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Time to put the NGO House in Order

By Mike Edwards. Source: Financial Times, 6 June 2000

Mike Edwards argues that NGOs must take account of their critics

Luddites, extremists and the 'leftover left'; unaccountable interest groups that undermine the authority of elected officials; armchair radicals from the rich world who have no right to speak for the Third-World poor. Reactions to the recent Prague street protests confirmed that NGO bashing has become a favourite sport for government officials, business and the Press.

It is tempting for NGOs to dismiss these claims as ill-informed and self-serving, but this would be a serious mistake. NGOs must build their legitimacy in the global arena by pushing through much-needed reforms in their own community. As I argue in a new pamphlet for the Foreign Policy Centre, it is time for a "new deal" in global governance that gives citizens groups the right to a voice in global debates in return for a stronger commitment to their responsibilities. That means concerted action in three areas:

First, transparency and accountability. Unlike governments (which must face elections) and businesses (which must face their shareholders), NGOs report to boards of trustees that exercise only a light form of oversight. This makes it difficult to publicly test the accuracy and validity of their claims. NGOs don't insist on a vote in global governance, just more of a voice, but they should still be held accountable for what they do and say - whose 'voice' is heard in NGO campaigns? If the NGOs who protested so loudly at Prague turn out to be wrong in their assumptions about global trading strategies, it is farmers in the Third World who have never heard of Christian Aid that will suffer the consequences for generations. The same strictures apply to pro free traders too, of course, but NGOs cannot use this as a defence. They need to ensure that their message is grounded in grassroots experience and accurate research.

Second, global NGO networks are dominated by voices from the rich world, a weakness that makes them easy targets for attack. Powerful NGOs like Oxfam and Greenpeace must make some sacrifices to ensure that Southern NGOs are not excluded from debates by their wealthier counterparts from Europe and North America. This will involve some short-term pain for long term gain, since governments, business and the general public will respect those NGOs that are seen to practice what they preach by empowering poor people to speak and act for themselves.

Third, NGO campaigns are sometimes driven by fashion and sensation rather than loyalty to the facts. The absence of more thoughtful critiques can give unwitting support to reactionary forces that care little about the welfare of the poor: it is no coincidence that protectionism is on the rise in the USA at a time when attacks against the World Bank and the IMF are in full swing. NGOs don't need to be think tanks or universities, but they do need to put more resources into rigorous research and the building of credible policy alternatives.

These weaknesses cannot be corrected through the heavy hand of bureaucratic regulation. The challenge is to find a light set of structures and incentives that guard against malpractice, while protecting the variety and independence that are the hallmarks of a healthy civil society. Here are some suggestions:

First, codes of conduct for global networks that lay out minimum standards for NGO integrity and performance, monitored through self regulation but with a 'quality assurance board' in the United Nations to provide some independent oversight.

Second, a level playing field for NGOs and other civil society groups from the South and the North, with special help to those currently left out of global debates. A 'WTO Participation Fund' could channel resources to capacity building among NGOs and governments in the South. This should be used to ensure that all developing country members can be represented at future summit meetings, and it should pay for meaningful NGO participation through workshops, mentoring and other training schemes. Meanwhile donors should place a 25 per cent cap on the amount of foreign aid that can be channelled through NGOs in the North.

Third, we need structures that give NGOs a meaningful role without pretending that they can substitute for governments in formal decision-making. For example, a 'World Financial Forum' every five years could enable stakeholders to debate the role and performance of the International Financial Institutions once the dust has settled on particular crises and interventions. Relevant NGOs and civil society groups could be given the right to monitor the World Bank's new Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, country by country, to ensure that both the negotiation and implementation of these strategies draws as much as possible on local knowledge.

These measures will not solve all the problems of NGO participation, but they should help to assuage the criticisms that threaten to turn back the tide of global citizen action. This is an important point because – despite the inadequacies of current practice – the increasing involvement of NGOs had been a significant force for the common good. Deeper debt relief, the Ottawa Treaty on land mines, the global movement for womens' rights and protection of the environment – none of these advances would have happened without NGO ideas and pressure.

Though stereotyped as "Luddites", most NGOs are not against globalisation as such, merely advocates for global democracy and human rights as well as market integration. Whether they are more or less 'representative', or right or wrong on the fine print of their critiques, are not the most important questions, since NGOs differ so much even among themselves. But principles of equal voice, accountability and a level playing field are things that NGOs already support, even though they struggle to put them into practice. Certainly, NGOs must work harder to put their house in order, but the message to government and business is also clear: instead of opposing the rise of NGOs with tear gas, pepper spray and batons, put in the place some rules of the game to ensure that their energies are channeled democratically, and to the genuine benefit of those excluded from the fruits of global progress.

Michael Edwards is a director of the Ford Foundation and the author of "Future Positive" (Earthscan), but writes here in a personal capacity. "NGO Rights and responsibilities: a New Deal for Global Governance" is published by the Foreign Policy Centre (£9.95) and is available from Central Books: 020 8986 5488