The accountability challenge

Rosa Inés Ospina Robledo

Founded in 1998, Transparencia por Colombia[1] is a Colombian NGO devoted to preventing corruption in ‘public interest matters’.[2] Its strategy is to involve both the public and the private sectors, as well as civil society. Accountability is something that Transparencia por Colombia promotes in all its activities, believing that it significantly strengthens integrity and transparency, and helps considerably to prevent corruption.

From an anti-corruption perspective, any institution involved in public interest issues has the responsibility to be accountable to all who are affected by its activities, regardless of its nature as a public, private or civil society organization.

The role of NGOs

This article is written in the middle of a heated debate on the role of Colombian NGOs, which originated last September after the publication of a report by several NGOs criticizing current government policies on the Colombian armed conflict. The President reacted very strongly, calling for more severe regulation of NGOs; his response caused surprise and provoked rejections by the national and international NGO community, and even international organizations like the UN and European Commission. This controversy opened up discussion on how to evaluate Colombian NGOs’ performance.[3]

Today many NGOs around the world are actively involved in the defence and construction of public interest issues. Thanks to their success, NGOs have gained a level of power that in many cases is comparable to that of state institutions, private enterprises or international organizations. Alongside this, however, they face a greater requirement for accountability. This fact helps to sustain the accountability rules of the Transparency International ‘National Integrity System’.[4] The pillars of the System are the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, auditor-general, ombudsman, watchdog agencies, public service, media, international actors, civil society and private sector. All of them are accountable in a vertical way but also in a horizontal manner between each other. One of our main activities is to study the performance of each of these pillars and develop methodologies to help increase vertical and horizontal accountability and, consequently, national integrity and transparency. Within this framework, NGO accountability is as important as the accountability of all other pillars, and becomes a still more relevant issue when NGOs develop public issues monitoring activities.

Lessons from the public and private sectors

What lessons can be drawn from our experience with the public and the private sectors for NGOs’ accountability? On the public sector side, one very important recommendation formulated by Transparencia por Colombia to increase transparency and accountability in public institutions is to allow access to information. Information makes it possible to learn how the state manages public resources and carries out its responsibilities. Transparencia por Colombia has developed various projects that have increased access to information in public institutions. One is ‘Internet for Municipal Accountability’, applied in five Colombian municipalities, which has improved citizen participation and public management transparency and accountability through the use of the Internet. Another is the ‘Integrity Pact’,[5] which focuses on, among other things, the openness of public procurement procedures. This has allowed Transparencia por Colombia to help increase access to information and public officials’ accountability in 60 important procurement processes, involving public resources valued at US$2.3 billion and 254 domestic and 48 international companies.

On the private sector side, many companies have initiated an ethical reflection process that has allowed them to develop institutional values and establish the means to prevent, control and reduce the risk of corruption. This has been translated into codes of conduct, principles and programmes that seek to improve their ethical standards. Transparencia por Colombia has promoted this type of reflection through its ‘Ethics Programs’, which have been implemented in four large Colombian companies and are now being extended to the small and medium-sized enterprise sector.[6] It has also begun to disseminate ‘Business Principles for Countering Bribery’,[7] which aims to give companies comprehensive references on good practices for rejecting bribery.

Applying the experiences to NGOs

How could these two elements be applied to NGOs? To allow access to information, an organization needs transparency in its internal and external activities, which means that all relevant data about the organization’s activities are visible. NGOs should be able to reach this level of transparency in their own organizations, for example in relation to their aims, sponsors, procedures they follow to achieve their goals, and audit and control mechanisms. In addition, NGOs need to begin an ethical reflection. The outcomes of this reflection will be values, principles and norms of conduct that will help to set clear criteria in orderto evaluate their performance and could serve as accountability mechanisms for their funding sponsors, beneficiaries and governments that regulate their activities.

However, a few difficulties that are implicit in the nature of NGOs need to be addressed. First, there is a great diversity of civil organizations around the world, working on many different issues, with a wide range of beneficiaries, structures and funding sources. This makes it very difficult to apply similar rules to all NGOs. Second, access to information requires information to be available in the first place, but many NGOs lack the resources to produce it.

Third, the contexts in which NGOs work are not the same in all countries. This issue is particularly difficult for countries such as Colombia that suffer internal armed conflicts, where many NGO activists risk their lives every day to accomplish their goals. In this context, wider access to information about NGOs could endanger staff of NGOs involved in areas directly related to the conflict. A way to overcome this problem would be to guarantee security for all NGO activists. This, in theory, is the state’s responsibility, but it might not be possible because of a lack of resources, or, worse, lack of will.[8]

Finally, very few methods have been developed to facilitate ethical reflection within NGOs; it is therefore a field that needs to be explored in order to find concrete experiences that could be replicated by other organizations. Transparencia por Colombia has tried to develop tools to promote ethical reflection by Colombian NGOs, but at this stage they have not been applied in sufficient cases to reproduce a methodology for NGOs. This is certainly one of the most important challenges facing Transparencia por Colombia in the near future.

1 The National Chapter of Transparency International (http://www.transparency.org), the world’s leading NGO devoted exclusively to the fight against corruption.

2 Belonging to all members of society, as opposed to private interests.

3 For information see Revista Semana, ‘La ira Presidencial’, 15 September 2003, http://www.semana.com/archivo/articulosView.jsp?id=73121; Revista Cambio, ‘¿Solo contra el mundo?’, 29 September 2003, http://www.cambio.com.co/html/portada/articulos/1551; or Inter-American Dialogue, http://www.thedialogue.org/publications/oped/sept03/shifter_0929.asp

4 See http://www.transparency.org

5 The Integrity Pact was originally developed by Transparency International and adapted by Transparencia por Colombia to the country’s context.

6 Ethics Programs methodology was originally developed by the Ethics Resource Center (http://www.ethics.org) and adapted to the Colombian context by Transparencia por Colombia.

7 For more information, see http://www.transparency.org

8 To illustrate the difficulties of political will, see Revista Semana, 12 September 2003, http://www.semana.com/archivo/articulosView.jsp?id=7307. As explained by Andrés Franco, UNICEF representative in Peru, the international experience unfortunately shows that it is possible for terrorists to create or use NGOs for their extremist aims.

Rosa Inés Ospina Robledo is Executive Director, Transparencia por Colombia. She can be contacted at transparencia@transparenciacolombia.org.co

The author wishes to thank Andrés Hernández and Diana Suarez, both Transparencia por Colombia staff members, for their support in the development of this article.

For more information about Transparencia por Colombia, visit http://www.transparenciacolombia.org.co or email transparencia@transparenciacolombia.org.co


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