Civil society associations come in a range of forms. From local civil society organisations (CSOs) to international alliances composed of many organisations, the sector is diverse in the way different groups are structured and present themselves. In spite of the form or type, accountability should still remain high on the agenda for any civil society association – but of course, the way it may look or be practised can vary. This blog therefore looks at what grounds and drives dynamic accountability in CSOs, and how this may differ in practice for networks.
First – let’s attempt to define accountability. It is of course difficult to summarise, but there are generally three interrelated components: taking account – asking what should be done, giving account – relaying what will be done, and being held to account – taking responsibility for how things are carried out. Of course accountability is always directional, with organisations adopting top-down or bottom-up approaches, or a combination of the two. Dynamic accountability is a horizontal approach whereby CSOs are accountable to all of their stakeholders in a continuous and meaningful way.
Then, let’s break down the term “stakeholders”. Stakeholders are individuals or groups who are a part of, or are impacted by, an organisation’s work. They are partners, donors, governments, colleagues, volunteers, board, the public, and most importantly the communities that organisations aim to serve. Communities can be wide ranging – they are the groups that CSOs’ work target, they are the general population, and in the case of networks they are CSOs themselves.
For accountability to be dynamic, it needs to be practised continuously by both CSOs and networks through identifying stakeholders, understanding their power and responding to their input. Expertise and power can vary, whether that is staff’s expertise in programming or the community’s expertise over their lives and contexts. Continuous and meaningful engagement with all stakeholders can ensure that the work that organisations carry out can have a positive and lasting impact. A lack of dialogue can result in actions that, while carried out with good intentions, waste resources and do not have the desired impact. For example, we recently spoke with Marie-Christina Kolo (Green N’ Kool) during a webinar on Engaging Stakeholders in Climate Advocacy Actions – A Dialogue. During the conversation she expressed her frustration at yet another water-pump project – a top-down solution that communities did not ask for and do not need. To avoid this, CSOs should – at the very least – consider the following to ensure that intention and execution are congruous:
The list above is by no means exhaustive, but these mechanisms and considerations should be in place to ensure that the organisation continuously engages, shifts, and puts different stakeholders’ powers to use in a horizontal, mutual, and non-extractive way.
Within networks, since the way they are set up are different, often with membership or alliances working towards a shared goal, the principles of dynamic accountability look the same, but in practice there are of course differences. Networks need to consider that their communities are CSOs, and potentially even the constituents supported by its members.
Networks support their members through many means, from fiduciary to advocacy, but the most important thing remain that members feel free and open to input, exchange, and drive the collective agenda. By having the right spaces where people can interact through values of equality and horizontality, the range or difference between those members is minimised, enabling trust-based relationships and equalising the power between voices.
In doing so, different members within the network would have the opportunity to present and showcase their expertise and have that expertise be acknowledged. With this would come the differentiation and acknowledgement of clear roles and responsibilities, as being clear on who is responsible for what would reinforce inclusive governance and mutual accountability. Together, these factors drive the collective agenda forward and enable networks to be collectively owned. Further, in establishing these spaces and norms, the network will over time become more agile, relevant and adaptive, and thus more relevant to its members.