NGOs: Do the Watchdogs Need Watching?

Akhilesh Upadhyay, United Nations (for Inter Press Service )


Icreasing representation of the civil society through NGOs is important to strengthen the role of non-state actors in global governance. On the one hand, the UN Charter categorically states that that the world body is made up of states, while on the other hand issues like human rights are often better defended by NGOs. There needs to be a certain set of basic legal guidelines to which all NGOs will have to be accountable, if the legitimacy of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to act as watchdogs is to be established credibly.


Now heading a UN panel on relations with civil society, former Brazilian president Henrique Cardoso was asked here last week how he viewed the role of non-state actors in global governance. It was a tricky question. On the one hand, the UN Charter categorically states that that the world body is made up of states, while on the other it also talks of “international values,” such as human rights, which are often addressed by nongovernmental actors. Whether the reporter intended it or not, the question went right to the core of an evolving discourse on civil society: the legitimacy of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to act as watchdogs.

While the anti-globalization protests in Seattle in 1999 established NGOs as stakeholders in global governance in the eyes of governments and businesses, questions have surfaced in recent years over who these groups represent. “It is increasingly common to hear academics and journalists echo the complaints of governments that NGOs are unaccountable,” says New York-based Michael Edwards of the Ford Foundation, which, among other things, finances NGOs” activities. Transnational NGO networks abound without a world government and few global citizens to constitute a “global society,” says Edwards. “The result is a growing democratic deficit in the processes of global governance.” During the 1980s and 90s, national governments and international bodies like the United Nations, shaped largely by state actors, were quick to welcome a helping hand from civil society groups, whose numbers had grown 40-fold during the 20th century to reach 37,000, according to a UN report. Some 3,500 NGOs were given formal accreditation to the most recent global conference, last year’s World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD).

But with the growth came new questions, say experts. Some have been raised by governments, which became far less forthcoming when they found that the NGOs also wanted to nudge them into acknowledging new sets of standards for governance. Increasingly, “guidelines” are being mentioned in the same breath as NGOs. In his book, NGO Rights and Responsibilities, Edwards proposes a three-point “New Deal” between governments and civil society actors to address concerns of a “democratic deficit.” First, he says, NGOs’ right to a voice should be structured, building on strong local foundations and moving up from there to global campaigns. Edwards suggests a set of “compacts” between governments, businesses and NGO networks that lay out the roles and responsibilities of each set of actors around particular issues and institutions.

Otherwise NGOs will be tempted to “leap-frog” the national arena and go directly to Washington and Brussels, where it is often easier to gain access to senior officials and achieve a response, he argues. That process increases the influence of multilateral institutions at the expense of national development and erodes the process of domestic coalition building. In Nepal, for example, concerted efforts by transnational networks in the mid-1990s famously scuttled a World Bank-supported hydropower project. Critics of NGOs, which include local leaders and many Kathmandu-based experts, say the Arun III development would have kick-started the economy in the remote Himalayas as the national government had claimed.

The long debate over the costs and benefits of the multimillion-dollar project became a watershed event, displaying to Nepalis and critics of big dams the world over how forces outside the government could influence a nation’s development. In the face of a powerful anti-Arun campaign, few noticed demands made by local pro-Arun groups. Such experiences reinforce fears among governments of developing countries that trans-national NGO networks are but another means for rich countries to monopolize global debates. The second point in Edwards’ plan is that NGOs should be able to participate in global governance in return for agreeing to a set of transparent, minimum standards that would make them accountable for their integrity and performance, he says. These would be monitored largely through self-regulation. Third, a level playing field must be created for all NGOs, which means more opportunities for groups from developing countries to operate in the international arena, which has been dominated by NGOs from rich countries.

But to others, these sorts of demands for “proper representation” threaten to defeat the very purpose of having NGOs: to harness voices and resources outside the realm of governments and officialdom. From a human rights’ perspective, NGOs represent the conscience of a society, a legitimate, alternative force that questions the consequences of government action, and inaction, argues Melissa Upreti, whose New York-based human rights organization operates extensively in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the United States. Some people might not understand that role, she adds, admitting that in the fierce competition for limited resources, some NGOs might not always act ethically in their dealings with vulnerable peoples.

Upreti, who stressed that her comments reflected her personal views only, backs “a certain degree of self regulation,” but also says, “NGOs must not become so absorbed in this that they lose sight of their true role. This too is a form of corruption, and the strongest solution for this problem would seem to lie in creating a culture of accountability and greater transparency within the NGO community.” At its first meeting early this month, Cardoso’s panel said it was time to take a fresh look at the relationship between civil society and the United Nations. It will spend a year on that task before submitting its recommendations to Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

“It will be interesting to see what results they [the panel] come up with in terms of how to increase representation of the civil society,” says Kevin Kennedy, who is coordinating the panel’s activities. “Questions have been raised. [There needs to be] a certain set of basic legal guidelines to which all NGOs will have to be accountable, and a recognition at the same time [that] NGOs need some freedom to work effectively.”

Source: Global Policy Forum – 2003 June 13

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