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Our guest blogger David Shaman, author of “The World Bank Unveiled: Inside the Revolutionary Struggle for Transparency"

Guest post – Should Accountability for Civil Society Organizations Receive the Same Attention as It Does for International Financial Institutions?

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This week we’re lucky enough to have a guest post from David Shaman.

David is the author of “The World Bank Unveiled: Inside the Revolutionary Struggle for Transparency, an insider’s account of how the world’s largest international financial institution makes decisions. David was the communications manager of the Bank’s Development Economics Research Group on the Environment from 1993 to 2000, where he co-authored “Greening Industry: New Roles for Communities, Markets, and Governments”, a major Bank policy report on industrial pollution in the developing world. He also developed and managed the New Ideas in Pollution Regulation (NIPR) website, which was ranked as the Bank’s best website in 2000. He has also served as a legislative aide to two members of Congress and as a press secretary to a member of the New York City Council.

Whenever there is a discussion about governance regarding international development, most people tend to focus on large public institutions such as the World Bank and regional multilateral development banks (MDB), International Monetary Fund and/or bilateral development agencies. These organizations are constantly under scrutiny to improve transparency of their documents, meetings and aid flows as well as increase accountability for performance of lending activities and institutional practices. These agencies face pressure to provide quantitative data and information in which their rhetoric and performance can be measured. This is a worthwhile discussion because a lack of transparency and accountability by these organizations can have important and lasting impact on the lives of people living in poverty. But is it the only discussion worth having?

The question came up during this month’s World Bank-IMF spring meetings where a cornucopia of Bank and Fund officials, finance ministers and civil society representatives met to discuss a range of international finance and development issues. A session entitled “The Policy of Transparency and Accountability of International Financial Institutions (IFI’s) vis-à-vis Governments, Private Companies, and Civil Society” took a surprising turn when it focused less on what public institutions could be doing and more on what civil society organizations (CSO) should be doing.

Some questioned whether CSOs should be the focus of discussion, because in theory there is universal agreement that all actors should be accountable. In practice, however, it is less clear what is happening. Accountability for CSOs is essential as it is for the IFIs and while the clamor is for public institutions to reform and perform, on this point it is equally relevant that CSOs do the same. In fact, I don’t believe it is an understatement to suggest the topic is not just relevant but goes to the core of helping CSOs make the case that IFIs need to improve. CSOs often claim that they are accountable to their donors who vote through their donations. This position suggests a focus on accountability upwards, but it’s not applicable regarding the impact of CSO advocacy or activities on people living in poverty. Often, objective observers must rely on anecdotal evidence, which is not irrelevant but is it enough? Many CSOs make their financial records and fiduciary obligations publicly available. The Bangladeshi-based BRAC is an example of a CSO that actively provides such information. These are useful metrics, but are they the only measurements by which these organizations should be held to account? Are there comparable metrics that CSOs request of IFIs that they also should be producing and disseminating to prove and improve their accountability?

Actors within IFIs have questioned CSO legitimacy suggesting they are self-appointed and un-elected ”do-gooder’s” that are not necessarily representative of the populations they serve, as are the duly-elected government’s whose officials populate the governing bodies of the Bank, Fund and other MDBs. In 2001, we might recall that former Bank Chief Economist Larry Summers said, “I am deeply troubled by the distance that the Bank has gone in democratic countries toward engagement with groups other than governments in designing projects … I have to record very considerable doubt about the wisdom of setting up anyone other than democratically-elected governments as the counterpart for the establishment of Country Assistance Strategies. When there is an attempt to reach within society to develop Country Assistance Strategies, there is a real possibility, it seems to me, of significantly weakening democratically-elected governments.”

Some have also questioned whether CSOs have the same expertise as IFI economists, development practitioners and technical specialists. This second argument, however, seems weaker and based on a sense of elitism. We may assume that CSO actors, while often at a disadvantage regarding resources, are knowledgeable and dedicated and many times we can see them leading change and innovation on the ground.

Nevertheless, the question of CSO accountability remains relevant. CSOs should think carefully about how they may demonstrate their accountability, not just with their donors and foundations, but with stakeholders in the field and IFIs at the bargaining table. The more metrics CSOs can provide that demonstrate this, the more powerful is the case they can make to prove their legitimacy in demanding that IFIs must demonstrate and improve their own accountability. Evidence of CSO’s recognition is already emerging. While donors have been responding to pressure from external observers to increase information on their aid flows (see the London-based CSO Publish What You Fund’s Aid Transparency Assessment), US-based InterAction recently launched an NGO Aid Map which collects CSO’s project-level information to share with donors, governments and the public.

In my recent book, The World Bank Unveiled: Inside the Revolutionary Struggle for Transparency, I suggested one possible approach that would boost accountability for CSOs and IFIs simultaneously. My proposal was to create a seat on the World Bank’s Board of Executive Directors for a civil society representative. Providing CSOs a seat at the table would provide oversight and input on Bank decisions and thereby increase by some measure the institution’s accountability. It would concurrently increase CSO accountability because this actor would now have a role in the decision-making process. There are precedents: Civil society actors now play formal roles on the FAO’s Committee on World Food Security and some multi-donor trust funds managed by the Bank. Such a development should not be viewed as a panacea for what ails the relationship between the Bank (and other IFIs) and their CSO counterparts. Moreover, such an eventuality would entail a process by which complex legal and political questions would need to be examined, debated and sorted out. Nevertheless, such a discussion would be worth having because it goes to the heart of what this issue of accountability truly means.

8 Responses to Guest post – Should Accountability for Civil Society Organizations Receive the Same Attention as It Does for International Financial Institutions?

  1. Added: 10/05/2011 10:22 pm
    Per Kurowski says:

    Always when I have assisted as part of the civil society I have been very clear that I am not that clear on the meaning of that term, and so that I speak entirely on my own behalf, and, on occasions, perhaps on behalf of my not yet born grandchildren too.

    That said, I perfectly agree that CSO´s need to be held accountable, not the least for the way some of the big ones and renowned ones sometimes hijack what little ground there is for a debate, often in order to present, over and over again, what are quite often their very own special concerns or agendas

    As a former Executive Director of the World Bank and who had to quite fast realize that such a position had immensely less real voice that it was credited with, I have sometimes felt that there is even less voice in the civil society arena for someone who is not in sync with the big CSO´s from the developed countries.

    I can certainly understand that it might be more comfortable for the IFIs to fulfill the civil society encounter quotas by meeting with the best known CSOs, but, at the end of the day, it is not the comfort of the IFIs that the CSOs are supposed to be there for.

    If you want to benefit from the thinking out of the box, you have to learn to meet with and listen to people and organizations out of the box.

  2. Added: 12/05/2011 5:56 am
    Peter Davies says:

    With democracy comes responsibility. over many years I have served on the committees of a number of small CSO’s such as democratically-elected residents associations in the various cities I have lived in.

    As with all organisations, those with power within these organisations are there for a broad range of reasons: Self-serving, altruistic, desire for recognition, – all the usual reasons people become politicians.

    The secret to success in these organisations lies in trying to channel their energies into activities which actually benefit the communities these organisations purport to serve.

    Accontability should therefore be enshrined within such an organisation’s constitution. If no constitution exists then the organisation should be considered illegitimate.

    In response to you real question – should CSO’s have an elected member on the World Bank Board of Executive Directors, my view is that is a great idea.

    The real challenge would be setting up a procedure which would enable the thousands of CSOs which exist throughout the world to present a democratic vote on who that person should be.

  3. Added: 12/05/2011 4:45 pm
    Giuliana Pisani says:

    In the context of the recent financial crisis, economic trends, and of the international social and political revolutions – see the mediterranean area – CSOs have become increasingly influential and decisive in the process of the Institutionals’ democratic development. Actually, the CSOs reflect the major expression of the contemporary participatory democracy and of the rule of law.

    In the last decades, the CSOs’ composition have been fostered with the recruitment of experts in finance, politics, society and culture guarantying a common evolution of the “critical spirit”.
    Unfortunately, there still persist cases of “political affiliations or sympathizers” than the work of international institutions. Nevertheless I believe it is essential involvement by CSOs – as immanent component of the companies- to be consulted in the process of analysis issues of collective interest in order to curb the elitist character of the powerful international financial institutions, and to exercise a form of popular control procedure.

    Bribes and crime could be prevented through periodic replacement of social components or their temporary involvement in business development programs, according to a rotation of the Institutions’ top government.

    As for the technical institutions including the CSOs should be selected based on “professional requirements” relating to the subject of particular interest, as well as requirements of honesty and transparency.

    The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund as well as the United Nations need effective and efficient reform to face the current social and political challenges by providing for the judicial prosecution and the apportionment of representatives and their constituents.

    It should be necessary to strengthen the character of interdependence between “Society – Politics” to neutralize the dichotomy between the “Economy- Politics” and postpone economic interests in favor of the common good and the right of the Peoples.

  4. Added: 13/05/2011 1:13 pm
    Anabel Cruz says:

    Thank you David for an excellent reflection. CSO must be accountable and are responding to this increasing demand and ARE TRYING to be accountable to diverse stakeholders and audiences. We as CSO have many reasons why to be accountable: because of an ethical principle, because of
    Our Regional Initiative in Latin America called “Rendir Cuentas” is just an example of hundreds of organizations reporting with similar tools and promoting individual and collective and social accountability. I would love to know your thoughts about it! Best wishes // Anabel

  5. Added: 14/05/2011 4:37 pm
    Beris Gwynne says:

    It troubles me that this question is asked as if the subject of CSO/NGO accountability is something new, when it has been the subject of animated and typically asymmetrical discussion between CSOs/NGOs and donors, clients and other stakeholders in various parts of the world for years. It also troubles me, when civil society’s intrinsic value lies in its representation of civic action in all its diversity, that generalizations abound. Finally, when, in recent decades, national governments and successive UN and IFI administrations have repeatedly recognised the important role civil society that plays in equitable and environmentally sustainable economic and social development and humanitarian assistance, it troubles me that, absent a better informed and more sophisticated discussion of NGO legitimacy and accountability, CSO/NGO “space” is increasingly under attack. To zero in on difficulties that CSOs and NGOs share with other actors whose activities have significantly greater impact seems disingenuous.

    Does this mean that CSOs/NGOs should be let off lightly because of their particular role and contribution? No. The opposite applies. But where it is perceived that our legitimacy is threatened or our ‘accountability’ deficient, a good starting point is to seek to understand the context on the basis of close experience and to identify the accountability frameworks that exist (or not) for each group of actors.

    Without attributing greater or lesser significance, if we wanted to focus on the more visible international CSOs and NGOs, the majority of these are actively engaged, within available resources, in efforts to increase accountability and transparency to all stakeholders to demonstrate alignment with our publicly declared goals and efficient and effective use of resources and paying special attention to affected stakeholders, clients and beneficiaries.

    At the global level, leading ICSOs and INGOs are actively engaged in the aid and development effectiveness process (Accra Action Agenda) and the International Aid Transparency Initiative, in global humanitarian accountability initiatives and the International NGO Charter of Accountability Company (and associated Global Reporting Initiative ‘sustainability reporting’ guidelines) as well as sectoral initiatives and Codes of Good Practice. At the national level, there are more than 300 self-regulation initiatives and national Codes of Conduct in developed and developing countries.

    Does this mean that we (as CSOs) have cracked all of the methodological and other challenges involved – particularly in relation to measuring our contribution to outcomes or impact? No. The challenge lies in negotiating with all stakeholders a meaningful, verifiable but cost effective regime that ensures that accountability is as much about civic empowerment, learning and continual improvement as it is about compliance and mobilizes rather than discourages investment in civil society taking its place alongside the private sector, governments of states and their respective armed forces, and non- non-state actors to face the challenges ahead.

  6. Added: 17/05/2011 4:35 pm
    David Shaman says:

    I have enjoyed and benefited from comments here and off-line regarding my essay on CSO accountability, because they have spurred an interesting dialogue and passionate feelings about the subject. The motivation for my note was a sense that with so much focus on IFI accountability, it seems useful to remember we all are responsible actors in the equation. What matters most is to get people thinking about a subject, because that is the first step to acting upon it. Many readers have focused on two issues of particular interest to them: Whether the standards of accountability should be the same for CSOs and IFIs; and about the feasibility of having a CSO representative on the World Bank’s Board of Directors. Opinions are across the board.

    On the first matter, I agree that there are important differences between IFIs that receive and dispense public monies and are responsible for the public good as compared to civil society organizations that are charged with promoting specific causes and often are funded from private sources. These public institutions should set and achieve high standards in providing evidence of accountability. CSOs often will not have the staff and funding resources to achieve something comparable. Here, I would suggest that each CSO should assess its own capacity and act accordingly. The more effectively they can demonstrate accountability then more effectively they can make the case that the IFIs do likewise. I’ve noted a couple of examples of what CSOs have already done, but there are more. Anabel Cruz of Rendir Cuentas lists reports, research and achievements on its website (http://rendircuentas.org/). Beris Gwynne has noted the larger collective actions such as the International Aid Transparency Initiative and Global Reporting Initiative. This suggests many CSOs have long-been thinking about the subject and working on it as well.

    One point some readers have raised, and correctly, is that broadly characterizing CSOs as a homogenous group is misleading. Put differently: CSOs come in all shapes and sizes and their interest range across the spectrum. In some parts of the world, civil society actors are powerful, well-organized and well-financed. In other parts, they are nascent. Obviously, this is related to the first issue, but it is also related to the second. If there was a CSO representative on the Bank’s Board, who would that be and how would that representative get there? To be an effective and legitimate voice, such a representative could not be a person representing the interests of only large Northern NGOs. A civil society representative to the Board would have to speak for both North and South, which, of course, would precipitate a political process for how such a representative would be elected. How that political process would unfold is one I suggested should be an open question for the moment. This proposal, its merits and weaknesses, is one I will be thinking about more in the months ahead.

  7. Added: 20/05/2011 5:43 pm
    ¿Quiénes deben rendir cuentas? « Centro Virtual para la transparencia y la rendición de cuentas de la sociedad civil says:

    […] “Siempre que se debate sobre la gobernanza en materia de desarrollo internacional, la mayoría de las personas tienden a centrarse en las grandes instituciones públicas como el Banco Mundial y los bancos regionales multilaterales de desarrollo (MDB), el Fondo Monetario Internacional y las agencias bilaterales de desarrollo. Estas organizaciones están bajo control constantemente  para mejorar la transparencia de sus documentos, reuniones, los flujos de ayuda, la ejecución de las actividades de préstamo y las prácticas institucionales. Este debate vale la pena porque la falta de transparencia y rendición de cuentas de estas organizaciones podriá tener un impacto importante y duradero en las vidas de las personas que viven en la pobreza. Pero es la única discusión que vale la pena?”…>> Leer el artículo completo (en inglés) […]

  8. Added: 07/06/2011 6:08 pm
    David Shaman says:

    For Spanish speaking readers, Rendir Cuentas recently translated the above essay on their website. Readers may visit http://rendircuentas.org/2011/05/%c2%bfquienes-deben-rendir-cuentas/ to read the text and offer thoughts as well as view additional work by Rendir Cuentas to promote transparency and accountability in the development field.

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