A Project of the American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society

Europe: NGO accountability: A charter for success

Ethical Corporation

June 5, 2006

By John Russell

With the launch of a new accountability charter, NGO stakeholders will be able to rely on something more than just good intentions

Off-the-record complaints about non-governmental-organisation accountability, or the perceived lack of it, are becoming something of a hoary old chestnut. That might be about to change.

On 6 June in London a group of international NGOs will launch a new accountability charter. The charter is the result of two years? work on the part of five leading international NGOs: Oxfam, Amnesty, Save the Children, Greenpeace and Care.

As both a cross-sector and international initiative ? drawing together organisations from human rights to the environment ? the charter should attract broad-based support.

At the time of writing the exact details of the charter ? a collectively developed code of conduct ? are unknown. But it will include a commitment from signatories to report on how they are making themselves accountable to their stakeholders.

Jeremy Hobbs, director of Oxfam International, says: ?It is important that there is a demonstrable standard for NGOs that work on the international stage.?

For Hobbs, the charter is another sign of NGOs accepting the responsibility that comes with their increasingly influential role in society.

Going pro

NGOs are under increasing pressure to observe the same standards of conduct that they demand from the targets of their campaigns.

Burkhard Gnaerig, director of Save the Children International, explains: ?Challenging business and government to be more accountable is a crucial part of our role. If we are to point the finger at others we need to be completely clean in our own back yard.?

Gnaerig says that accountability for NGOs will always be an emotional issue. But the stress on the moral case for action is now supported with systems to measure impact. ?What we have seen in the last ten years is a growing professionalism in our sector,? he says.

In 2005, Save the Children was one of five organisations to attain the Social Accountability International SA8000 standard for its child sponsorship programmes.

The charter appears timely. This May the UK charity commission, a regulator, announced that over one in ten UK charities failed to file their accounts on time, breaching charity law.

Offenders included Save the Children UK, who were one month late, and Leonard Cheshire, who were ten.

Balancing stakeholders

A major challenge facing NGOs is how to be more accountable to beneficiaries ? the people whom they help and on whose behalf they speak.

Monica Blagescu, accountability programme manager at One World Trust, which conducts research into how organisations can be more responsive to their stakeholders, says that sometimes beneficiaries have come third behind donors and members.

But the sector is starting to act. ?I am very confident that moves in recent years ? in the last two years, in fact ? redress that imbalance. NGOs are realising that they need to put beneficiaries at the core of what they do,? she says.

Improving performance

Experts of the field agree that accountability should not be pursued as an end in itself. Instead, accountability should be seen as a way of upgrading performance and responding to the needs of beneficiaries.

This is a difficult task, as Adrian Henriques, professor of accountability at Middlesex University, observes. He says: ?For any organisation, to be properly accountable is perhaps an unrealisable ideal.?

Henriques says that NGOs have one true source of legitimacy: ?consistency of values with their members and supporters and indeed with the interests of their beneficiaries?.

The realisation in the sector?s larger players at least, appears to be that accountability in some shape or form is now essential if NGOs are to remain loyal to their missions and credible to their critics.

Key facts

? Pressure is rising for NGOs to demonstrate how they make decisions and allocate resources

? Sector-led initiatives aim to improve accountability to funders, members and beneficiaries

? According to One World Trust, NGOs are transparent when it comes to finances. But there needs to be greater transparency on project evaluation and governance.

Other key initiatives

The Emergency Capacity Building Project ? an undertaking of seven humanitarian agencies ? aims to improve accountability and measurement of impacts in humanitarian relief.

British Overseas NGOs for Development (Bond) is currently developing a set of quality standards.

One World Trust has developed cross-sector principles and guidelines of accountability with help from the NGO, corporate and inter-governmental sectors.

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