NGDOs as international advocates:
The challenge of downward accountability

by Alan Fowler []

How are NGDOs formally held accountable for what they do and say (nationally and) internationally? (Edwards and Hulme, 1996a). Where NGDOs have a civic constituency that controls their governance and mandate, the answer is reasonably straightforward. The constituency is the instrument of direct civic accountability in addition to the wider public accountability through domestic law governing their establishment (World Bank, 1997). (This does still not deal with accountability those served, the poor and excluded). However, most NGDOs do not have a civic constituency of governing members. More usual is a self-perpetuating, self-selected set of Directors or Trustees. This fact is raising questions about the validity of the 'agreed' positions NGDOs take in international fora and towards multilateral organisations (Jordan and van Tuijl, 1997; Nelson, 1995, 1997). 20

Irrespective of the merits of the positions they adopt, lack of clarity or demonstration of where NGDO mandates come from is undermining their credibility as policy actors, nationally and internationally. This is not to say, that those questioning NGDO policy positions are necessarily 'democratically' mandated themselves, but that is not an adequate reason for NGDOs to discount the criticism or concern.

How are NGDO responding to this vulnerability? The likelihood of NGDOs transforming themselves into member-based entities is not high. Nor should it be necessary. The law should suffice, as it does for businesses. Nevertheless, the issue of civic accountability still has to be addressed. As alluded to earlier, a common way for NGDOs to deal with the issue of mandate is to form alliances and operate in coalitions with those on whose behalf they are advocating. Examples of coalitions seeking to change World Bank policy and practice are to be found in Fox and Brown, 1998. This study suggests that to be legitimate, credible and effective, policy advocates must establish 'downward accountability'.

Using three components, Catherine Bain, examines what downward accountability should entail in transnational advocacy (Bain, 1999). The three components are: representation, capacity building and social capital. These are defined as follows.

  • "Representation: The manner in which an organization, or group of organizations, speaks for its members or constituents and is held to account for this representation.

  • Capacity building: The ability of a network to coordinate actors and bridge differences to achieve impact and leverage in a way that pools skills and builds the capacity of its members-primarily its Southern members- to represent their own views in national and global arenas.

  • Social Capital: The ability of a network to promote trust, solidarity, respect and unity among its diverse members and re-enforce democratic practices by conducting itself in a transparent and accountable manner. (Bain, 1999:6)

These components lead to a synthetic definition of downward accountability as:

"The ability of the network [read: international advocacy coalition] to serve as a channel for the excluded while promoting balanced partnerships between its members and practices, skills and values that re-enforce democratic traditions." (op cit)

She goes on to examine these components in relation to three cases of transnational coalitions involved in policy advocacy towards the World Bank. An overall conclusion from this study is framed in the following way.

"While some progress has been made in addressing low upward accountability, it seems that downward accountability-at least within transnational NGO networks - continues to be the Achilles heel of the NGO movement. In an era when NGOs aim to become "vehicles of international co-operation in the mainstream of politics and economics" and have successfully won a place at many global negotiating tables, they now seem to be having difficulties in adjusting to their new role. While it would be unreasonable to expect all NGOs to adopt strategies of partnership and collaboration, it is not unreasonable to expect NGOs to begin to practice the downward accountability that they preach." (Bain, 1999:20)

In sum, NGDOs have found a potential method to address legitimate criticism of their role as international advocates. However, much more needs to be done to make this option the norm.

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