Who watches the watchdogs?

August 30, 2009

Over the past 50 years or so NGOs have carved a unique niche for themselves in contemporary society. A professional bunch of individuals with impressive degrees were better able to articulate the widespread anger, frustration and outrage over the destruction of the environment than grumpy old men or rebellious teenagers. These NGO chaps could sweet talk the media as well as any industry or government P.R machinery. In addition, their ridiculously low salaries meant that they managed to look like Mother Teresa in front of bespoke suit-wearing hired guns.

As champions of civil society causes, NGOs won a lot of credibility and trust that would give them their legitimacy for existence. This legitmacy along with their expertise and grassroots support, positioned NGOs to challenge the role of Governments as sole guardians/caretakers of society. Simultaneously, Governments realised that NGOs could deliver public services to their citizens in a more efficient manner than they could ever hope to themselves. Plus if things went wrong, Governments could still emerge smelling of roses for having attempted the noble step of  decentralised decision-making. A truck load of public services began to be outsourced to NGOs who were suddenly handling multi-million dollar contracts from bilateral and multi-lateral agencies. NGOs in effect, became smaller versions of Government departments entrusted  to develop management plans, work with communities, build capacity of frontline staff and ensure Governments meet national and internation environment obligations. Former public debaters, righteous activists and passionate scientists had to transform themselves into project managers, network coordinators and conservation communications professionals.

In their haste to gain legitimacy in the eyes of funding agencies and Governments, their legitimacy in the eyes of civil society began to take a beating. Questions were raised about credibility, accountability and transparency as Governments, Industry and multi-lateral funding agencies replaced membership and foundations as major funding sources. Eyebrows were raised as many conservation NGOs reported annual turnovers resembling medium sized corporations. Questions were also raised about the bigger NGOs using their newly acquired financial clout to bully small local NGOs and local communities into being force-fed donor-friendly, global conservation strategies. The failiure of these big NGOs to stand up to companies that were destroying the environment and to support the struggle of indigenous peoples also exacerbated the air of mistrust.

The answer to regaining lost legitimacy is not simple. Possibly the worst thing would be to enforce the sort of accountability structures on NGOs that companies or govenments are bound by. NGOs occupy a different niche and hence must answer to a different accountability regime. Each NGO must review its ‘reason for existence’ and develop an accountability system based on where their legitimacy springs from. A combination of external, peer and self review is vital to reform the way NGOs operate and understand the impact they have in the areas they work in. Bodies like the IUCN that influence the direction of  the conservation movement must also facilitate reform of the conservation NGO sector as both are inseparable. Certification, peer review, operating standards, best practices, monitoring & evaluation are means to this end. NGOs are by design not answerable to voters or shareholders. Their legitimacy springs from the support of the civil society and they will only command the respect of Governments and funders on this basis.

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