THE NGO NETWORK ALLIANCE PROJECT - an online community for Zimbabwean activists  
 View archive by sector


Back to Index

NGO Accountability: One size does not fit all
Vicente García-Delgado, CIVICUS´ UN Representative
February 23, 2007

The concept 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 “thin air”!

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 change.

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

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 -- go to 19 January, Special Event.) (A brief NGLS Report on the debate has been published in e-CIVICUS 324 -

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

In solidarity,

Vicente García-Delgado, CIVICUS´ UN Representative

Please send your comments to or or

Please credit if you make use of material from this website. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License unless stated otherwise.