I’ve never been to New York. I even lived in America, but never made it to the 2nd largest financial centre in the world (London rules). So an invitation to launch my new UN report at the UN HQ was great. Kinda. I had just been in the pub with a colleague from WWF talking about climate change and his concerns about flying. It’s the fastest growing form of carbon pollution, and by making it far easier to whiz around great distances it means we maintain personal and work relations over greater distances… and so lock ourselves into a new pattern of pollution. Argh! I couldn’t go and launch my book on ‘NGO accountability’ and in the process add more crap into the atmosphere… I’m working with WWF, for God’s sake.
Already at +0.6 degrees, human-caused Climate Change is causing water and food shortages, increased storm damage, and river bank erosion, leading to millions more refugees. Hundreds of thousands of plants and animals are now under threat of extinction. Scientists say we have to keep climate change below 2 degrees otherwise it will go beyond our control. That will require a halving of global carbon emissions in the next 2 decades, which means that people like us (presuming you are in the consumer class) have to cut our emissions by over 2 thirds right now.
Yes, that’s unlikely. Especially when much of our emissions come from products from companies whose actions we don’t directly control. Which means our current form of civilisation is unlikely to see out this century. So why bother? Two reasons. First, we have to try, and if we slow the pace of damage the suffering will be less. Second, because I want us to be worth saving. There are various sides to the human character, we are all saints and sinners in different ways at different times. I have a hope that the loving, caring, thoughtful side of human character is our defining one. Climate change is a symptom of us losing touch with who we are, as part of nature, and results from the desire to consume stuff, as if more stuff makes us who we are. With this view, the means for combating climate change also become the ends.
This is not to say there are difficult balances to be struck. Some blithely say “my work to save the world offsets my emissions”. In some cases they may be right…. but whether someone’s policy or advocacy work stops tonnes of carbon being tipped into the air is impossible to judge, by them or anyone else. And the time and effort to work it out would be a wasteful exercise. To make the right decisions about this people need to understand the challenge, and be working on this for the right reasons. No flight is essential. But there are also other ways to reduce your own carbon emissions such as not running a car or keeping your heating down. Ultimately, personal lifestyle change is not the whole solution. I could fall under a bus and reduce my emissions to zero, but that wouldn’t change climate change one bit. We need major changes from industry and government to meet the challenge. But living more lightly and consciously on this planet is consistent with a demand for systemic change from business and government, not a replacement for it.
It’s for this interest in the way to live that I worked on NGO accountability. I think debates about accountability could help NGO staff to connect with a common purpose in promoting collective benefit. It’s time for NGOs to begin describing themselves not in terms of what they are not (such as non-governmental and not-for-profit), but in terms of what they are commonly for. There’s many ways to describe this common ethic, which is about expressing oneself in ways that help rather than hinder others’ expression, and the basis for all of Life’s expression – our planet. I also hope that by engaging in questions of accountability, NGOs will become clearer about issues of power, given how unaccountable power in society underlies many social and environmental problems that NGOs address.
To get a grip of accountability, we need to be clear on the type and means. There is bad type of accountability. “I was just following orders” they say in war crimes trials. But there is a good form of accountability to the intended beneficiaries of our work, and others we affect in helping them, if they have less power than those beneficiaries. In my dossier I call this ‘democratic accountability’, which is a situation where people affected by decisions or indecisions can affect them. An organisation can either promote or hinder democratic accountability by i) helping hold powerful organisations to account to those they affect ii) so long as when doing this they are accountable to affected 3rd parties with less power iii) so long as those 3rd parties are accountable in the same way. Once that bigger picture is established of the type of accountability needed, then we have to focus on the means. Too much has been done in this field that is about binding us up with paper and reports, or creating new hierarchies of reporting to people who don’t know how to be agents of downwards accountability. Instead, effective accountability processes need to encourage people to connect with their sense of purpose, be reminded of it, encouraged to explore it and what it means, to be clear on the WHY not just what and how. So I’m pleased at WWF a colleague of mine has launched a project on what the organisations beliefs are. That’s more important than additional form filling.
Last week I had lunch with someone from an international environmental organisation comprised of NGOs and governments, and she said they only just had video conferencing installed – and she didn’t even know where it was. As I walked out through their car park full of 4x4s, I thought if organisational accountability is seen in terms of paper, not people, and doesn’t encourage us to be more authentic and reflective in our work, then it will hinder us in meeting the challenges we face.
Thanks Elisa and NGLS for making it possible for me to walk the talk. As ol blue eyes almost sang… New York, New York, If I can make it there (by video), I’ll make it anywhere…
The UN webcast of the launch is at: http://webcast.un.org/ramgen/specialevents/se070119.rm
The report is at: http://www.un-ngls.org/site/article.php3?id_article=202
The UN did their own press release, edited version follows:
As NGOs Multiply, Study Urges More Public Scrutiny, by Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jan 22 (IPS) – Just after the coastal regions of South and Southeast Asia were devastated by a disastrous tsunami in December 2004, hundreds of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) descended on Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives armed with relief supplies — and good intentions.
The massive humanitarian effort, according to a new study, was “testimony to the skills and power of many NGOs.”
“But it also heightened concerns about opportunities for the misuse and abuse of humanitarian funds,” says the 102-page report, titled “Debating NGO Accountability”, released here.
Within months, says the study, there were complaints in Sri Lanka about corruption in aid distribution, and the lack of strong political will on the part of the government to address the challenge. A series of about 30 articles in U.S. newspapers also raised the issue of ethical failures — including “sky-high salaries of top executives and expenses for offices, travel and perks” — while disputing the motives of some of the so-called humanitarian missions. “They highlighted conflicts of interest, failures to adhere to an organisation’s mission, questionable fundraising practices, and a lack of transparency,” says Dr. Jem Bendell, author of the study, which was commissioned by the U.N. NGO Liaison Service (NGLS).
Tony Hill, coordinator of NGLS, points out that the heads of 11 leading human rights, environmental and social development international organisations publicly endorsed the first global accountability charter in June last year — perhaps as a result of the increasing number of scandals involving charitable organisations. The organisations that signed the Charter included ActionAid International, Oxfam International, Amnesty International, CIVICUS World Alliance for Citizen Participation, Transparency International and Save the Children Alliance….
However, Bendell, an associate professor at Griffith University Business School in Australia and director of the consulting firm Lifeworth, argues that “accountability” in itself is not simply a good thing, as it so often assumed. Rather, he says, it must be clear that groups must be accountable specifically to those that are affected by their decisions and actions. It is this concept of “democratic accountability” that lies at the heart of the study, and will allow NGOs to continue to develop as effective and important actors in the international arena, notes Bendell, who is currently advising the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the world’s largest environmental organisation, on strategic development…
Asked if all international NGOs should sign the charter, Bendell told IPS: “Yes, it would be great for every major international NGO to sign the Accountability Charter.” He said the charter provides a basis for NGOs to come to a greater awareness of their common purpose in promoting public benefit, not private profit. “We need innovative approaches to be shared amongst charter signers, to find out the least bureaucratic and most meaningful mechanisms for promoting coherence with the human rights and democratic principles it states,” he added.
Yet these NGOs can only be as effective as their donors allow, he pointed out. So the study “emphasises the importance of the accountability of donors to those they identify as their intended beneficiaries.” He also said that too much money is spent on pet causes and political meddling, and not at all responsive to the needs of people affected by the giving. “And too much of these funds are generated from investments in companies and financial products with damaging impacts on society.”…
Asked about government regulation of NGOs, Bendell said that charity law and tax law are key mechanisms that governments use to regulate NGOs. “We would benefit from more sharing between governments on the best practices in these regulations to promote vibrant civil societies, with NGOs that are accountable to their intended beneficiaries and broad principles of human rights,” he added. (END/2007)