By Anabel Cruz and Laia Griñó
It would have been easy for participants at the GPSA Global Partners Forum this spring to just focus on social accountability. After all, the purpose of the Global Partnership for Social Accountability (GPSA) is to strengthen civil society collaboration with governments while also making them more accountable. Instead, however, a small group of participants also came together to talk about civil society organizations (CSO) accountability, and about its link to social accountability. As one participant put it, “If we’re not 100% accountable, then how do we hold duty bearers accountable?” The question then is, what does it mean for CSOs to be accountable?
To kick off the discussion, we presented two initiatives from our own organizations that are aimed, at least in part, at increasing the accountability of CSOs. One of these initiatives was InterAction’s NGO Aid Map, an online tool that provides detailed information on the work of our members around the world. InterAction is an alliance organization of more than 180 NGOs working in international development and humanitarian relief. To date, we have gathered information on more than 6,600 projects in around 140 countries from almost 130 organizations. This data is all provided voluntarily. When asked why they provide information organizations give a variety of reasons, but demonstrating that they are transparent and accountable is one of the chief motivations. Participating in this collective effort also helps improve CSO transparency. Organizations do not provide data in a vacuum – they can see what others are doing and therefore what is possible.
Rendir Cuentas (to be accountable in Spanish) is an initiative of 25 focal civil society organizations and networks in 10 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, together representing over 900 organizations, which have joined forces to promote transparency and accountability. Rendir Cuentas intends to implement systematic practices of self-regulation through mutual learning, dissemination and adoption of voluntary standards. The organizations are working together on the identification and dissemination of good practices of civil society organizations in transparency and accountability and on the promotion of self-regulation practices of civil society organizations, through the adoption of common standards. The organizations that are part of Rendir Cuentas voluntarily make public information about their projects, governance, financial resources and sources of income, among other items, and participate in public accountability exercises in each country and at a regional level. In 2014 for instance, civil society organizations in Uruguay held the fourth public accountability exercise, in which 116 organizations participated. This represented a 50% increase compared with the first exercise four years ago, showing that an increasing number of CSO understand the importance of being transparent.
Both of these initiatives strongly link accountability to greater transparency. And clearly, that is an important part of accountability. But it is not all that matters. Participants in the discussion pointed out that there are different types of accountability – accountability around finances, around project implementation, and around management, or decision-making. The question of “accountability to whom?” also matters. Though the pressure for greater accountability may often come from donors or governments, not surprisingly, participants spoke of the need to be particularly accountable at the community level.
Participants also shared information about CSO accountability in their own contexts. In some cases, accountability is forced or enforced through government requirements, while in others, CSOs have come together to regulate themselves. In Bangladesh, for example, NGOs receiving foreign funding must comply with “right to information” requests. In Uruguay and other countries in Latin America, CSOs have pushed for self-regulation mechanisms. Similarly, in Uganda, NGOs developed the Quality Assurance Certification Mechanism (QuAM), a voluntary self-assessment CSOs working in Uganda can undertake to demonstrate their adherence to ethical and operational standards, to improve their effectiveness, and to demonstrate accountability to their constituencies.
A growing challenge for CSOs in various parts of the world is what to do when governments use information to restrain or control the activities of civil society. These restrictions are sometimes justified by citing a lack of CSO transparency, creating or perhaps reflecting a difficult catch-22: do government restrictions make CSOs more likely to be less transparent? Or does the lack of CSO transparency engender distrust and further restrictions?
At one point during the discussion an almost existential question was asked: How do you know you are being accountable? Can you prove it? It’s a question that hits home the fact that accountability is not a solo show – it requires someone to be on the other side. Which is why, as one participant pointed out, we may also need to be talking much more about citizen responsibility.
 For more information on the members of Rendir Cuentas, click here.
 For more information on the QuAM, click here. A booklet on QuAM ethical and operational standards is also available.
Anabel Cruz is the Founder Director of the Communication and Development Institute (ICD) of Uruguay, a civil society organization and private center with moe than 27 years of experience in research, promotion and dissemination of information on topics related to international cooperation, civil society and citizen participation. Cruz has been a consultant for several UN agencies and private development cooperation foundations. She has published several books on civil society and development and her articles have appeared in journals in Latin America, the United States and Europe. She is currently the Co-Chair of Rendir Cuentas, a regional network promoting sustainable accountability of civil society organizations in Latin America. She is also the Chair of the Governance Committe of the Board of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation and the Chair of Humanitarian Accountabiity Partnership (HAP International).
Laia Griñó is Senior Manager of Transparency, Accountability and Results at InterAction. She leads InterAction’s work on transparency – focused on both InterAction members and the U.S. government – and is responsible for data quality and standards for NGO Aid Map. She also manages InterAction’s Evaluation and Program Effectiveness Working Group (EPEWG), which seeks to both improve the capacity of InterAction members to measure and demonstrate their effectiveness and to inform donors’ evaluation policies and practices. With InterAction since 2007, Laia has also worked on issues related to aid effectiveness, USAID procurement policies and private development assistance. She holds a BA in International Relations from the University of Southern California and a Master of Science in Foreign Service (MSFS) with a concentration in international development from Georgetown University.