Traditionally, the focus on improving accountability has concentrated on State institutions with a specific emphasis on public institutions. As such, public sector accountability has been the preoccupation of development partners and civil society advocacy non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
However, reports of accountability challenges and gaps in NGOs have attracted interest to interrogate the state of accountability in the civil society sector. Accountability in this case includes financial accountability, staffing and recruitment accountability, board and executive decision-making process-related accountability, and procurement-related accountability.
While civil society organizations (CSOs) and NGOs have been on the forefront demanding accountability and answerability on the part of government, the question arises of whether CSOs and NGOs are themselves clean. In Malawi, the NGO Board has consistently decried the low numbers of NGOs that submit annual program and financial reports. Lack of adherence to such reporting requirements is a proxy for lack of accountability.
Annually, the NGO sector spends close to K1 trillion, which is about 60 percent of the 2020 Malawi Government budget. The amount is 35 percent of the current 2022/23 National Budget. Such a huge expenditure requires that NGOs demonstrate accountability on how the funds are spent. Sadly, the NGO Board observes that 65 percent of registered NGOs did not submit annual reports in 2020. The rate has peaked and hit the mark of 73 percent non-compliant NGOs in 2021.
This is a worrisome trend that raises many questions such as why the majority of NGOs are reluctant to practice accountability. Is it that NGOs are more willing to demonstrate accountability to their donors than to Malawi government? And by extension, are NGOs more willing to be accountable to their funders than to the people and communities they are intended to serve?
When the massive fraud of public funds, dubbed Cash-gate scandal hit Malawi in 2013, development partners froze budget support to Malawi government. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) suspended its programme with Malawi, and bilateral donors closed aid taps. However, some donors decided to channel their aide through NGOs. The challenge with this arrangement is that NGOs are legally not ‘public’ entities and are consequently not fully accountable under the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA), and the public audit and procurement laws.
NGOs’ funds are managed under accounting systems different from the Integrated Financial Management Information System (Ifmis) used by government. The decision by the Global Fund to shift the channeling of funds from the National Aids Commission (NAC) to NGOs such as Action Aid and World Vision brought with it mixed feelings and controversial results. For example, the shift exposed capacity challenges within NGOs to manage such big portfolios.
Nonetheless, some NGOs, and most notably international NGOs (Ingos) have proved to be more efficient and have demonstrated greater accountability in finance management and in non-finance processes. However, the use of NGOs as a channel for development financing by development partners has been criticised for undermining the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness which, among other principles, calls on donors to use national systems, understood as government departments within State institutions.
The Paris Declaration also champions the principle of mutual accountability where development partners (donors) are equally saddled with the responsibility to demonstrate answerability. Malawi has produced its own cases of donor institutions that have been criticised for colluding and conniving with their preferred NGOs that have benefited from funding at the expense of more qualified and deserving NGOs. Such a selective approach has displeased ‘local’ NGOs which have raised concerns that donors often favour international NGOs.
The marginalisation of local NGOs means that they are denied an opportunity to demonstrate their capacities and grow their expertise. This has created fertile ground for accusations and counter-accusations since Ingos and some donors claim that majority of local NGOs lack capacity and have weak accountability systems. Recently, a number of CSOs and NGOs have scaled down operations while others have completely closed due to lack of funding.
Although absence of funding could be as a result of many other factors and reasons, lack of accountability has been the most commonly cited reason by donors to stop funding NGOs, at least in the case of Malawi. This trend has largely affected advocacy CSOs a majority of which have degenerated into ‘solo flights’ that are run and operated by one or just a few individuals largely on volunteer basis. The CSOs are hardly on the ground, largely out of touch with communities they claim to represent, and often are only visible when they make media interviews for news.
Sadly, these are the CSOs whose voices are critical to demanding public sector accountability. The problem is that the CSOs’ voices are themselves systematically muted as they are not funded on the back of the accusation of lacking accountability, especially through mismanagement of donor funds. On a positive note, solace can be drawn from the observation that there still exist some CSOs which are models in terms of accountability standards and practices.
Malawi is experiencing a surge in new generation of activists that are committed to openness and integrity. This is in contrast to traditional expectations where a job in the NGO sector was regarded as an automatic entry card to personal aggrandisement and wealth accumulation. A traditional NGO manager was envisaged as one driving top of the range SUVs, living in an NGO-funded mansion somewhere in a low density suburb, and basking in a hefty salary punctuated with a litany of nameless per diems and ‘field allowances’.
On the contrary, today’s NGO managers and CSO staff have the responsibility first and foremost to be accountable in their day-to-day undertakings by demonstrating results. A modern day NGO manager has to align their work to broader national goals such as the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS) and long term vision such as the Malawi 2063.
At the regional and global level, CSO leaders, too, are mandated to harmonise their voices with aspirations such as are enshrined in the African Union (AU) Agenda 2063 and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations (UN). To achieve this feat, NGO leaders have to meaningfully invest in research-based interventions. Likewise, CSO activists have to actively pursue evidence-based advocacy as an indispensable tool for accountability in their daily undertakings.
Does NGO regulation facilitate accountability or inhibit answerability processes? This is a question that is put to the test under the new NGO law passed by Malawi Parliament. Divisive in opinion as expected, the NGO Bill is yet to be assented to by the President to give it the force of law. Activists and liberal democrats consider the NGO law a tool for muzzling CSO voices.
The law is regarded draconian as it is feared it will restrict civic space through the use of the NGO Authority as a new creature to unleash all manner of surveillance and punishments on critical CSOs. Activists wonder why a government that attained political power and won an election buoyed by CSO activism should be the first to promulgate a law that stifles voices of the same CSOs.
Here again is a place where CSO accountability and integrity of NGO leaders is put under a microscope. The question that flashes on the mind is to what extent are CSO activists accountable to ordinary people and represent ordinary citizens? The behaviour of CSO activists to align themselves to politicians and collect monies from suspicious business persons has cast a shadow of doubt on the credibility of activists and on the sincerity of their agenda.
Some CSO leaders have used the civil society space as a platform to market themselves for political office. Some have ended up being appointed into top government positions at Capital Hill and State House, while others have used the CSO label as a launch pad for lucrative jobs in State-owned enterprises (parastatals). Recently, a good number of activists have been captured and drafted into careers as diplomats. Such ‘poaching’ trends have reduced CSO capacities and weakened voices to demand accountability, on top of the challenge of lack of funding already discussed.
NGO accountability matters for a number of reasons. First, NGOs will continue to be an alternative avenue for channelling development finance. This very much applies to service delivery NGOs both local and international.
In the event of low efforts to address the corruption problem in the public sector, donors will strive to safeguard their hard-earned money by turning to NGOs as a fallback position to achieve value for money and attain development goals. Therefore, NGOs have the imperative to embrace high accountability standards and attract staff that work with unimpeachable levels of integrity.
Second, CSOs have to lead by example and operate above reproach in their own internal governance and NGO accountability processes. Those that come to equity must come with clean hands. CSOs can only claim higher ground in demanding public sector accountability if they are accountable themselves. One trillion kwacha is a huge sum of money that cannot just be spent without scrutiny.
Lastly, CSOs need to cultivate the culture of open and transparent recruitment processes. The boards of NGOs must comprise competent individuals appointed on merit and not based on personal and family ties. CSO staff must be employed based on professionalism and not on nepotistic grounds.
In Malawi, NGO accountability has been eroded since some NGOs and CSOs have embraced the unfortunate pattern of recruiting incompetent personal pursuant to their inclinations towards nepotistic, favouritism, tribalism and gender considerations. Accountability within NGOs is a key to sustainable development and is important for deepening democracy.
*The author is a governance analyst with many years of experience in civil society and NGO management. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or +265 999 292 240 for feedback.