The following is a guest post reflecting on one of the roundtable sessions at the upcoming ISTR Conference organized by Alan Fowler, Honorary Professor Chair in African Philanthropy, Wits Business School and Professor Emeritus, International Institute of Social Studies and Kees Biekart, Associate Professor International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) at the Erasmus University Rotterdam.
The problem of trust. Can non-governmental organisations dedicated to development and humanitarian relief (NGOs) be trusted? Does their legitimacy matter! NGOs will surely answer that their credibility is essential. Without it, fundraising becomes more difficult, supporters retreat, governments become (more) suspicious and media thrive on adding to the negativity. A recent highly publicized flurry about the behaviour of a few NGO staff and remedial actions taken are a bit of a distraction from the systematic forces that appear to be eroding the legitimacy and credibility that these organisations have built up over many decades. What is going on and why now?
Ending of a golden era? A golden decade of NGO legitimacy, public standing and support from official aid agencies started to ebb away as one millennium gave way to another. Four erosion processes appear to weave together.
Comparative advantages. Really? One is a challenge to NGO efficacy. Doubts about NGOs being more effective than other development actors in reaching and working with the billion poor at the base of the pyramid are growing. Compelling evidence to the contrary is difficult to find. Faith in NGOs’ comparative advantages in relief and development faded and gave way to many demands to demonstrate results. Despite the significant investments in monitoring and evaluation, technical difficulties hamper convincing responses.
The accountability challenge. Legitimacy is also challenged by issues of inadequate accountability to the complex mix of stakeholders involved in who NGOs are and what they do for who. Participation principles notwithstanding, feedback mechanisms from intended beneficiaries on the relevance and quality of NGO work remained overshadowed by accountability to those providing resources. The Accountability Commitments set up by leading international NGOs with its twelve commitments shows the range of demands to be met and promises to be kept. The seriousness of accountability for reputation and negative consequences when perceptions of inadequacy arise should not be underestimated.
Political suspicion. A further source of erosion for NGO legitimacy is coming from many governments, particularly those whose own legitimacy is open to question. The ‘shrinking of civic space’ – that is the freedom for citizen action – is tracked by the Civicus Monitor project. Far more countries limit such freedoms than enable them, while the list and range of restrictive repertoires is growing. One government strategy delegitimizing NGOs is to declare them as being unelected as well as acting as ‘foreign agents’, beholden to external funders. Another is to call into question NGO credibility to represent the interest, if not the voice, of those in whose name they operate. Countering these politically inspired messages to shape public opinion is made difficult by the fact that NGOs are often ‘disassociated’ from the population at large. In other words, there is often a lack of a strong bonding with the people from which legitimizing support and action should come.
A vulnerable moral high ground. A fourth force working against NGO legitimacy is associated with organisational morality. For the past decade or more, a zeitgeist has taken hold that the private sector and market principles may be a better solution to poverty reduction. The moral underpinnings of the logic of non-profit organisations working for the public good rather than private gain bring an uneven vulnerability to charges of immoral behaviour than is the case when, for example, corporate corruption is exposed. This might also hold true for #metoo within NGOs. Their reputations can suffer more from a bad press because business behaviour is not strongly associated with an ethic of fairness or justice.
The knock on effects of reputational set-backs for the NGO community as a whole should not be underestimated, nor should the degree of collective solidarity be over-estimated. It seems that many NGOs choose for an individual solution to a problem that can better be viewed as collectively shared.
The roundtable will take place Wednesday 11th July, 09:00 – 10:30 in Room 12A 33 and will feature an interactive discussion with Prof. Thea Hilhorst, of ISS, Dr. Irene Guijt of Oxfam UK, Anabel Cruz of Civicus (Uruguay) and Dr. Patricia Mendoça from the Universidade de São Paulo (Brazil). Kees Biekart of the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) will facilitate. Click here to see the full ISTR Conference Schedule.