Global Policy Forum

Civil Society Wants Transparency - For Itself as Well


By Marcela Valente

Inter Press Service
May 14, 2007

Non-governmental organisations have won prestige and credibility revealing injustice and corruption in business and government. But who oversees the watchdogs? Who holds them accountable for how they use their funds, how they operate, and the results achieved through their work?

Civil society sources who spoke to IPS in Argentina said large and small non-governmental organisations (NGOs), beneficiaries of their activities, and donors are entirely aware of the importance of ensuring that the work of organised civil society is transparent and subject to oversight. But in practice, scarcity of funds, lack of oversight and evaluation instruments, and bureaucratic obstacles created by national laws and regulations transform the need for transparency into an additional burden that NGOs carry as best they can or that distracts them from their central mission, absorbing valuable time and funds.

"In Argentina there is widespread concurrence on the need for an agreement on transparency, among large well-funded foundations as well as grassroots organisations that are small but have a strong ethical sense," Pablo Marsal, with the Asociación de Graduados de Organizaciones y Dirección Institucional (AGODI), an association of graduates in the field of management of NGOs, told IPS. Marsal is one of the authors of the Argentine chapter of a study on "accountability and transparency among civil society in Latin America" that is being coordinated by the Uruguay-based Instituto de Comunicación y Desarrollo (ICD) in nine countries in the region as well as Spain to study the existence of and need for evaluation mechanisms in NGOs. According to the study, the agreement on the need for transparency in Argentina has not in and of itself led to better oversight, because of the lack of funds or the hurdles created by red tape. "There are organisations that can't afford an accountant or an audit, but which have efficient mechanisms like weekly assemblies, where every expense is accounted for," he said.

He also cited the case of small grassroots organisations that require that each expense be authorised with three signatures from the directors, others that refuse to accumulate unused portions of donations, to prevent misuse, and yet others that use simple but effective methods of control and transparency. "One organisation told us they use the blackboard to write down every single expense, so that anyone can see how the funds are used," said Marsal. Not as widespread is the use of ethical codes, good practice manuals, or periodic, systematic evaluations.

Among the bureaucratic hurdles faced by NGOs in Argentina, Marsal pointed to "an offensive" by the Federal Administration of Public Revenues (AFIP), which collects taxes and customs duties. In 2005, AFIP made it obligatory for NGOs to register themselves again, in order to come up with a complete list of tax-exempt non-profit organisations. But many NGOs were unaware of the requirement, which was not widely publicised, or were unable to carry out the procedure, which required an accountant, and around 20,000 NGOs thus disappeared from the official list, amounting to a 20 percent reduction from the 2004 total of 100,000 registered NGOs, said Marsal.

To compensate for these shortcomings and help strengthen the so-called "third sector", the organisation Help Argentina designed a self-evaluation booklet for civil society organisations, a guide to improving their operations in different areas of work with recommendations for strengthening their weakpoints. Luz Avruj, who coordinated the production of the booklet, told IPS that NGOs that evaluate their work in Argentina are "in the minority," and that when they do so, it is not on their own initiative but in response to requirements from donors, while the assessment focuses merely on the specific project that received financing, rather than on the NGO as a whole.

Even when there is nothing to hide, a lack of transparency undermines the chances of receiving funding, said Avruj. "Among donors, there is great scepticism with regard to where their donated funds end up, which is why we believe that if administration and oversight is improved, financing will become more continuous and reliable," she added. "In Argentina, and in the region in general, there is a cultural reluctance to evaluate, because the practice is associated with approval or disapproval of the work undertaken, when it is actually an assessment of strengths and of weaknesses that could be improved," said Avruj.

What Help Argentina does is help channel financial and human resources to its member organisations. But to become members of Help, NGOs must meet certain requisites. "Since we have experience in evaluating organisations, many of them asked us to systematise that methodology for their internal use," said the activist. That gave rise to the design of the self-evaluation booklet, which asks, for example, if all of the members are aware of the organisation's objectives; if the organisation sees its projects as coherent with its mission; if it carries out evaluations of its work, and if so, how often; or if it has an external communications strategy. The booklet also provides financial and institutional guidelines. It asks if the organisation regularly draws up a budget; if the majority of its funds go towards its mission; if it is a formal legal entity with its own statutes; if it undergoes periodic audits; and if it has a bank account in its name.

"Carrying out evaluations costs money, you have to pay consultants and dedicate funds and other resources to the task, which is why we offer this self-evaluation tool, that has been in high demand" from grassroots organisations as well as a few larger groups, and from donors interested in distributing it to their beneficiaries, said Avruj. In Marsal's view, initiatives like the Help booklet can contribute to reinforcing the credibility of NGOs, which is their main capital.

However, he also mentioned that in Argentina there have been serious cases of contradictions between the mission and the results of several NGOs. For example, Poder Ciudadano, the Argentine chapter of the global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, sacked its president in 2004 because for a decade he received a privileged public pension of the kind that the organisation itself criticised. Marsal also pointed to the arrest and trial of a well-known Catholic priest, Julio Grassi, president of the Fundación Felices los Niños, a charity for street children, on charges of child sex abuse.

These issues will form part of the debate at the seventh annual World Assembly of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, to be held May 23-27 in Glasgow, Scotland. The CIVICUS conferences are considered to be among the leading meetings of international civil society. The Johannesburg-based Civicus, which emerged in 1993, is a coalition of NGOs from across the spectrum aimed at strengthening civil society, notably in places where democratic participation and freedom of association are under threat. The NGOs consulted by IPS, whether big or small, all said they were aware of the need to respond to the call for transparency. But they were basically talking about the need to meet the requirements of donors, and not so much about what the beneficiaries of their efforts, the state, or society in general are demanding.

The administrative director of Greenpeace Argentina, Gustavo González, explained that besides the submission of an annual report and balance sheet, the organisation's accounts are audited by private companies. The balance sheets are then sent to Greenpeace International headquarters, which in turn is submitted to a global audit. The results of its performance in Argentina are presented to the public annually and are published in the organisation's magazine. But the main target of the information contained in the annual reports and balance sheets are those who finance the institution.

Cecilia Iglesias of the Asociación Civil Red Ambiental, a coalition of environmental NGOs in Argentina, admitted that her organisation "is in need of more rigorous and formal administrative management and accounting," especially because "sometimes we find it complicated to clearly present our finances to our donors." "This was not an obstacle until now because we operated with small disbursements of funds focused on specific projects. But as we have grown, it has become necessary to systematise certain mechanisms for evaluation and the presentation of results," said Iglesias.

The AGODI study basically found that the quality of work of NGOs in Argentina could be improved if certain hurdles are overcome and specific tools are designed, said Marsal. Furthermore, he warned that the third sector "is not immune to major corruption scandals which hurt the credibility of all."

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