Charities must embrace accountability

Charities, or ‘non-government organisations’ (NGO) are more trusted than politicians, teachers and priests. However their accountability is attracting greater public scrutiny according to GBS Adjunct Associate Professor Jem Bendell.

Dr Bendell is the author of the United Nations 2006 Debating NGO Accountability report and spoke at the annual World Assembly for CIVICUS, which is a World Alliance for Citizen Participation, in Glasgow on May 27.

A key focus of the assembly was on the accountability of NGOs.

Dr Bendell said although calls for greater accountability of NGOs had become louder in recent years, the issue had been recognised by many NGOs for decades and warned against misguided approaches.

“Much work on NGO accountability is based on a false assumption that more organisational accountability is a good thing, when in fact we need more societal accountability,” Dr Bendell said.

“Decision making in society needs to be more accountable to those affected by the decisions, which requires efficient, people-focused, downwards accountability from NGOs to intended beneficiaries. In the UN report I call this ‘democratic accountability’.

“If NGOs embrace this kind of accountability agenda, they will increase their efficiency at holding other more powerful organisations such as government and business to account. If not, NGOs risk extinguishing their effectiveness in a flood of paperwork and committees.”

Dr Bendell said this agenda applies as much to environmental NGOs as social NGOs working on matters such as poverty or human rights.

During a panel discussion at the assembly, Dr Bendell addressed the particular accountability issues facing environmental NGOs, such as WWF. Dr Bendell said a challenge for those working on the environment is that accountability is understood widely as only about people.

“Individual human beings are not usually accountable to nature for their own actions, although unfortunately they are often accountable for the actions of others, when nature bites back in the form of floods, droughts, storms and disease,” Dr Bendell said.

“Some people say nature doesn’t speak for itself so accountability doesn’t apply or its only people’s interest that should be considered. But people are often interested in the aesthetic and even intrinsic value of nature, not just its practical use.”

More than 1,000 delegates from around the world attended the assembly, including donors and representatives of civil society organisations, governments, business and the media.

Other panel members included Nobel Laureate and environmentalist Wangari Mathai, Earth Charter International Executive Director Alan AtKisson and Women’s Environment and Development Organisation Executive Director June Zeitlin.

Dr Bendell’s report, Debating NGO Accountability, can be viewed online at