July 21, 2003
Citizen groups like Doctors Without Borders, Human Rights Watch or Friends of the Earth often call on governments and corporations to be accountable. By that, they mean that these powerful organizations should respond to the needs of the people they affect, and that they should tell the public how they get their money and what they do with it.
These groups, part of the exploding sector of nongovernmental organizations, or NGO's, are now part of the power structure, too. They receive donations from the public and advocate policies that each group claims are in the public interest. As they become part of the established political landscape worldwide, these groups owe it to the public to be accountable and transparent themselves.
Anyone has the right to start a nongovernmental organization, and ultimately a group's credibility depends on its positions and the quality of its work. Most groups do not hide their views â€” reaching a wide audience is their job. But to evaluate that message, the public needs to know who is paying for it. Consumer Alert, for example, whose mission is "protecting consumers' real interest," is antiregulation. But its Web site does not say that much of its financing comes from tobacco, liquor, oil, drug and other companies.
The Internal Revenue Service requires tax-exempt groups to make public part of a form called a 990 listing directors and overall budget. Most groups do not post it on their Web sites. Moreover, they need not reveal donors. All this information, including donors, should be on NGO Web sites. The One World Trust, an organization created by the British Parliament, is comparing accountability mechanisms of nongovernmental groups, international businesses and intergovernmental organizations like the World Trade Organization. The W.T.O. and the World Bank scored highly for online information disclosure, while NGO's like CARE, the World Wide Fund for Nature and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions got much lower marks.
Nonfinancial accountability is a more complex matter for NGO's. They must respond to their boards of directors, their donors and the governments that regulate them. Most groups do not set policy through votes of their members, or even have members at all. They must find less formal ways to ensure that they are truly acting in the best interests of those for whom they claim to speak.
In the last few years, some organizations have begun getting feedback. A Geneva-based project of the Ford Foundation and the British government is helping humanitarian aid groups like Oxfam and Save the Children collect evaluations of their work from those they try to help. Those same groups, along with nongovernmental organizations in the Philippines and India, are also seeking more input from the communities they serve and their partners on the ground. Such measures would help a wide range of groups.
The most politically visible new attempt to examine NGO's is a misguided effort by the American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society. At a June conference and on a new Web site supposedly dedicated to NGO accountability, the two groups, both conservative, attacked other nongovernmental groups for positions that offend the religious right. For example, the entire highlighted box on CARE â€” an antipoverty group that runs food, health and other projects in more than 60 countries â€” focused on CARE's criticism of a Bush administration policy that blocks family planning funds from reaching groups overseas that counsel abortion.
The Web site has been improved, but its ideological underpinnings continue to rob it of credibility. A.E.I., in addition, will not disclose its own financing. Nongovernmental organizations' views are fair game, of course, but accountability and transparency should be about practices, not politics.
More Information on NGOs
More Information on Credibility and Legitimacy of NGOs
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