To me, CSOs are optimally accountable when they engage and give voice directly to the people they work with. I judge an INGO’s accountability by its ability to give its audience the opportunity to engage more equally in the world and shape outcomes to their benefit.
Meet the Children’s Radio Foundation (CRF). A modern, sleek and vibrant NGO. CRF invites you to spend some time in the world of young people from South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Liberia, Ivory Coast and Zambia. Using SoundCloud and Vimeo, you get direct access to information from young people about their views on climate change, sexuality, health and human rights. Not only are we hearing young people’s voices, but we’re getting access to data on what they want and what matters to them.
Oxfam International’s recent announcement that it will begin to move its headquarters to Kenya from 2017 is another great example. One of the most tangible ways to be more accountable to clients is to have decision-making bodies right where they are. It is also a tangible way to rectify the power imbalance of whose voice is heard (which, quite frankly, most of us are done with). Oxfam’s closer engagement with home-grown CSOs will not only make it more accountable, but it will in turn help build Oxfam’s own capacity to be more responsive and accountable to its clients.
The degree to which INGOs are accountable should be measured by their ability to make it possible for their clients to engage more equally in the world.
And in the end, that is really the role of INGOs: the degree to which they are accountable should be measured by their ability to make it possible for their clients to engage more equally in the world. Client voices also serve another important purpose, namely engaging a new group of citizens in the developing countries themselves. Middle and upper-income citizens in developing countries are largely ignored by INGOs, but they have the human, financial and social capital to drive change and they need to be engaged. By using digital tools and working with home-grown CSOs, INGOs should be looking for new ways to engage these groups, who generally scoff at the out-of-touch nature of development work.
To be accountable, INGOs need to include their clients in a more real way and engage new groups of people in their work towards a better informed and more equal development sector. Let’s not confuse accountability with ‘accounts ability’, and let’s praise NGOs of all sizes who are levelling the playing field and engaging new audiences.