This article was originally published on CDA’s From Where I Stand learning forum.
Civil society organisations (CSOs) practising a different kind of accountability towards their stakeholders is at the heart of the Global Standard’s mission and purpose. The kind of accountability where an organisation answers to the people who they work for and with, not only in terms of financial management or transparency, but going beyond that to ensure that its work and programmes are informed by them. In this blog, CSOs are defined as organisations who are: independent from the state, pro-human rights, and working with and/or advocating on behalf of civil society.
The Global Standard 12 Commitments is an accountability reference framework that will support organisations in that journey. The framework is free, flexible and open-sourced for CSOs wishing to improve their accountability practices towards all stakeholders, moving away from a tick-box exercise. The 12 Commitments are divided into three clusters, addressing the following areas: What We Want to Achieve, Our Approach to Change, and What We Do Internally. Together, the clusters guide CSOs to transform their accountability practices by putting the people that they work for and with at the core of their work. The 12 Commitments were co-created through extensive rounds of consultations with local organisations by 9 accountability networks around the world who are also Global Standard Partners (Accountable Now – Secretariat, ACFID, BCSDN, CCC, DENIVA, InterAction, Rendir Cuentas, VANI, Viwango). It is a universally valued set of guiding principles for CSOs to base their organisational accountability practices on, enabling CSOs to adjust the implementation according to their contexts and needs.
The Global Standard framework is a tool to practice dynamic accountability – an approach that is alternative to the usual top-heavy and regulation focused forms of accountability, backed by the idea that CSOs are not only accountable to their donors and governments, but primarily to their constituents and stakeholders in the community. This approach recognises the importance of trustful partnership and horizontal relationship building between CSOs and stakeholders. Through implementing dynamic accountability practices like meaningful engagement, continuous learning through closing feedback loops, and participatory decision making, CSOs shift the power towards those whose lives are impacted.
The need to shift power towards those whose lives are most impacted by CSOs is as critical now as ever since the operating environment for CSOs have been shrinking around the world. Last year, the CIVICUS Monitor reported that 68.8% of people now live in a repressed or closed civic space, with some governments leveraging the public perception of CSOs as foreign interventionists to pass heavy-handed regulations. When ground operations are run from faraway, it is easy to question if organisations can establish truly horizontal relationships, have meaningful communications, make decisions or advocate on behalf of those whose lives will be impacted. In countries like the US and UK, public trust for civil society and non-profits are demonstrably lower within underserved and working class communities; interestingly, public trust is highest for organisations that make direct local impact .
Disruption to how some within the civil society sector have been working with stakeholders is therefore needed for CSOs to be more effective, increase trust and rectify the disconnect between programmatic design and the needs of local communities. To prove that they are credible and reliable actors, CSOs must be in dialogue and consult with the communities that they wish to serve. It is clear that the civil society sector needs transformative change; this must start with creating meaningful relationships – as Dylan Mathews puts it, “trust for local communities must be at the heart of this transformation”. To build trust and achieve goals in a sustainable, empathetic and responsible manner, CSOs must act with dynamic accountability in mind, and be more horizontal in dialogue, responsive, efficient and credible for their stakeholders.
Dynamic accountability guides CSOs in the ‘localisation’ process, recognising that every solution has to be reached through close consultations and co-creation with those whose lives will be impacted, and shifting the decision-making power towards community stakeholders. However, when we talk about ‘localisation’, it does not entail a distinction between approaches at the ‘international’ and ‘local’ levels or the implied unequal and negative dogmas of terms like ‘north’ vs ’south’; instead, it necessitates an inclusive and customised approach that is built through horizontal partnerships, trust, and exchanges of capacity – which we believe is the first step to challenge the current development structure existing around the world. Put simply, ‘localisation’ is a process whereby CSOs’ work is co-created with local knowledge, adapted to local context, held accountable by local communities and owned by local stakeholders.
By guaranteeing that people can exercise their power and ensuring all voices are heard, CSOs can work with and for their communities leading their work to be more accountable, transparent, effective, trustworthy, and credible.
Around the world, Global Standard Partners (most of whom are accountability networks) use the 12 Commitment framework to guide their actions with their communities of CSOs within their country and/or region. In doing so, they exchange capacity, taking into account the wide ranging challenges and opportunities present in different countries’ civic spaces. Through co-creation with local organisations, Global Standard Partners work to adapt the Global Standard to a range of contexts.
In the Pacific, the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) has collaborated with Pacific Islands Association of Non-governmental Organisations (PIANGO) and PIANGO’s members through a series of online workshops to start developing a Pacific Regional CSO Accountability Framework, covering Global Standard commitments like empowered, effective staff and volunteers, responsive decision-making, well-handled resources and responsible leadership. In doing so, PIANGO was able to exchange knowledge with ACFID, in consultation with its members on what are the best practices that are appropriate to their contexts. The result is a co-produced accountability framework that is owned by and realistic for organisations in the Pacific region.
Similarly, the Balkan Civil Society Development Network (BCSDN) has been in the process of supporting Macedonian and Albanian CSOs to use the Global Standard as the framework to inform their national Codes of Conduct/Standard. The collaboration was made possible by a two way process where BCSDN provided technical and content-related support in the form of workshops and seminars to the respective national networks and CSOs, and the national networks (the Macedonian Centre for International Cooperation and Partners Albania) providing the regional and membership knowledge to direct BCSDN’s support in the best possible way.
Since last year, alongside VANI and the Global Standard Secretariat (Accountable Now), the Bhutan Transparency Initiative (BTI) has been exploring opportunities to develop tools and technical assistance that can help put people at the core of the decision process and advance their accountability journey. The result was a co-created 3-day workshop whereby the BTI led the charge with their localised experience and understanding, and the Secretariat and VANI supported with regional and practical knowledge. In the future, both the Secretariat and VANI look forward to deeper collaboration, with more consultations and engagements from the BTI to further enhance how the Global Standard can be adapted to a Bhutanese context.
The local knowledge of a community’s needs and context – be it in Middlesbrough, UK or Hanoi, Vietnam – is the cog that allows the civil society sector machine to run. The experiences and frameworks that exist around the world can only help to put this knowledge to use. To achieve systemic change, CSOs need to set an example in demonstrating their accountability practices, being adaptive to a constantly changing environment, and establishing an environment that elevates unheard voices in decision making processes.
As an initiative, the Global Standard framework is merely facilitative. We advocate for and unify a common vision of accountability for the sector. As a framework, we collect knowledge and learnings around the globe to set a uniting and universally valued set of principles for the civil society sector to advance, applying local knowledge, and centering those whose lives will be impacted the most in consultations, feedback and dialogues.
We hope from sharing our experience in how the Global Standard tool has been used at different levels will inspire other organisations from a range of different contexts to put the principles of dynamic accountability into practice. We are always open for collaboration with CSOs around the world, to share learnings, co-create workshops, and support others on their accountability journey. If you’re interested in working with us – just get in touch!
To learn more about our work, visit our website, read our 12 Commitments, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook. Additionally, if you’re interested in dynamic accountability and want to get to know like-minded practitioners, why not join the Dynamic Accountability Community of Practice?
Citations:  Populus and the Charity Commission for England and Wales: “Regulating in the public interest The relationship between Charity, charities and the general public”, page 23. May 2020 and Independent Sector: “Trust in Civil Society: Understanding the factors driving trust in nonprofits and philanthropy”, page 23. June 2020