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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 109

As NGOs Multiply, Study Urges More Public Scrutiny

By Thalif Deen - Inter Press Service

United Nations, 23 January, (IPS): Just after the coastal regions of South and Southeast Asia were devastated by a disastrous tsunami in December 2004, hundreds of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) descended on Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives armed with relief supplies -- and good intentions.

The massive humanitarian effort, according to a new study, was "testimony to the skills and power of many NGOs."

"But it also heightened concerns about opportunities for the misuse and abuse of humanitarian funds," says the 102-page report, titled "Debating NGO Accountability", released here.

Within months, says the study, there were complaints in Sri Lanka about corruption in aid distribution, and the lack of strong political will on the part of the government to address the challenge.

In Indonesia, even the coordinator of an NGO, mandated to challenge corruption in relief efforts, was arrested by police for alleged corruption.

A series of about 30 articles in U.S. newspapers also raised the issue of ethical failures -- including "sky-high salaries of top executives and expenses for offices, travel and perks" -- while disputing the motives of some of the so-called humanitarian missions.

"They highlighted conflicts of interest, failures to adhere to an organization’s mission, questionable fundraising practices, and a lack of transparency," says Dr. Jem Bendell, author of the study, which was commissioned by the U.N. NGO Liaison Service (NGLS).

Tony Hill, coordinator of NGLS, points out that the heads of 11 leading human rights, environmental and social development international organizations publicly endorsed the first global accountability charter in June last year -- perhaps as a result of the increasing number of scandals involving charitable organizations.

The organizations that signed the Charter included ActionAid International, Oxfam International, Amnesty International, CIVICUS World Alliance for Citizen Participation, Transparency International and Save the Children Alliance.

"Concerns about the role and accountability of NGOs have been voiced from different quarters in recent years," says Hill in a preface to the study.

Some donors, governments, corporations, and international agencies raise important questions about the effectiveness of NGO work and the legitimacy of their advocacy, he notes.

In many parts of the world, NGOs are providing more services today than ever before, according to the study. These range from schools and hospitals to water and shelter. Still, the lack of accountability is seen as a major shortcoming.

However, Bendell, an associate professor at Griffith University Business School in Australia and director of the consulting firm Lifeworth, argues that "accountability" in itself is not simply a good thing, as it so often assumed.

Rather, he says, it must be clear that groups must be accountable specifically to those that are affected by their decisions and actions.

It is this concept of "democratic accountability" that lies at the heart of the study, and will allow NGOs to continue to develop as effective and important actors in the international arena, notes Bendell, who is currently advising the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the world's largest environmental organization, on strategic development.

In his study, he cites the example of the Washington-based NGO "Fifty Years is Enough' which criticizes the policies and programmes of the World Bank, an international financial institution which manages over 25 billion dollars annually, and has a paid staff of over 8,000.

This NGO, which has three paid staff members and a very tight budget, "has an implicit accountability to the World Bank in the sense that it would be quickly criticized if it made mistakes with its basic facts and figures and have to explain itself."

"Promoting greater organizational accountability of this small NGO to all those affected by its work, such as the World Bank, and with the resources this process would require, would not help promote the accountability of decision making to those affected by decisions in the field it works on."

Bendell also points out that promoting organizational accountability as whole may not promote the accountability of decision-making processes to the people whose lives they influence.

"The relative power of different organizations must be taken into account in our understanding of the accountability challenge," he said.

Asked if all international NGOs should sign the charter, Bendell told IPS: "Yes, it would be great for every major international NGO to sign the Accountability Charter."

He said the charter provides a basis for NGOs to come to a greater awareness of their common purpose in promoting public benefit, not private profit.

"We need innovative approaches to be shared amongst charter signers, to find out the least bureaucratic and most meaningful mechanisms for promoting coherence with the human rights and democratic principles it states," he added.

Yet these NGOs can only be as effective as their donors allow, he pointed out. So the study "emphasizes the importance of the accountability of donors to those they identify as their intended beneficiaries."

He also said that too much money is spent on pet causes and political meddling, and not at all responsive to the needs of people affected by the giving.

"And too much of these funds are generated from investments in companies and financial products with damaging impacts on society."

The charter forbids acts of bribery or corruption, gender harassment, sexual exploitation and discrimination; and calls for protection of whistle-blowers. It also requires signatories to break links with partner organizations or individuals involved in illegal or unethical practices.

In 2003, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy launched a project called NGO Watch that challenged the role of certain NGOs in political life and "the growing power of an unelected few."

A new website,, was dedicated to "bring accountability to the NGO sector".

"NGOs use their growing influence inside international organizations to push for the establishment of globalized standards and international legal norms," the site states. "Yet this growing local and global role has in large part been unchecked and unregulated."

Asked about government regulation of NGOs, Bendell said that charity law and tax law are key mechanisms that governments use to regulate NGOs.

"We would benefit from more sharing between governments on the best practices in these regulations to promote vibrant civil societies, with NGOs that are accountable to their intended beneficiaries and broad principles of human rights," he added.

- Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency -

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