Africa, Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights

DEVELOPMENT: Keeping Civil Society on the Straight and Narrow

Moyiga Nduru

JOHANNESBURG, May 15 2007 (IPS) - A few years ago, this IPS correspondent posed a question at a workshop in Johannesburg, South Africa, about whether non-governmental organisations (NGOs) should be held more accountable for their actions. Afterwards, the key speaker at the event pulled me aside, and issued a polite rebuke for my “dangerous question”.

The “dangerous question” has continued to crop up since then, however, reflecting a growing debate over standards of conduct within the humanitarian sector as it has assumed an ever more prominent role in public life. Civic groups are now being scrutinised over a range of issues – from accounting practices, to whether they are truly serving the needs of communities.

“It’s true that accountability is not being exercised to the extent that it should be. Quite a large number of civil society organisations and NGOs have no organically-evolved mandate from the citizens,” Ozias Tungwarara, director of the Johannesburg-based Open Society Institute, itself an NGO, told IPS.

Notes an anonymous posting on the website of the Southern African NGO Network: “Many NGOs are not practicing what they preach and a good example is the HIV/AIDS activists. Soon after conducting a workshop, they are already getting promiscuous. Is it the money that attracts them to the job or the need to be socialists that want to see change in the society?”

“Having worked for NGOs for almost four years, I can safely say that most of these NGOs just want funding and if not monitored, they convey it to their personal use,” added the writer.

Nicholas Mkaronda, co-ordinator of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, a pressure group, takes a more positive view of the situation.

“I think there is a high level of accountability in the way civil society organisations and NGOs handle their finances and address societal issues,” he told IPS from the coalition’s office in Johannesburg.

Mkaronda said complaints about NGO conduct may sometimes stem from public misunderstanding about the roles of these groups: “For example, the Zimbabwean community in South Africa expects us to mobilise resources to sort out shelter, feeding and legal (immigration) status. Yet our role is to highlight the crisis in Zimbabwe.”

Political and economic difficulties in South Africa’s northern neighbour have prompted an exodus from the country. Briefing journalists in Johannesburg in March, Pius Ncube, the Catholic Archbishop of Zimbabwe’s second largest city, Bulawayo – and an outspoken critic of the Harare government – put the number of Zimbabweans living in South Africa at over two million.

Daniel Molokela, coordinator of the Zimbabwe Combined Civil Society Organisations, a Johannesburg-based network, believes self-regulation may hold the key to improving matters: “It would be a good idea if NGOs and civil society groups came up with a code of conduct like the one which guides other professionals such as medical doctors and lawyers.”

“They could organise annual meetings and audit their books as part of accountability and transparency. If they didn’t comply, then they could be boycotted by their community or donors,” he told IPS.

An initiative to this effect is already underway concerning international NGOs – or INGOs: last year, eleven of these groups signed the ‘INGO Accountability Charter’. The first document of its kind, the charter lays out a number of principles such groups should adhere to, to retain public trust in the non-governmental sector.

These include working “in genuine partnership” with local organisations and communities; complying with governance, accounting and reporting obligations in countries of operation; and balancing expectations of NGOs with the salaries needed to attract competent staff, when deciding on remuneration.

The charter also stipulates that INGO employees should be “enabled and encouraged” to become whistleblowers concerning activities by aid groups that are illegal, or which contradict the goals and commitments of these groups.

CIVICUS – the World Alliance for Citizen Participation – is serving as secretariat for the INGO Accountability Charter, administering processes to ensure that signatories are meeting their obligations, amongst others.

This Johannesburg-based network groups a variety of civil society organisations with the aim of strengthening civic participation in public life, particularly in areas of the world where this is under threat.

The debate on civic accountability will also feature strongly during CIVICUS’s annual World Assembly, scheduled to take place in Glasgow, Scotland from May 23-27 under the theme ‘Acting Together for a Just World’.

Demands for accountability may intensify as NGOs attempt to have their views taken into account more broadly, including in the African Union’s (AU) discussions about continental governance.

African foreign affairs ministers met in the South African port city of Durban last week to discuss strategies for achieving the union’s goal of political and economic integration of its 53 member states.

To date, however, “The public have not been involved in the AU’s conversation about continental governance, or had their views listened to. We cannot have a United States of Africa without citizenship,” noted Janah Ncube, senior programme officer at the Nairobi branch of the Agency for Cooperation and Research in Development, an international NGO, in a recent statement.

“Effective states require active citizens and the participation of all men and women in governance.”

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