How effectively do INGOs hold governments or themselves to account?

Muhammed Taher

Research and Evaluation Consultant

Our blog discusses strengthening accountability and transparency at the global and national level. In this series we look at positive examples to promote good accountability practice in the civil society sector. Feel free to debate, share and interact.


Muhammad Taher is a Bangladeshi research and evaluation consultant focusing on policy and programmes related to human, social and institutional development. Throughout the last 30 years, he has worked with and for CARE UK, Oxfam India Trust, DFID, Diakonia Bangladesh, ECHO, SDC, UNDP, the World Bank, and many local CSOs in Bangladesh and other South Asian countries. He was the Bangladesh Country Director of Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG, now named as Practical Action) during the 1990s. He is also a founder member and Director of Duryog Nivaran, a South Asian initiative on Disasters.


Bangladesh has made substantial progress in human development in recent years, but it continues to suffer from a culture of confrontational politics, non-inclusive and non-decentralised development practice, widespread corruption, and violation of human rights. One key focus of intervention for some of the international non-governmental organisations (INGO) in our country has been to strengthen the grassroots democracy by creating an enabling environment for the members of the elected local government bodies and the staff of the local government departments to become increasingly responsive to the local needs and effective in their actions through a transparent and accountable manner.


INGOs invite interested local civil society organisations (CSOs) to lead the interventions mainly in a bid to leave a more legitimate and sustainable process on the ground for change and development. The support structure is aimed at empowering, organising and mobilising the rural (local) communities, particularly women, for effective participation in the decision-making process.


Recent evaluation studies have confirmed that these programmes have made an impact in mobilising a bottom-up process of establishing a more responsive and accountable governance culture in the ‘countryside’. With the help of the national media, people do get to hear about the results of these actions. However, the question remains as to how and when would these actions be able to effectively influence the state level systems and the key actors at the top? On the contrary, when the ‘irregular’ and ‘unacceptable’ actions of the government officials and functionaries are challenged or exposed by the CSO groups, they (CSOs) are subjected to severe questions and scrutiny. The government often threatens with stringent regulations against CSO/NGO operations – most of which are reliant on external donor finances. Thus, fewer strong CSOs are found today to be engaged in the promotion of national integrity and good governance.


On the other hand, an old question on INGO motive to provide development assistance seems to have remained unclear among the community members. As a result, it keeps coming back on and off. It is about: Why do the INGOs provide support to the disadvantaged peoples of developing countries? What is their interest? Is it all very altruistic as it sounds, or is there a hidden or ulterior motive? The question is often variously explained by the INGO field staff in their own different ways – only to perhaps raising further questions in the minds of the project constituents. Is it about sharing wealth between the poor and the resource-rich countries? Is it a religious obligation? Are they (the donors from rich countries) driven by a sense of guilt for their colonial past? Do they really “take back two dollars for one dollar assistance”, as alleged?


We know that it is difficult to make a standard one-para answer to satisfy the generally uninformed and inquisitive minds. The INGO staff often try their best to answer these questions, but I think, with limited success. Thus, the questions seem to return now and again, but the busy process of delivery of development assistance tend to keep people skip the issue for a period of time. However, from an accountability perspective, this is quite fundamental and we have often shied away from preparing an acceptable and comprehensible narrative for this. The INGOs have not made a particular position on this issue collectively. Should they not try and do that now? For sure we will not be effective in holding governments to account if we do not provide a very convincing answer on INGOs’ accountability to the people.

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