Civil society tackles accountability, legitimacy and transparency head-on By Kumi Naidoo, Secretary General and CEO, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation Civil society organisations (CSOs) have historically played a crucial role in tackling issues of transparency, legitimacy and accountability within governments and businesses, with many positive results. Citizen groups often ask difficult questions, holding governments and corporations to account for their actions and demanding that institutions behave in ways that promote the public good. At a global level, and in many countries around the world, civil society has become a major force in public life. In 1997, the President of the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, Jessica Matthews, described the trend for power to move from formal state to non-state actors, as a “Power Shift” and Lester Salamon, from John Hopkins University wrote about a “global associational revolution” which suggested several changes in governance thinking and practice around the world. It is perhaps inevitable, therefore, that political and business leaders at the national and global level have become anxious about the impact of civil society advocacy. Some government leaders have suggested that, since they have been elected only they should be able to develop and implement public policy. They argue that, civil society organisations can never have the legitimacy of democratically elected representatives. Most governments and intergovernmental bodies embrace the role of citizen groups who seek to provide support, services and direct programmes of relief and assistance to communities and individuals in need. This delivery or operational role at the micro level is seen as filling the gaps that government is unable to meet and is seen as an uncontroversial foray into the public space. But even in fully functioning democracies, they play a crucial role in bringing the concerns of interest groups to legislators and improving the political process. CSOs efforts at policy impact at the meso level, or their efforts to address core questions of governance and structural and systemic change at the macro level, raises many doubts on the part of political and business leaders. Without the direct channels that civil society organisations offer, there are limited alternatives for competing interests to be balanced for a global political consensus around issues as pressing as poverty, the environment and global security to be built. For better or worse, civil society groups today are the only organisations currently able to bring the views of those interest groups of largely socially excluded constituencies of citizens to the global level and hence start the process of building consensus. In a context where real power around issues such as the environment, trade, debt and other fundamental economic issues, terrorism and security, are unable to be addressed solely at the national level, citizen groups are needing to give more attention to supranational institutions. There are no direct channels for democratic representation to global decision-making forums such as the UN General Assembly, the Security Council, the World Bank, the WTO or any of the 300 other intergovernmental organisations affecting the lives of individuals and communities the world. In this context, CSOs today are a powerful reservoir of valuable policy intelligence based on their innovative work in almost every sphere of human existence. Governments who do not harness this experience and contribution to policy-making are effectively depriving themselves of bodies of knowledge that can help them make better policy decisions. CSOs do not claim to have all the answers; rather they want to engage in rigorous, meaningful debate, knowing that their contributions are respected and considered. This debate must also take account of the deepening lack of faith in political and business leaders among citizens across the globe. This lack of faith is also unfortunately growing. Global studies carried out by Environics International, and released at both the World Social Forum and the World Economic Forum in recent years have firmly suggested that ordinary people have a much higher level of faith in civil society organizations, than in government or business. This could lead to the conclusion that given that many civil society groups have greater public trust than elected officials therefore civil society groups have nothing to worry about or to address. To the contrary, maintaining and deepening public trust on the part of civil society organisations is critical for ensuring active, participatory democracy, that can enrich our public life at the national and global levels. Attempts to address these challenges are increasingly occurring through intergovernmental structures at the supranational level. The acronyms are dizzying: UN, EU, WTO, MERCOSUR, OECD, OSCE, BIS, and the AU to name a few. While some of these institutions may be household names, many of them are not. Yet they wield great power over the lives of ordinary people around the world and should, in some way, be accountable to those people. Herein lies the crux of the „democracy deficit‟: decisions affecting the lives and well-being of people around the world increasingly lie with supranational institutions that are not directly accountable to those people and which are not accessible to citizen voices. Decisions about trade rules, intellectual property rights, macro-economic restructuring policies, privatization of vital services, and debt relief are made behind closed doors in ways that are largely perceived to be undemocratic. This present system of global governance lacks democratic legitimacy in the eyes of many, especially given that some of the core organisations were set up in the aftermath of the second world war almost sixty years ago. In effect, even though so much has changed, these organisations govern themselves as if they are struck in the geopolitics of 1945. Democracy suggests, among other things, a system wherein a community of people exercises collective self-determination. Members of a given public - a demos - take decisions that shape their destiny jointly, with equal rights and opportunities of participation, and without arbitrarily imposed constraints on debate. Democratic governance strives to be participatory, consultative, transparent and publicly accountable. By one mechanism or another, democratic governance rests on the consent of the governed. Given the present configuration of global governance, how are we to ensure the consent of the affected publics? At the same time, democracy at the local and national level is also in trouble, even in many established democracies. Surveys reveal declining levels of citizen trust in political institutions. In many democratic systems 'form' has largely overtaken the 'substance' of democracy: elections may be held, but fewer and fewer people are choosing to vote and the meaningful interface between citizens and the elected are minimal between election periods. During the last US Presidential election, even if we set aside the controversial developments in Florida and the intervention of the Supreme Court, almost half the citizens of the US did not vote, and of the half that vote they were split in the middle, which effectively means, that President George Bush, came into office in the most powerful political position in the world, on a twenty five percent mandate. Elections run the risk of becoming pre-ordained, elite legitimating processes and are, in some cases, not delivering genuine democracy. Affiliation with traditional political parties is on the decline as the parties themselves are characterized by a growing lack of internal democracy or fail to address issues that citizens believe are important. The influence of moneyed interests in many political systems is also turning citizens away from traditional engagement in favour of new forms of participation. Further, media independence and critique is also diminishing and, in an age of aggressive spin doctoring, citizens are often separated from the full story about public concerns. It is therefore unsurprising that the spotlight now falls on civil society as government and business legitimacy is being questioned. For some time now, CIVICUS its members and partners, have argued forcefully, that with increasing influence, status and resources on the part of civil society groups, also comes the burden of increased public accountability for CSOs. Plainly, civil society organisations, particularly those that are involved in advocacy work, are coming under increasing pressure to improve their transparency and accountability. There are two primary arguments that have been advanced over the years: firstly, it is the ethical and appropriate course of action by CSOs and secondly, that critics of civil society, would use any deficiencies in civil society organisations individual and collective governance, and overall performance to question the overall role of civil society, not so much at the micro or operational level, but mainly at the macro or governance level and at the meso or policy arena. Naomi Klein, the Canadian activist has noted that NGOs with strong social and economic justice agendas are coming under increasing attack from conservative quarters in the US and elsewhere, ostensibly because of a lack of accountability, but in reality for more dubious political reasons. The One World Trust/Charter 99 report Power without Accountability was launched in January 2003. It is the first report of its kind to compare the accountability of intergovernmental organisations (IGOs), transnational corporations (TNCs) and international NGOs. It considered two out of eight dimensions of accountability and found that aspects of the governance of NGOs are better than for the other two groups. On the downside, NGOs are on the whole much less transparent than organisations in the other two groups. This is often due to the fact that resource constraints usually limit the publications of such simple transparency tools as annual reports particularly for smaller organisations in developing countries. The most transparent organisation in the One World Trust/Charter 99 study though, was an NGO, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which has much to teach IGOs and TNCs in this regard. At both the national and global level today civil society networks are investing significant efforts in improving its accountability, transparency and legitimacy, and importantly these efforts are growing in scope and scale. It is important to clarify some of these terms that are often used interchangeably but actual describes different areas of challenge for CSOs. Firstly, Accountability has three levels to consider. With regard to upward accountability to funders and meeting the formal requirements of regulatory provisions where they exist, 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 in the first place, there is definitely 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, a failure to forge the appropriate synergies and the wastage of resources. There are many positive examples of how civil society groups are working together more closely, for example, the joint campaign against small arms by Oxfam International and Amnesty International is a case in point. 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 civil society organisations are held responsible for its actions and would include financial accountability as well as performance accountability more broadly. Transparency refers more to processes, procedures and values which ensure accountability and which characterise and organisations 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 civil society organisations. They can be fairly and accurately judged by stakeholders by using benchmarks which measure the levels of openness about such issues as clarifying programme approach and content, from who and where resources are raised from, and how are they spent. Legitimacy, is understandably a heavily contested term. It usually implies that an organisation is authentic and is 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. Civil society organisations face a critical challenge in their justifications to voice their opinions or speak on behalf of others, especially vulnerable or marginalized communities. A distinction is made here between legitimacy and representativity. Few CSOs, with some notable exceptions such as trade unions, 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 have called the "perform or perish" principle. Unlike governments who are guaranteed a revenue stream from taxation, not a single cent raised by civil society organisations 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 there have been several efforts led by civil society organisations themselves in attempting to improve the regulatory environment governing their institutions as well as exploring complementary self regulation efforts. At the national level, just to quote a few efforts, in the Phillipines there exists a code of conduct as well as a formal process led by the Philippines NGO Certification Council which is led primarily by civil society organisations. In South Africa, in 1997, a code of ethical conduct was developed by the NGO community. Similar efforts are underway in about fourty countries around the world and is growing. At the global level, we have seen efforts now to develop similar guidelines for human rights organisations led by the International Council for Human Rights Policy and the Humanitarian Accountability Project in Geneva, to explore what challenges face relief and humanitarian organisations operating transnationally. CIVICUS and its allies have argued that recent attacks on CSO legitimacy and accountability, as being currently led by the American Enterprise Insitute, ironically, itself an NGO with a distinctive political brand, should be viewed as an opportunity, as well as a threat. We need to be vigilant, tracking the debates and discourses around these issues as they emerge and setting new agendas for improved governance in all institutions. We need to use this opportunity for a new governance offensive. An offensive that fundamentally challenges the governance dysfunction we currently experience in many national contexts and within global governance institutions, such as the United Nations, IMF, WTO and the World Bank. Civil society must strive for maximum transparency and accountability in our work. At the same time, we must be willing to defend the rights of citizens and their organisations to participate actively in public life. We have fought long and hard to create the space to practice active citizenship. We will not give this up without a vigorous fight. In the end, a disciplined, united, and well informed civil society community, backed by the positive attitudes and support of ordinary citizens, will and must prevail. NGOs must build on these and other models and work together to increase their own accountability without losing flexibility or their genuine contact with the grassroots. 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. For more information, visit: www.oneworldtrust.org and www.civicus.org.
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