Accountability is a big thing in development these days. Mostly this is in relation to governments (national and local) in developing countries who have a habit of appearing not always to act in the best interests of their citizens. However, the development sector has enough free thinking types to detect the whiff of hypocrisy when it arises, and, especially within the NGO sector, we are increasingly encouraged to be properly accountable for what we do, and in particular to be accountable to our proposed beneficiaries. If we are working for them, or on their behalf in some way, then we should have to demonstrate to them exactly how we are benefitting them, and justify our work (and salaries) as being value for money. Most advocates’ of development, including this one, only acquaintance with a ballot box is as electors not being elected.
I, for one, am from time to time apt to bemoan the lack of downward accountability in donors and erstwhile ‘international partners’ (anyone who sends us money, basically) whenever they may (shockingly!) voice an opinion at odds with ours. But those who live in glass houses etc etc, and so it befits me to consider to whom I am accountable.
How about, then, those communities we are supporting in our projects? It might not surprise you to learn that I and my colleagues would not be exactly over the moon about subjecting ourselves to rigorous value-for-money tests by our claimed beneficiaries. Why? Well, despite our modest salaries by western standards, we still earn more in a month than many of our beneficiaries do in a year. Our projects are complex, and need careful explaining even to well-educated types; how do we justify them and their complexities to people who have barely completed primary education? In short, what looks proportionate from one perspective, can look fantastically rich from another.
Perhaps, in a few years, by which time we hope our projects will be starting to pay off substantially for the communities, they might be more accepting, but for now we have to conclude it would be one incredibly hard sell. Hence we have a number of proxy accountability mechanisms which allow us to get input into our evolving plans, but it is also true to say that we take steps in advance to guide those decisions in what we believe to be the right direction, which isn’t necessarily what you might think from how we describe these meetings and other mechanisms to donors and the like. And, since we pay per diems to community representatives to turn up to these meetings, you can rightly ask yourself, who is accountable to who?
The communities elect representatives to local and national government, who then employ on their behalf a range of officials to look after different functions. To an extent we are then accountable to these elected councillors, members of parliament, and government officials of various sorts. This accountability certainly matters because these guys can kill off our projects and organisation pretty quickly if they like, due process or no. But are they themselves accountable in how they wield that power? Do they exercise judgement on behalf of their constituents or on behalf of themselves? Unfortunately, the evidence is often for the latter, and thus, because we are pragmatic about things, we often find ourselves buying their support in one way or another, as well as making their decisions easy by doing right by their electoral masters.
Are we accountable to our NGO board, perhaps? They generally have a good grasp of the broad brush strokes of what we’re doing, and they are an important safety net should something go seriously wrong, e.g. a senior manager found guilty of corruption. However, they are also often busy, and their experience of running similar projects variable. We do not always have enough time to explain sufficiently issues arising, and hence decisions may not be fully informed. Sometimes we are secretly relieved that a potentially awkward discussion was quickly closed, other times it can be greatly frustrating when decisions go unexpectedly against us. The end result; full disclosure at all times is not always the best option (indeed senior board members have advised us this way) and we have to carefully manage our board. (The challenges which this in itself imposes would be magnified many times over if we had to go through the same process with our beneficiary communities.)
Accountable to our donors, then? Now we’re getting closer. We have to submit regular reports and accounts to our donors. They keep us on our toes with independent evaluations (although those consultants conducting said reviews are not always as independent as you might think). Our donors are either developed country governments (and their amalgamated creations like the EU), large trust funds, or their intermediaries (generally BINGOs). For the most part I assume most BINGOs are no more accountable to their boards and members in terms of day-to-day programme management than we are to our board, whilst governments’ donor agencies do not, in my view, pay too much attention to how most of their voters would imagine development should proceed.
In fact the critical accountability process is proposal writing. This has its own flaws and requires various platitudes. But if you can persuade a donor to fund you, then you have set the path on which you will proceed with at least part of your work usually for several years. We may present annual budgets to our board for approval, but they are governed by the budgets agreed with donors; if our board want to reject these budgets we’d all be in something of a pickle.
There are some NGOs, I assume every country and every sector has them, which are known locally as puppets of a/several donor(s). We like to look down upon them. Although it is all shades of grey, we like to believe that we are in more control of our destiny than these puppet NGOs, that we pick and choose what proposals we write, and that if a donor demands too many changes then we may even turn down the money. How, ultimately, do we make these decisions? What sets us apart from the puppets?
Our board is certainly important, but in some senses I believe my greatest accountability is to myself and my immediate colleagues. I do know that when my own performance does not live up to the standards I like to aim for, when there is just too much to do and too little time to do it, that I get stressed because of my own expectations. My auto-accountability often exerts the greatest pressure on myself. It is also the kind of accountability about being able to hold one’s head up high, and so is about self-imposed social pressure from my selected peer group of conservation and development professionals.
Finally we can bring this full circle by considering that our beneficiary communities, our partners in government (national and local), our board, our donors and international partners, have all bought into the story that we have put together as to how we believe we can succeed with our projects. They support the overall strategy (or at least the bit of it that concerns them) and for the moment seem prepared to give us their cooperation, moral support, time of day, money and technical advice respectively. Whilst operational decisions made by management are rarely exposed to the glare of full accountability, we are delivering the most important thing of all: impact on the ground. For this we are accountable to our own high expectations of ourselves, assessed by our peers, and generally accountable to everyone.