Eleven international NGOs have signed up to a new accountability charter, which says
We recognise that transparency and accountability are essential to good governance,whether by governments, businesses or non-profit organisations. Wherever we operate, we seek to ensure that the high standards which we demand of others are also respected in our own organisations… We agree to apply the Charter progressively to all our policies, activities and operations.
It’s a positive first step. As I explained in an earlier post, NGOs have previously failed to live up to the high standards that they rightly demand of others. But it still doesn’t go far enough.
For far too long, NGOs have had the benefit of the doubt in global politics. While they routinely question the motives and actions of others, they purport to be whiter than white. While others are criticised for acting in their own self-interest, NGOs claim to act for the common good. But that is nonsense. Remember Greenpeace and Brent Spar? NGOs are pressure groups that advance their own interests as well as what they claim to be the common good. Their choice of campaigns, for instance, is influenced by the need to raise money, so who funds them matters a great deal. Their leaders claim to speak on behalf of their supporters and/or members, so it is important that they are properly accountable to them. They often work in partnership with businesses and governments, so the links between them need to be transparent. And so on.
So what of the actual charter? Note first that it is voluntary. That may be fine if NGOs stick to it – but who checks whether it is actually being enforced? The NGOs say it will be applied "progressively": how fast is that? NGOs are notoriously sceptical of businesses’ various voluntary codes of conduct and this healthy scepticism should apply to their own code too. Promising to produce an annual report is great, but as I recommended in Open World, the NGO charter also needs to be independently monitored.
Second, the list of stakeholders is ten long – and if you are accountable to so many groups you are in effect accountable to nobody. Saying "we are accountable to our stakeholders" sounds great, but how? The list includes "future generations" and "ecosystems", neither of which can actually hold NGOs to account. It’s just not good enough to say that "We will listen to stakeholders’ suggestions on how we can improve our work and will encourage inputs by people whose interests may be directly affected."
Third, the charter falls far short of what is needed to ascertain NGOs’ political and financial independence. It does not, for instance, commit directors to reveal their other business and political links. Nor does its "ethical fundraising" pledge commit NGOs to reveal their donors’ names "except in cases where the size of their donation is such that it might be relevant to our independence", which is worryingly vague.
I could go on. Suffice to say that although the new charter is welcome, NGOs are still not committing themselves to the same levels of transparency and accountability that they demand of others.