The question of the accountability of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) has a tendency to polarise opinion. NGOs demand others to be accountable. They should be accountable too, so the argument goes. Others deny that NGOs should be held accountable at all, especially if that accountability is to the State.
To say that NGOs must be accountable presupposes that they currently are not accountable. If they are already accountable, then the argument has to say that they should be more accountable and demonstrate why additional accountability is necessary.
Perhaps the best place to start from is the very question of NGO accountability. What do we mean when we say NGOs should be accountable, to whom and why? The concept of accountability is difficult to define, partly because it varies depending on time, context, cultural or ideological persuasion, and partly because of disagreements about what standards should be used for holding actors accountable.
In political studies, the notion of accountability entails three elements: answerability, responsiveness and enforceability. Answerability demands that an actor explains and justifies the exercise of his or her powers. Responsiveness refers to the process whereby an actor addresses the needs and expectations of a particular constituency. Enforceability refers to a process by which an actor can be subjected to sanctions for the failure to perform his or her functions.
This definition presupposes the existence of at least two parties; the party expected to account, and the party to whom the accountability is owed. In the case of the State, accountability is owed by those who hold public power to citizens. Various theories have been developed to justify that form of accountability.
In the case of NGOs, no coherent theory has been put forward to require a State-like accountability structure for NGOs vis-à-vis the general public. This is so because there is no direct power-giving relationship between NGOs and the general public.
NGOs are created by individuals or groups of individuals exercising their freedom to associate and freedom to participate in the political activities of their country. As such, NGOs are entitled to choose their objectives and methods of carrying out those goals. No State or individual has a right to demand that an NGO choose another objective or implement a particular goal in a different way.
Does this mean NGOs have the right to do as they please? The answer is, without a doubt, yes, as long as they do not act unlawfully. Note that the duty not to act unlawfully applies to everyone, not just NGOs. At the very least then, NGOs are expected to obey the law just like everyone. But there is no more accountability they owe to anyone, except their funders and boards of directors or trustees.
Some people think that NGOs have become too many, some of which are practically briefcase NGOs. This has nothing to do with lack of accountability. Others think that NGOs are a personal enrichment scheme. Those that know the industry very well will respond that there are no foolish funders out there, willing to sponsor any frivolous idea. If a so-called briefcase NGO is being funded, the probability is that it has something good to offer.
NGOs need to be provided with all the space they need to carry out their freely chosen goals. They work in a hostile environment in which they often champion unpopular causes and have to cope with unpredictable funding patterns. NGOs are good for democracy and development.