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Accountability: One size does not fit all
García-Delgado, CIVICUS´ UN Representative
February 23, 2007
of “Accountability” has gained much prominence in the current social
debate including, more recently, the issue of “NGO Accountability”.
This is a welcome development because it suggests a more mature
collective awareness of the need to be more sensitive to the potentially
adverse consequences of our actions on the life of other people
and the biosphere. Being more aware of our responsibility to avoid
or at least minimize the possibility of unintentionally causing
undue harm through our actions and decisions, civil society becomes
more evolved, more civil, more civic and authentic.
I remember, when I was in primary school back in the early sixties,
an illustration diagram of a coal burning plant in my physics textbook.
The illustration described in detail where the coal went in, how
it burnt in the boiler, and how the energy generated would move
a turbine, while the resulting CO2 would be released through a tall
chimney out into an infinite blue sky and presumably dissipate into
Obviously there was no awareness at the time that adding CO2 to
the atmosphere was polluting the air, affecting the health of people
and disrupting the earth’s climate. The CO2 released was simply
considered an “externality” with no health and environmental costs
attached. There was no sense of accountability to the community
for the deteriorating air quality; or to individual citizens for
the health consequences of the pollution; or, more broadly, to the
people of the entire world and countless other animal and plant
species, and the entire biosphere, for the consequences on climate
The sense of “Accountability” comes from a position of responsibility.
I am accountable to my spouse and our children with respect to actions
and decisions I make which may adversely affect their lives. As
a family, we are accountable to our neighbors in various respects
(but not in others). As an employer, I am accountable to my employees,
my customers, my providers. As a member of the media, I am accountable
to my readers. As owner, CEO, member of the Board or stockholder
of a large, transnational corporation, my levels of accountability
increase commensurate with the degree of damage I can cause to others
and the biosphere. As an influential politician my accountability
to the citizens who elected me (and those who didn’t) is great.
So is the accountability of the President of the World Bank and
the Bank itself, to the people of the world they aim to serve. As
President of the most powerful country in the world my accountability,
not only to my national citizens, but to all citizens, is sky high.
So, “Accountability” is not the same thing to every one. Those wielding
the greatest power and influence have the greatest responsibility
and are accountable to the highest levels. Governments, for example,
enjoy the exclusive right to use force, and this faculty alone calls
for the highest accountability toward its citizens. Their power
to enact taxes, exercise eminent domain, and pass new criminal laws
also makes them highly accountable for their actions and decisions.
International organisations, such as the United Nations, the International
Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organisation
have the power, by their decisions, to affect millions upon millions
of people around the world. They therefore are held to the highest
standards of accountability as well.
Corporations and large transnational corporations in particular
can do great damage to large swaths of the world population and
the biosphere. With their emphasis on short-term gain, they need
to be particularly watchful of their human rights and social responsibility
record as well as their environmental footprint.
NGOs, despite their increased influence in the humanitarian, social,
advocacy and development fields, can hardly do the same level of
damage as governments and corporations, but accountability is for
them too. Most NGOs, with missions and visions away from political
ambitions and the generation of profits, are, generally speaking,
less likely to produce adverse effects to their constituencies.
But cases have been reported of NGO scandals and wrongdoings, which
can also adversely affect the credibility and legitimacy of the
entire sector. In addition to the people or the part of the biosphere
they work for, NGOs are accountable to their members, donors and
supporters, and to each other.
Exclusive of uncivil society, NGOs beholden to a particular political
power or person, and fraudulent NGOs, most NGOs already practice
some code of conduct, express or implied that guides their traditions
in ethical behaviour, so there is no need to be defensive about
external calls for greater accountability. NGOs can be justifiably
proud of their very significant contributions to a better, more
just and equitable world, whether in areas of human rights, poverty
and development, humanitarian causes or defense of the environment.
But, adopting an express code of conduct appropriate to their particular
circumstances can only have beneficial effects on NGOs, inasmuch
as careful implementation of such codes of conduct result in improved
accountability and performance.
The content and extent of such codes can differ depending on the
sub-sector an NGO is engaged in, its size and influence, its level
of expertise, etc. There are many model codes of conduct for NGOs
that can be adapted to specific circumstances. Dr Jem Bendell, a
recognized world expert on the subject, lists a variety of voluntary
NGO Accountability mechanisms in Chapter 4 of his recently launched
“Debating NGO Accountability” NGLS Development Dossier (at page
59), the Dossier may be downloaded at www.un-ngls.org/pdf/NGO_Accountability.pdf.
On 6 June 2006, eleven leading international NGOs, including CIVICUS,
adopted the first global INGO Accountability Charter, which is particularly
suited to large, international NGOs, networks and coalitions. As
set forth in the Charter’s User Guide, “This Charter is historic
in many ways. It is the first time the large international NGOs
have publicly outlined, together, their shared principles and commitments.
It is the first time they have set down the standards of accountability
and transparency which they hold themselves to, and which they will
expect to be held to by their staff, supporters and other stakeholders.
They recognise that in a world where NGOs have a much greater voice,
whether through campaigns, advocacy or sheer size, it is important
that they are accountable to the public in their own markets and
accountable to the people they are working to support elsewhere;
partners, allies and beneficiaries. This is vital for public trust.”
The Charter Secretariat has just launched the Charter website at
On 19 January 2007, the UN Non-governmental Liaison Service (NGLS)
and the Ford Foundation sponsored an event at UN Headquarters on
the subject of “NGO Accountability”. The event, with top accountability
experts providing a variety of views and perspectives, laid the
ground for a continuing dialogue on this evolving subject, whose
contours are far from being clearly established. (The debate discussion
may be viewed through the UN webcast system at www.un.org/webcast/2007.html
-- go to 19 January, Special Event.) (A brief NGLS Report on the
debate has been published in e-CIVICUS 324 - www.civicus.org/new/media/UN-NGLS-launch-report.pdf.)
NGO Accountability is a concept in flux requiring continuing debate
and analysis. Nothing is written in stone except the idea that human
rights and democracy are at the center of the concept. These two
highest of principles must, as well they should, guide the debate
process. At the forthcoming CIVICUS World Assembly in Glasgow next
May as from 23-27, Accountability will be front and center, the
cross-cutting theme that will inform all other discussions and debates.
Leading experts on the subject will help us better understand and
become more aware of the issues and the nuances involved. This will
present civil society a unique opportunity to understand more fully
and firmly embrace Accountability as the safe-passage to more sensitive
and effective action in our respective areas of work. Please join
us. Your contribution is important. To learn more about CIVICUS
World Assembly, and to register, go to www.civicusassembly.org.
Vicente García-Delgado, CIVICUS´ UN Representative
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