Ten years ago, a committed group of the leaders of some of the largest international NGOs, working to provide international development programmes, humanitarian relief, and campaigning for human rights and the protection of our environment came together in the recognition that we needed to be proactive, open and clear in establishing what our accountability should be, as international organisations seeking to make a difference in the world. Those leaders saw that ambitious mission statements require serious accountability and transparency.
The leaders who agreed the Accountability Charter had a lot in common: they were all leading large federated or confederated, mission-driven, not-for-profit organisations, mostly having grown from northern/western roots. And yet there was also considerable diversity in terms of the mission, role and ways of working – from development and humanitarian organisations such as World Vision and Oxfam, to organisations campaigning for human rights (Amnesty International) and environment (Greenpeace). This variety in mission could have stood in the way of developing a common accountability framework – our day to day operations and concerns are very different. But we recognised that unless we started to assert what we stand for, others would paint the picture for us, perhaps inaccurately or unfairly.
Greenpeace’s reasons for helping drive the creation of the charter were clear. We recognised that climate change – the biggest environmental challenge we currently face – is immensely complex and inseparable from issues of social justice. We clearly need to work together across the NGO community to tackle this issue. We also recognised the need for proactive and proud identification of our common INGO values as one way that we could respond in strength when confronted with the forces that seek to close down dissent and challenge in many countries.
Even so, there were concerns about entering into the charter. Would the reporting be too burdensome, creating more bureaucracy and thereby sucking up resources that donors give us for winning campaigns? Could we be offering too much transparency – giving our opponents information that they could use to attack us? Would we get enough from membership of the charter to justify the membership fee?
Ten years on, we can say that we have learned from our membership of the charter and the membership has been worth it. Yes, the reporting has at times felt bureaucratic, but we have improved our own data collection and reporting over time so that we concentrate on the issues most meaningful for our own accountability; and the reporting framework has also evolved over time to become more useful. The Independent Review Panel has given us direct and challenging feedback on our reporting, which has led to improvements in our own thinking and systems. The collection of good practices – as identified by the Independent Review Panel – is well worth browsing for inspiration.
And we have helped in the development of a document (the Accountability Charter) into the dynamic and forward-looking Accountable Now. Accountable Now has expanded its membership well beyond the original club of largely northern and western NGOs. I am particularly excited by our adoption of the concept of “dynamic accountability”: the idea that accountability doesn’t just happen on a yearly rhythm of data collection and dry annual reports, but that stakeholders, particularly the communities and individuals with whom we interact, experience, expect and contribute to an organisation’s accountability in many different ways, over different timescales (usually more frequent than on an annual basis).
In the last few weeks, with the scandal that has engulfed Oxfam, we have been painfully reminded of the effect that a lapse in accountability can have on an organisation and indeed on a whole sector. Boiled down to a basic level, trust is the currency of our legitimacy as civil society organisations. In a world where information (and disinformation) and opinion (positive and negative) travels faster than ever, our accountability needs to be on-demand. Learning what this means for us as civil society organisations, in all the diversity of our membership, is the key challenge for Accountable Now in the coming years.