Global Policy Forum

Shifting the Focus:


By Monica Blagescu

One World Trust
May 2007

Until about six years ago, there seemed to be a shared consensus that nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) were a good thing - as the core of active civil societies, supporting the delivery of public services and contributing to democratic societies. Recently, however, we have witnessed attempts to build a case against NGOs, suggesting that they are undermining national sovereignty and democracy and have no relationship to any real public. While many questions about NGOs reflect concerns about the legitimacy and accountability of many institutions, others come from the very agencies that have been targets of NGO advocacy or grow out of the problematic behaviour on the part of some NGOs themselves. As NGOs increasingly exercise their voice in public policy debates and continue to play an important role in the sphere of social development and change, the demand for NGO accountability is growing.

Unfortunately, many calls for NGO accountability and most of the dialogue on this issue is situated around the actual mechanisms that NGOs adopt to demonstrate accountability - the log frames and the benchmarks that provide donors (be they individual supporters or institutional grantmakers) with some sense of the organisation's quality and effectiveness. And until very recently, little deep conversation revolved around the question: what are NGOs responsibilities and to whom should NGOs be primarily accountable in pursuing them?

Recent work highlights that responses to accountability questions depend upon the political context in which NGOs operate, the particular mission of the organisation, and the demands of different stakeholders. The stakeholder model of accountability has now been widely accepted - at least in theory if not in practice - as the desirable one to apply to NGOs and other organisations that pursue a social purpose. This model transfers the right to accountability from exclusively those that have authority over an organisation to anyone that has been affected by the organisation's activities. This stakeholder view recognises that accountability is more than an end-stage activity. Accountability is about rebalancing power relations and also an agent for organisational change. Accountability that is pursued on an ongoing basis opens up space for those affected by an organisation to inform and affect its decision-making processes.

If a stakeholder model is to be practiced, what is the role of grantmakers in helping NGOs increase the accountability and quality of their work?

In the development context, the stakeholder model recognises that outcomes depend on the interaction and work of multiple actors. Traditionally, grantmakers have focused on evaluation as a way to render definitive judgments on success or failure. Evaluation has been viewed as a way to measure success against predetermined goals, a cause-effect logic to show that the grantmakers' actions produced a defined result. In many instances, however, grantmakers are not necessarily able to make definitive judgments about cause and effect because they focus their grantmaking on problems that do not lend themselves to easy answers. Complex development problems require complex systems that include many interconnected parts, often acting independently of each other. It is unlikely that grantmakers or their grantees can single-handedly transform complex systems. Rather, what they can do is work together and intervene in specific parts of the system and, as time goes on, learn more from each other and about how the system works so as to revisit assumptions and, if necessary, change course.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of grantmakers continue to ask grantees for limited types of information from a narrow project monitoring and upwards accountability perspective. Upwards accountability mechanisms, rigid monitoring, and evaluation frameworks that are designed to drive quality according to carefully planned outputs do not adequately fit with what really drives quality in development work - such as time to reflect on practice; adapt, recognise, and learn from failure; or practice downward accountability that relies on greater participation. While some grantmakers are developing systems that enable grantees to openly share what they are learning in the course of their work, others lag behind. Where is the voice of NGO beneficiaries when NGOs report to grantmakers? Are grantmakers encouraging NGOs to be open about failures?

Given the relative power of grantmakers, should they take more responsibility in supporting the conditions that enable their NGO grantees to practice a stakeholder model of accountability? Equally, isn't it time that grantmakers recognise that they are just one of the many stakeholder groups that NGOs need to be accountable to?

More Information on NGOs
More Information on Funding for NGOs
More Information on Credibility and Legitimacy of NGOs


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