to different stakeholders involved with the NGO. The third is to improve impact. The fourth is to strengthen the position of NGOs inside civil society (Jordan, 2005). In addition, Lee (2004) mentions some other reasons to the focus on accountability improvement, for example the potential to raise the confidence and commitment of stakeholders, the increase in organizational performance, and finally its ability to help counter criticisms that NGOs are mysterious, undemocratic and not rigorous (Lee, 2004).

4. Strategies and Solutions Ibrahim (2003a) says that “what is missing from much of the debate is an integrated look at how organizations deal with multiple and sometimes competing accountability demands” (Ibrahim, 2003a: 814). Although an integrated view is needed to address the issue of accountability, the different types of accountability should be worked on individually. Using the discussed classification from Najam (1996a) which seems the most comprehensive one in terms of division of kinds of accountability, we will develop a set of suggestions and solutions for the accountability improvement.


In terms of “accountability to patrons” (or upwards accountability) the mechanisms in use are fairly developed due to, as Ibrahim (1993a) and Najam (1996a) notice, the emphasis on the relationships between NGOs and donors have been privileged in relation to all the other relationships that NGOs have (for example with beneficiaries or partners). Even though the upwards mechanisms are developed, they have been mainly proposed by the donors (Jordan, 2005). This type of accountability is mostly done through tools like “annual reports, financial accounts, performance assessments, independent evaluations, audits or logical framework analysis” (Jordan, 2005: 9) and they are usually rigid, static, and do not often make available the possibility for reporting views and experiences of officers and beneficiaries in the field (Agyemang et al., 2009). Usually, the project requirements are just specified by donors and rarely allow feedback to donors about how projects should be modified, taking into consideration local conditions, in order to be more successfully implemented (Agyemang et al., 2009). To improve this type of accountability, first of all it is important to see it more as a process than a set of instruments (Jordan, 2005). The attention should be put more on impact (long-term and sustainable changes) instead of immediate outputs and outcomes and thus the projects‟ impact assessment must be seen as an continuous process (Adams, 2001). Second, it is important that NGOs engage more actively and critically in the structure of upwards accountability processes. Jordan (2005) mentions that this is significantly important to avoid “corporations and intergovernmental institutions leading the parameters of the debate” Jordan, 2005: 13). Thirdly, and in respect to what donors can do, it is visibly important that they make sure that their funding requires that NGOs assume a more holistic accountability with, for example, field officers and beneficiaries. This last aspect shows the proximity that exists and the influences that are present between all types of accountability. Thinking now on the subject of “accountability to clients” (or downwards accountability) it is an area that is considerably underdeveloped if we compare to 5

the previous one that we have been discussing. As stated previously, there has not been a correct prioritization of this type of accountability in past years. However, some participation mechanisms to involve the beneficiaries in certain levels of project decisions have been developed. They include information sharing systems, informal consultation methods and in some situations participation in certain project-related activities (Agyemang et al., 2009). In almost all situations these are informal mechanisms and do not actually include the beneficiaries in the decisionmaking process regarding the project (Agyemang et al., 2009). How can we improve this type of accountability? First, it is important to engage in initiatives to balance the power between NGOs and beneficiaries. What is observed in practice is that the participation mechanisms referred to previously, end up being merely fictitious and not influential in determining a project or activity proposed by the NGO, due to informality. Related to this is the development of transparency mechanisms that can include, for example, formal rules that define the ability of beneficiaries to negotiate and bargain about financial issues directly related the project (Agyemang et al., 2009). Secondly, it is important to design mechanisms to include beneficiaries in all phases of the project, from planning to evaluation and basically work with instead of for the people (Pratt, 2009). Thirdly, and as this type of accountability includes not only the direct beneficiaries but also the community as a whole, it is important to use impact assessment mechanisms that take into account the externalities created in the community, region or country where the direct beneficiaries are inserted. In terms of NGOs‟ internal accountability or “accountability to themselves” as referred by Najam (1996a) we should first mention that this issue is usually neglected in the literature surrounding accountability. At the present time, this type of accountability consists mainly of three aspects: first, the development of NGO governance, which consists of the creation of structures and processes which enable the NGO to monitor the effective functioning and performance in society (Tandon, 1995). Secondly, processes of social auditing, which assess the NGOs‟ social performance and behavior through 6

views of different stakeholders (including NGO staff) regarding the organizational goals and values of the NGO (Ibrahim, 2003a). And lastly, self-regulation mechanisms, which include formal or informal standards and codes of conduct, processes of NGO certification and development of networks (Agyemang et al., 2009). Some suggestions to improve this type of accountability are, first, to understand the meaning and significance of internal accountability to the vaster concept of accountability (Tandon, 1995). Second, it is important to develop standardized methodologies, for example in terms of governance models or codes of conduct. Thirdly, it is important to develop stronger and more professionalized networks and associations of NGOs.

5. Conclusion The interest in accountability has been growing significantly within the NGO literature and more generally within the development industry as a whole due to the growing importance of NGOs in the sector. What we can see with this work is that several accountability processes and tools have been developed in the last twenty years however there are still issues that need to be solved and room for improvement. The aim of this work is to present some suggestions and solutions that can be used by NGOs to oppose the criticisms that they lack accountability. They are solutions that emphasize the development of proper accountability. Besides all the suggestions given in the third part of this work one important and transversal mechanism that must be developed is a good communications and management strategy (Jordan, 2009). The solutions presented only make sense if they are correctly managed and channelled to stakeholders and public in general and correctly interpreted by them. Furthermore, as accountability is a complex process, it must be seen as an integrated process and thus the solutions proposed only make sense if each of them is seen as part of an integrated and vaster accountability process. 7

6. Bibliography

Adams, J. (2001) NGOs and Impact Assessment, International NGO Training and Research Centre (INTRAC) NGO Policy Briefing Paper No. 3. Agyemang, G., Awumblia, M., Unerman, J., O‟Dwyer, B. (2009) NGO Accountability and Aid Delivery. Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) Research Report 110.

Avina, J. (1993) The Evolutionary Life Cycle of Non-governmental Development Organizations, Public Administration and Development 13(5): 453-74.

Ebrahim, A. (2003a) Accountability in Practice: Mechanisms for NGOs, World Development, 31 (5): 813-29. Edwards, M. and Hulme, D. (1995) NGO Performance and Accountability: Introduction and Overview, in Michael Edwards and David Hulme, eds., Beyond the Magic Bullet: Non-Governmental Organizations Performance and

Accountability. London: Earthscan.

Hearn, J. (2007) African NGOs: The new compradors?, Development and Change 38,6: 1095-2010.

Howell, J., A. Ishkanian E. Obadare, H. Seckinlegin, and M. Glasius (2008) Civil Society in the Wake of the Long War on Terror : the emergence of a backlash, Development in Practice vol. 18, no. 1 pp. 82-93.

Jordan, L. (2005) Mechanisms for NGO Accountability. Berlin: Global Public Policy Institute Research Paper Series No. 3. 8

Lewis, D. (2001) The Management of Non-Governmental Organizations: An Introduction. London: Routledge.










Development. London: Routledge.

Najam, A. (1996a). NGO accountability: a conceptual framework. Development Policy Review, 14, 339–353. Tandon, R. (1995) „Board Games: Governance and Accountability in NGOs‟ in Michael Edwards and David Hulme, eds., Beyond the Magic Bullet: NonGovernmental Earthscan. Organizations Performance and Accountability. London:


To top