Whenever there is a discussion about governance regarding international development, most people tend to focus on large public institutions such as the World Bank and regional multilateral development banks (MDB), International Monetary Fund and/or bilateral development agencies. These organizations are constantly under scrutiny to improve transparency of their documents, meetings and aid flows as well as increase accountability for performance of lending activities and institutional practices. These agencies face pressure to provide quantitative data and information in which their rhetoric and performance can be measured. This is a worthwhile discussion because a lack of transparency and accountability by these organizations can have important and lasting impact on the lives of people living in poverty. But is it the only discussion worth having?
The question came up during this month’s World Bank-IMF spring meetings where a cornucopia of Bank and Fund officials, finance ministers and civil society representatives met to discuss a range of international finance and development issues. A session entitled “The Policy of Transparency and Accountability of International Financial Institutions (IFI’s) vis-à-vis Governments, Private Companies, and Civil Society” took a surprising turn when it focused less on what public institutions could be doing and more on what civil society organizations (CSO) should be doing.
Some questioned whether CSO’s should be the focus of discussion, because in theory there is universal agreement that all actors should be accountable. In practice, however, it is less clear what is happening. Accountability for CSO’s is essential as it is for the IFI’s and while the clamor is for public institutions to reform and perform, on this point it is equally relevant that CSO’s do the same. In fact, I don’t believe it is an understatement to suggest the topic is not just relevant but goes to the core of helping CSO’s make the case that IFI’s need to improve. CSO’s often claim that they are accountable to their donors who vote through their donations. This position suggests a focus on accountability upwards, but it’s not applicable regarding the impact of CSO advocacy or activities on people living in poverty. Often, objective observers must rely on anecdotal evidence, which is not irrelevant but is it enough? Many CSO’s make their financial records and fiduciary obligations publicly available. The Bangladeshi-based BRAC is an example of a CSO that actively provides such information. These are useful metrics, but are they the only measurements by which these organizations should be held to account? Are there comparable metrics that CSO’s request of IFI’s that they also should be producing and disseminating to prove and improve their accountability?
Actors within IFI’s have questioned CSO legitimacy suggesting they are self-appointed and un-elected ”do-gooder’s” that are not necessarily representative of the populations they serve as are the duly-elected government’s whose officials populate the governing bodies of the Bank, Fund and other MDBs. In 2001, we might recall that former Bank Chief Economist Larry Summers said, “I am deeply troubled by the distance that the Bank has gone in democratic countries toward engagement with groups other than governments in designing projects … I have to record very considerable doubt about the wisdom of setting up anyone other than democratically-elected governments as the counterpart for the establishment of Country Assistance Strategies. When there is an attempt to reach within society to develop Country Assistance Strategies, there is a real possibility, it seems to me, of significantly weakening democratically-elected governments.”
Some have also questioned whether CSO’s have the same expertise as IFI economists, development practitioners and technical specialists. This second argument, however, seems weaker and based on a sense of elitism. We may assume that CSO actors, while often at a disadvantage regarding resources, are knowledgeable and dedicated and many times we can see them leading change and innovation on the ground.
Nevertheless, the question of CSO accountability remains relevant. CSO’s should think carefully about how they may demonstrate their accountability, not just with their donors and foundations, but with stakeholders in the field and IFI’s at the bargaining table. The more metrics CSO’s can provide that demonstrate this, the more powerful is the case they can make to prove their legitimacy in demanding that IFI’s must demonstrate and improve their own accountability. Evidence of CSO’s recognition is already emerging. While donors have been responding to pressure from external observers to increase information on their aid flows (see the London-based CSO Publish What You Fund’s Aid Transparency Assessment), US-based InterAction recently launched an NGO Aid Map which collects CSO’s project-level information to share with donors, governments and the public.
In my recent book, The World Bank Unveiled: Inside the Revolutionary Struggle for Transparency, I suggested one possible approach that would boost accountability for CSO’s and IFI’s simultaneously. My proposal was to create a seat on the World Bank’s Board of Executive Directors for a civil society representative. Providing CSO’s a seat at the table would provide oversight and input on Bank decisions and thereby increase by some measure the institution’s accountability. It would concurrently increase CSO accountability because this actor would now have a role in the decision-making process. There are precedents: Civil society actors now play formal roles on the FAO’s Committee on World Food Security and some multi-donor trust funds managed by the Bank. Such a development should not be viewed as a panacea for what ails the relationship between the Bank (and other IFI’s) and their CSO counterparts. Moreover, such an eventuality would entail a process by which complex legal and political questions would need to be examined, debated and sorted out. Nevertheless, such a discussion would be worth having because it goes to the heart of what this issue of accountability truly means.