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Greenpeace, Amnesty and Oxfam agree code of conduct

The Financial Times

June, 2, 2006

By Hugh Williamson

Amnesty International, Greenpeace and Oxfam have for the first time agreed a joint code of conduct governing their own operations, the Financial Times has learned.

After years of demanding that multinational companies adopt such best-practice codes, the three non-governmental organisations are among 11 that will on Tuesday sign a voluntary "accountability charter".

The charter, part of a strategy to head off criticism of the legitimacy of some NGO campaigns, states that "wherever we operate, we seek to ensure that the high standards that we demand of others are also respected in our own organisations", according to a draft obtained by the FT.

"It is increasingly the case that NGOs get hostile media reporting, asking 'Who are these NGOs accountable to?'," said Jeremy Hobbs, executive director of Oxfam International. "We can no longer avoid facing up to this."

Stan Cutzach, senior governance co-ordinator at Transparency International, the anti-corruption watchdog, said the charter "lays down what standards we should follow as we gain more power and, rightly, come under more scrutiny".

The charter was produced by a loose network of leaders of international NGOs that since 2003 has co-ordinated governance and policy issues among the campaigns.

Simon Burall, executive director of the One World Trust, an independent think-tank that monitors governance standards, said the charter "is significant as NGOs are recognising that unless they act, their pressure on companies could come back to haunt them".

An internal briefing paper on the charter says: "Codes (of conduct) will be subject to greater scrutiny (in coming years) to see if they have changed behaviour. As NGOs we will be using this trend to hold corporations accountable. In turn we must expect legitimate public interest in how well we are holding ourselves accountable."

The influence of international NGOs has increased sharply over the past decade, with analysts pointing to human rights campaigns by Amnesty International and Oxfam's influence on last year's G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, where leading industrial nations pledged to meet significant development goals.

Global trust surveys regularly rate NGOs as more trusted by the public than companies or governments.

Yet international NGOs have come under government pressure in Russia, Afghanistan and China for alleged interference in domestic affairs and in some cases were forced to leave a country. Conservative pressure groups, such as NGO-Watch in Washington DC, have also mounted critical campaigns against NGOs.

Signatories "recognise that transparency and accountability are essential to good governance, whether by governments, businesses or non-profit organisations", the charter draft says.

Signatories must provide transparent bookkeeping, and regular assessments of the organisation's environmental impact and its ethical fundraising standards. Mechanisms are required enabling internal 'whistle-blowers' to report malpractice within organisations.

Mr Hobbs said Oxfam must in future be more explicit on its environmental impact - such as from flights to international meetings - and on staff diversity.

Mr Burall said NGOs were good at giving members a voice within their organisations. "However, they struggle to be transparent, as they often have so many different stakeholder groups it's difficult to be open to all of them."

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