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Opinions of Monday, 1 March 2004

Columnist: Assoku, Samuel A.

Issues Of Accountability In The NGO Sector

The growth and development of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) has brought with it not only crucial issues of their ability to perform but also issues of accountability which continue to plaque it. As donors continue to fund NGOs, there has been increasing demand for accountability from NGOs. But the extent to which NGOs balance effective performance and accountability depends on the ironing out of the ambiguities of the word accountability.

Accountability, which basically means ?answerability?, is a very ambiguous concept for a field as diverse as that of the Non-governmental sector. The extent to which one is accountable is the standard requirement or expectation of the one whom the report is given. But are NGOs obligated to be accountable to any particular group? It is in response to this that many development experts are exploring the paradigm of accountability.

Some define accountability as the ?means by which individuals or organizations report to a recognized authority or authorities and are held responsible for their actions. They proceed to state the requirement in terms which demand a statement of goals and mission which is clear, transparency in resource use as well as in decision making. The extent to which NGOs are accountable goes so far as an appraisal process is judged to be satisfactory, and also given that there are means for holding accountable those who are responsible for performance. Others go far to define the qualities of accountability to be ?formal? or ?informal?, and characterize it as honesty and efficiency with which resources are used, as well as its impact and effectiveness of the work.

It is to elucidate the complexity of the concept of accountability that Edwards and Hulme divide it into three types. It is their contention that since the actors in NGO are many, there should be multiply accountable. This is where the ?objective interpretation of results and decisions on what response may be appropriate all have to be negotiated among a wide range of actors?. Obviously the stated implication is that since NGOs are supported by trustees, donors, and host governments and comprised of partners, beneficiaries, and staff members, all these actors should be part of the process of appraisal and evaluation which are benchmarks of accountability. More so, the moral assumption is that since NGOs claim legitimacy from their constituencies and beneficiaries, they have to be accountable to them.

But Peter Druker, points out that there are difficulties in assessing performance standards especially with regards to quantifiable impacts indicators. The idea is that, the effect of other factors on development NGOs make Interpretative and Strategic accountability impossible. The need to negotiate among stakeholders rather than the imposition of one definition becomes paramount. This is particularly necessary because according to Edward and Hulme, unnecessary pressure tend to redirect accountability, thereby distorting it. They point out categorically that ?logical framework approaches and bureaucratic reporting may distort accountability by over-emphasizing short term quantitative targets? and this can ?focus attention exclusively on individual project or organizations?, and thereby the tendency to audit rather than learn and share.

It is precisely this concern that Ridell and Robinson voiced; that the extreme pressure brought to bear on NGOs in striking a balance between accountability and responding to needs often change the objectives during the life of the project. Though assessing performance results against cost helps in the strength and weakness and effectiveness of the project, yet accounting for impact ?often do not have firm, fixed, and durable objective against which performance may be judged?. But Ridel and Robinson do admit that most NGOs subscribe to the view that they are accountable to the poor ?through promoting community organizations and encouraging non-formal education?, with some equating ?development with empowerment. However, there has not been any formalized system of evaluation with regards to management of funds in relation to objectives.

Rajesh Tandon, however examines accountability in the context of stakeholder obligations, including beneficiaries, donors, regulators and staff as well as other NGOs and see all of them as part of the system to ensure accountability. He contends that since their stake is in relation to their performance and not in its governance, their assessment of governance requires that NGOs perform effectively, thereby ensuring accountability to stakeholders. The implication drawn is that if NGOs are to have the continued access to the flow of funds from donors, then their ?desirable processes and outcomes?, and ?interest and concerns must be matched? by performance.

To buttress these views, Tandon further explains that accountability to donors should be more related to output indicators than it is being practice now. The notion is that the achievement of better performance accountability can only be attained through a clear mission and demonstrable performance indicators in terms of norms, statutes and values. It is also significant to stress that documentation of current performance is also the key to a better future of accountability. But while Tandons? exposition has some parallel with that of Edwards and Hulme?s multiple accountability, and Ridel and Robinson?s performance indicators, Frit Wils posit the issue of accountability in the same vein albeit in a different perspective.

Wils intimates that accountability is the responsiveness of NGOs, not only to the application of small-scale solutions on a large scale, but also the ?conversion of such solutions from alternative, NGO implemented, or parallel program into the general and officially accepted policy framework?. Accountability to him, is achieved through working with other agencies and state apparatus for the better fulfillment of objectives at the grassroots level. Wils and others found in their research that only by the nature and strength of NGOs connection to the grassroots can domestic and external donors be mediated or appeased. Not only will downward accountability achieved this way, but also upward, vertical and lateral.

In conclusion, it is imperative to point out that, accountability is a very illusive terminology in NGO circles. The degree of probity and accountability cannot probably be pigeonholed into a definite criterion. The question of accountability in NGOs should be seen as an on-going disease which needs prognosis. The extent to which accountability can be diagnosed depends on a multiplicity of factors. Probably the thought of why NGOs were established in the first place, will give us the idea of who it should be accountable to. But this cannot be answered without satisfying the demands of the life-blood of NGOs, thus the donors. Perhaps a successful accountable NGO should not only be able to do what it says it will do but also meet relevant needs in a changing environment. The need for better leadership in the public interest, stewardship for effective governance, as well as quality to achieve excellence is paramount, if accountability can be transparent.

Samuel A. Assoku
Ohio Dept. of Job and Family Services

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