New legal frameworks are needed to hold NGOs to account for the unintended consequences of development interventions
What happens when projects and interventions undertaken by international NGOs go wrong? While these organisations do not deliberately seek to do harm, nonetheless harm does at times occur. With few legal and regulatory frameworks setting out how communities can hold NGOs to account, and with even less support for communities to engage in such a process, there is a significant accountability deficit at the heart of international NGOs.
The question of accountability has often looked to how NGOs answer to donors or to the national governments of countries in which they are operating. From a financial or legal perspective, this makes perfect sense. NGOs should account for the money they spend as contracted agents of donors. And they should, of course, be working within the parameters of national regulatory frameworks and laws (although the fact that NGOs themselves often sit on the committees that draw up such regulatory systems is troubling).
When development interventions go wrong, or do not work the way they were intended, it is often no one's fault, due rather to events beyond any individual or organisation's control. But people's lives are affected, sometimes (as when cholera sweeps through a refugee camp) with the most tragic of consequences.
Haiti provides a good case in point. NGOs (and donors) have come under fire from locals who claim that not enough has been done to transform temporary shelters into permanent homes, or to provide access to drinking water and sanitation services. In some camps run by NGOs, people were still dying from cholera a year after the disaster struck.
Systems for recognising the "rights" of beneficiaries and the obligations of agencies do exist. The Sphere Project, for example, sets out in great detail the minimum standards to be expected in, say, a refugee camp. But there are few legal frameworks capable of holding NGOs to account, or setting out in detail exactly when, where and how communities might be able to hold an organisation accountable for an intervention that has gone disastrously wrong.
Unless NGOs and humanitarian agencies can be legally challenged and held to account, such principles and minimum standards do not do enough to establish real accountability.
Some will argue this creates a compensation culture, in which any failure to achieve the stated objectives (which is different from failure that causes harm) will lead to litigation. Indeed, this may be an outcome, and one that has implications for development interventions. By their nature, efforts to alleviate poverty, suffering and vulnerability in some of the most economically, socially and politically challenging parts of the world are risky. But risky for whom? Risky for the organisations who may face financial difficulties or a loss of prestige? Or risky for the communities in which the intervention has taken place?
In the absence of legal protections, transparency is essential. NGOs should be obliged to make available all details of projects and programmes to independent scrutiny. Reputational management is a natural concern, but not something that should be considered more important than the lives and wellbeing of those communities affected.
A frank acknowledgement of problems in one area does not eclipse the good that was done. But the lack of a transparent and open discussion means the debate is more frequently a dialogue of the deaf, and once more the voices of those most affected are drowned out by the noise.
The best NGOs do think about how they can be accountable to the communities and individuals with whom they work. But the issue is too important to be left to self-regulation. Development interventions involve change, and change can result in profoundly negative outcomes for some or many. Unintended as these negative consequences may be, those affected should be afforded a better means to hold to account development actors.
When we think about accountability, too often it is those on the receiving end of "charity" who are forgotten. Humanitarian principles may be noble, but good intentions are not enough to compensate those whose lives may have been made more impoverished and more vulnerable to disease or economic hardship.