Saturday, July 17, 2010

Yardsticks to trip over?

NGO accountability is a huge issue these days. For funders, government and the public, good governance becomes a measure by which to praise or berate the social sector. For the social sector, trying to regulate its own affairs, it is becoming a set of rigid standards based on an essentialised model of what NGOs do.

Take a look at this article by Vijay Nadkarni, former deputy director of Credibility Alliance, in a special issue of Agenda on civil society in India.

This week, Indian Express has carried a few articles on this question, that I am blogging here mainly to bookmark for later and clip.

NGO non-governance, Indian Express, July 8, 2010.
Mandakini Devasher Surie, Watching the Watchdogs, Indian Express, July 10, 2010.
Ratna Sudarshan, Learning to ask, Indian Express, July 17, 2010.

Standards for NGO governance appear to be derived from existing standards in government and the corporate sector, both of which, if truth be told are not always stellar examples of upright accounting or transparency. In principle, this is a wonderful thing, and the reason many organizations have sought out affiliation and accreditation.

However, there are two self-defeating aspects to this. First, the checklist of standards is rigid across different kinds of organizations in different stages of development. As Ratna Sudarshan points out, the rubric "NGO" includes a wide range of organizations: think-tanks from IDSA to Prajnya; welfare organizations from a village SHG to a PRIA, etc. The same standards of integrity must apply, but apply in different ways. For instance, in Prajnya, we really have no employees who could take leave or have travel allowances, nor an office where they could sign a register. What would we do with a personnel policy we could not apply? Of course, we should have one, and there should not be arbitrary human resources standards in our organization, but for that standard to apply, we should have both humans and resources first!

The second, more worrisome thing, is that rather than developing an optimistic approach that assumes NGO boards want to do things properly and then mentoring them in that direction as they grow, the growing community of governance monitoring agencies and consultants seems to carry with them the "guilty until proven innocent" assumptions of the government and the general suspicion about NGO motives that the corporate sector has.

To whom can NGO boards turn for help in the circumstances, even as these standards are becoming influential in funding circles?

As a non-profit founder, a citizen with a vested interest in good governance anywhere, and a political scientist who is fascinated by how regimes of different sorts acquire the backing of a consensus and then move forward, these are matters that concern me profoundly.

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