Civil society organizations (CSOs) have historically played a crucial role in tackling issues of transparency, legitimacy and accountability within governments and businesses, with many positive results.

Citizen groups often ask difficult questions, holding governments and corporations to account for their actions and demanding that institutions behave in ways that promote the public good.

In many countries around the world, civil society has become a major force in public life. In 1997 Jessica Matthews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, described the trend for power to move from formal state to non-state actors as a “Power Shift”.

Around the same time Lester Salamon, from Johns Hopkins University, wrote about a “global associational revolution” that suggested several changes in governance thinking and practice around the world.

It is perhaps inevitable, therefore, that political and business leaders at the national and global levels have become anxious about the impact of civil society advocacy.

Some government leaders have suggested that, since they have been elected, only they should be able to develop and implement public policy. They argue that civil society organizations can never have the legitimacy of democratically elected representatives. Most governments and intergovernmental bodies embrace the role of citizen groups who seek to provide support, services and direct programmes of relief and assistance to communities and individuals in need.

This delivery or operational role at the micro level is seen as filling the gaps that government is unable to meet and as an uncontroversial foray into the public space.

But even in fully functioning democracies, CSOs play a crucial role in bringing the concerns of interest groups to legislators and improving the political process. Their efforts at policy impact at the meso level, as well as their efforts to address core questions of governance and structural and systemic change at the macro level, raise many doubts on the part of political and business leaders.

Without the direct channels that civil society organizations offer, there are limited alternatives for competing interests to be balanced for a global political consensus around issues as pressing as poverty, the environment and global security.

For better or worse, civil society groups today are the only organizations able to bring the views of those interest groups of largely socially excluded constituencies of citizens to the global level and hence start the process of building consensus.

The democracy deficit

In a context where such issues as the environment, trade, terrorism, security, debt and fundamental economic concerns cannot be addressed solely at the national level, citizen groups need to give more attention to supranational institutions.

There are no direct channels for democratic representation to global decision-making bodies such as the UN General Assembly, the Security Council, the World Bank, the WTO or any of the 300 other intergovernmental organizations that affect the lives of individuals and communities around the world.

In this context, CSOs today are a powerful reservoir of valuable policy intelligence based on their innovative work in almost every sphere of human existence.

Governments that do not harness this experience and contribution to policy-making are effectively depriving themselves of bodies of knowledge that can help them make better policy decisions.

CSOs do not claim to have all the answers. Rather they want to engage in rigorous, meaningful debate – knowing that their contributions will be respected and considered.

This debate must also take account of the deepening lack of faith in political and business leaders among citizens around the globe. Unfortunately, this lack of faith is also growing. Global studies carried out by Environics International, and released at both the World Social Forum and the World Economic Forum in recent years have firmly suggested that ordinary people have a much higher level of faith in civil society organizations than in government or business.

This could lead to the conclusion that civil society groups have nothing to worry about or to address. On the contrary, maintaining and deepening public trust by civil society organizations is critical for ensuring active, participatory democracy that can enrich our public life at the national and global levels.

Attempts to address today’s challenges are taking place in intergovernmental structures at the supranational level. The acronyms are dizzying: UN, EU, WTO, MERCOSUR, OECD, OSCE, BIS and the AU, to name a few.

While some of these institutions may be household names, many are not. Yet they wield great power over the lives of ordinary people around the world and should, in some way, be accountable to those people.

Herein lies the crux of the democracy deficit. Decisions affecting the lives and well-being of people around the world increasingly lie with supranational institutions that are not directly accountable to those people and are not accessible to citizen voices. Decisions about trade rules, intellectual property rights, macro-economic restructuring policies, privatization of vital services and debt relief are made behind closed doors in ways that are largely perceived to be undemocratic.

This present system of global governance lacks democratic legitimacy in the eyes of many – especially given that some of the core organizations were set up in the aftermath of World War II almost 60 years ago.

In effect, even though so much has changed, these organizations govern themselves as if they are stuck in the geopolitics of 1945. Democracy suggests, among other things, a system where a community of people exercises collective self-determination.

Members of a given public – a demos – take decisions that shape their destiny jointly, with equal rights and opportunities of participation, and without arbitrarily imposed constraints on debate.

Democratic governance strives to be participatory, consultative, transparent and publicly accountable. By one mechanism or another, democratic governance rests on the consent of the governed. Given the present configuration of global governance, how are we to ensure the consent of the affected people?

At the same time, democracy at the local and national levels is also in trouble, even in many established democracies. Surveys reveal declining levels of citizen trust in political institutions.

In many democratic systems form has largely overtaken the substance of democracy. Elections may be held, but fewer and fewer people are choosing to vote, and the meaningful interface between citizens and the elected is minimal between election periods.

During the last US presidential election, even if we set aside the controversial developments in Florida and the intervention of the Supreme Court, almost half the citizens of the US did not vote.

The half that did vote were split down the middle, which effectively means that president George Bush, came into office in the most powerful political position in the world, on a 25% mandate.

Elections run the risk of becoming pre-ordained, elite-legitimating processes and are, in some cases, not delivering genuine democracy. Affiliation with traditional political parties is on the decline as the parties themselves are characterized by a growing lack of internal democracy or failure to address issues that citizens believe are important.

The influence of moneyed interests in many political systems is also turning citizens away from traditional engagement in favour of new forms of participation. Further, media independence and critique are also diminishing and, in an age of aggressive spin doctoring, citizens are often separated from the full story about public concerns.

It is therefore unsurprising that the spotlight now falls on civil society as government and business legitimacy is being questioned. For some time now, CIVICUS, its members and partners have argued forcefully that along with increasing influence, status and resources on the part of civil society groups, also comes the burden of increased public accountability for CSOs.

Plainly, civil society organizations, particularly those that are involved in advocacy work, are coming under increasing pressure to improve their transparency and accountability. There are two primary arguments that have been advanced over the years: first, that it is the ethical and appropriate course of action by CSOs; second, that critics of civil society would use any deficiencies in CSOs’ individual and collective governance, and general performance to question the overall role of civil society – not so much at the micro or operational level, but mainly at the macro or governance level and at the meso or policy level.

Naomi Klein, the Canadian activist, has noted that NGOs with strong social and economic justice agendas are coming under increasing attack from conservative quarters in the US and elsewhere – ostensibly because of a lack of accountability, but in reality for more dubious political reasons.

The One World Trust/Charter 99 report Power without Accountability was launched in January 2003. It is the first report of its kind to compare the accountability of intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), transnational corporations (TNCs) and international NGOs.

It considered two out of eight dimensions of accountability and found that aspects of the governance of NGOs are better than for the other two groups. On the downside, NGOs are on the whole much less transparent than organizations in the other two groups.

This is often due to the fact that resource constraints usually limit the publications of such simple transparency tools as annual reports – particularly for smaller organizations in developing countries.

The most transparent organization in the One World Trust/Charter 99 study though, was an NGO – the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies – which has much to teach IGOs and TNCs in this regard.

At both the national and global levels today civil society networks are investing significant efforts in improving their accountability, transparency and legitimacy. Importantly these efforts are growing in scope and scale.

It is essential to clarify some of these terms that are often used interchangeably but actually describe different areas of challenge for CSOs.

First, accountability has three levels to consider. With regard to upward accountability to those providing the funds and in terms of meeting the formal requirements of regulatory provisions where they exist, this is probably where CSOs are the strongest.

As far as downward accountability to the people who are being served or the constituency in whose name the rationale for existence is achieved in the first place, there is definitely room for improvement – even though resource constraints often militate against this. Horizontal accountability, or peer accountability, requires much greater effort and attention. Failure to address this question could lead to unnecessary duplication, an inability to forge the appropriate synergies and the waste of resources.

There are many positive examples of how civil society groups are working together more closely. The joint campaign against small arms by Oxfam International and Amnesty International is a case in point.

Overall, then, accountability is concerned with the obligation to justify words and deeds to society in general, and to a specific set of internal and external stakeholders. It embraces the actors, mechanisms and institutions by which civil society organizations are held responsible for their actions and would include financial accountability as well as performance accountability more broadly.

Transparency refers more to processes, procedures and values that ensure accountability and characterize an organization’s day-to-day work. They can be fairly and accurately judged by stakeholders by using benchmarks to measure the levels of openness about such issues as programme approach and content, where resources are raised from and how they are spent.

Legitimacy is understandably a heavily contested term. It usually implies that an organization is authentic and is justified in its actions. Legitimacy could be derived from many sources, including membership or constituency, legal recognition, experience or relevant knowledge of the issues at stake.

Civil society organizations face a critical challenge in their justifications to voice their opinions or speak on behalf of others, especially vulnerable or marginalized communities.

A distinction is made here between legitimacy and representation. Few CSOs, with some notable exceptions such as trade unions or professional associations, claim to represent formally their members. This does not, however, detract from the question of CSOs having a legitimate right to bring citizens’ concerns into the public sphere.

There is a powerful accountability measure built into the public life of citizen organizations. It is what we have called the “perform or perish” principle. While governments are guaranteed a revenue stream from taxation, not a single cent raised by civil society organizations is raised on the basis of obligation – irrespective of whether the resources come from individuals, foundations, businesses or government entities.

If CSOs do not perform on the basis of their stated vision, mission and programmes, they essentially perish.

Importantly, for almost two decades now there have been several efforts led by civil society organizations themselves to improve the regulatory environment governing their institutions as well as explore complementary self-regulation options. At the national level, just to quote a few efforts, in the Philippines there exists a code of conduct as well as a formal process led by the Philippines NGO Certification Council, which is led primarily by civil society organizations.

In 1997 a code of ethical conduct was developed by the NGO community in South Africa. Similar efforts are under way in about 40 countries around the world.

At the global level, we have seen efforts now to develop similar guidelines for human rights organizations led by the International Council for Human Rights Policy and the Humanitarian Accountability Project in Geneva, to explore what challenges are faced by relief and humanitarian organizations operating transnationally.

CIVICUS and its allies have argued that recent attacks on CSO legitimacy and accountability – as being currently led by the American Enterprise Institute, which is, ironically, an NGO itself with a distinctive political brand – should be viewed as an opportunity, as well as a threat.

We need to be vigilant, tracking the debates and discourses around these issues as they emerge and setting new agendas for improved governance in all institutions.

We need to use this opportunity for a new governance offensive – an offensive that fundamentally challenges the governance dysfunction we currently experience in many national contexts and within global governance institutions, such as the United Nations, IMF, WTO and the World Bank.

Civil society must strive for maximum transparency and accountability in our work. At the same time, we must be willing to defend the rights of citizens and their organizations to participate actively in public life.

We have fought long and hard to create the space to practice active citizenship. We will not give this up without a vigorous fight. In the end, a disciplined, united and well-informed civil society community, backed by the positive attitudes and support of ordinary citizens, will and must prevail.

NGOs must build on these and other models and work together to increase their own accountability without losing flexibility or their genuine contact with the grassroots. To ignore the issue, or to fail to address it adequately, will leave the sector open to further – and perhaps more effective – attack in the future.

Kumi Naidoo
Kumi Naidoo is secretary general and CEO of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation. He is a member of the steering committee of the World Economic Forum’s Global Governance Initiative. For more information visit: www.oneworldtrust.org and www.civicus.org.