Cover Image
close this bookNGO Guidelines for Good Policy and Practice (Commonwealth Foundation)
close this folderPart I: NGOs: what they are and what they do
close this folder6. The governance and operation of NGOs
View the document(introduction...)
View the document6.1 The accountability of NGOs
View the document6.2 Improving NGO governance and operations
View the document6.3 Management
View the document6.4 Human resource development (HRD) and training
View the document6.5 Reviewing, monitoring and evaluating
View the document6.6 Information
View the document6.7 Networking and alliance-building

6.1 The accountability of NGOs

NGOs in both the North and the South are being challenged to address issues concerning their accountability and representativeness. The key questions being asked are:

To whom are NGOs accountable?

Who or what do they represent?

The debate around these questions has grown as NGOs have come to extend the scope, breadth and depth of their work, and as their structures have come to include both private and participatory forms of control and various forms of incorporated or unincorporated entities.

The questions appear at first sight to have simple answers. An incorporated private NGO is controlled by and thus accountable to a Board of Management or trustees. These people derive no financial gain from the organisation, and thus are independent in the sense that they do not have the vested interests even staff or those served by the NGO may have. In the participatory NGO, the Board is elected by the membership thus making the organisation truly democratic and thus also accountable to its members.

More broadly, NGOs are accountable to the wider public through processes of registration and regulation, described in the next chapter. They will also be accountable to funders through agreed reporting arrangements.

NGOs working with marginalised and disadvantaged people see themselves as representing the interests of such people. Those NGOs which are more involved in a particular aspect of disadvantage or with an issue affecting the well-being of society as a whole see themselves as representing a cause of some kind rather than a specified group of people. In both cases the representation will be stronger where the NGO has a participatory rather than a private structure. But issues of the accountability and representativeness of NGOs are more complex than the above might suggest.

The fact that it is not that simple is implicit in particular aspects of the above discussion. The private NGO can be controlled by a Board which in reality is a rubber stamping device for the employed staff, who in reality control the organisation.

Private NGOs, lacking the feature of democratic accountability to membership found in participatory NGOs, can thus in reality be accountable to nobody but themselves. Private NGOs can also be used by individuals to pursue their egotistical or political ambitions under the guise of representing people or causes.

Organisations which claim to be participatory organisations can, when closely scrutinised, turn out to have a narrow, disenfranchised or "token" base of membership, and thus in reality be privately controlled or even used for fraudulent purposes.

Just as the existence of a small number of fraudulent NGOs can bring the financial integrity and honesty of the great majority of NGOs into needless doubt, so too do the small number of NGOs that are unaccountable and unrepresentative attract unwarranted doubt and criticism to the majority. Most NGOs are controlled by people acting out of genuine personal concern and commitment, and operating with high standards of honesty and integrity.

There are a number of ways in which NGOs can improve the quality of their governance and operations, and these are outlined in the following sections. Many NGOs already recognise the need for such improvements. Signs of them being made are abundant, as are debates about issues raised by the changes, and the following sections try to reflect them. But changes in the external environment in which NGOs operate will also help achieve such ends, and these are discussed in later chapters.