NEWS IN FOCUS: NGOs' legitimacy debated as public role strengthens

Mathew Little

A Labour MP has suggested that NGOs are overstepping their civic role to become a political voice in society. Mathew Little reports.

In the parliamentary journal The House Magazine two weeks ago, Labour MP Tony Colman gave vent to a nagging fear among the UK's political establishment - irrelevance.

The public, he argued, was losing faith in the political process, and something else was stepping into the void. "Non-governmental organisations, or more specifically charities and lobby groups, seem to be claiming a greater hold on the truth and representativeness," he wrote. "Some claim to be offering the alternative political voice in today's world, but the extent to which this is true is questionable."

Colman claimed that the burgeoning global influence of NGOs was threatening the legitimate mandate of elected politicians. At last year's meeting of the World Trade Organisation in Doha, Qatar, Colman said he sat with elected representatives from developing countries who "found their own voices drowned out by NGOs from the northern hemisphere, campaigning very often on the basis of ideology". Even on national issues, governments of developing countries often had to justify their decisions to London-based NGOs.

It may be possible to ascribe Colman's comments to a churlish response to a shift in the balance of power between state and civil society. Membership of political parties in the UK is now below that of direct action pressure groups such as Greenpeace.

A Labour government with a massive Commons majority can only boast the votes of less than a quarter of the adult population.

But elected representatives can still claim a kind of democratic mandate, albeit a weakened one. Even corporations are accountable to their shareholders.

It is possible to run an NGO, by contrast, from your front room with a couple of friends. Some are regulated as charities; many are not.

This may be testimony to the glory of civil society and the free marketplace of ideas, but it has also led to questions of legitimacy as NGOs have assumed a greater public profile in the past decade.

Twelve thousand NGOs have consultative status at the United Nations, while the IMF and WTO give official recognition to NGOs, allowing them access to meetings. Some critics, such as Colman, have been prompted to ask NGOs "from whence they speak".

"Our legitimacy is drawn from being part of civil society," says Jane Moyo, deputy head of media relations at ActionAid. "It is not our job to run the Government but it is our job to hold it to account, as well as delivering aid. We have a responsibility to ensure that the Government acts in a way that we think is best."

But she concedes that international NGOs need to improve their democratic credentials. "Big agencies are increasingly concerned about how to give validity to what they say. Their work is not just about the delivery of concrete things, but about taking positions on issues,"she says. "It's political in a general sense."

Over the past three years, ActionAid has attempted to tackle the legitimacy gap. In its annual report, Review and Reflection, the charity seeks views of its activities from the communities it works with. Through citizens' juries and "participatory videos", in which local people make video documentaries on the charity's work and their treatment by the Government, ActionAid tries to makes itself accountable and enable grassroots opinions to go "up the chain" to influence policy.

"We have created processes to hold ourselves accountable to introduce a semblance of legitimacy so we are not just a bunch of people making decisions," says Feisal Hussain, head of international partnership development at the charity.

And policy does change because of grassroots experience. In response to battles over access to land and water in India and Bangladesh, in which poor farmers were often thrown into prison, the charity revised its general non-violent principles and conceded that when the people it works with respond to violent situations, it would continue its support.

Barry Coates, director of the World Development Movement, which aims to change the policies of western governments and economic institutions towards developing countries, says NGOs should not be ashamed of stepping into the void in areas where conventional politics is absent.

"NGOs play a role because politics has failed to take account of issues of non-voting. It's hard for people in the UK to affect what happens in Ghana. It's hard to get into the political process. It's the same with environmental NGOs - the environment doesn't have a voice," he says.

"Politics has shown it is turning people off. The parties are indistinguishable. The best way to change politics is not from inside but from the outside."

Nonetheless, Coates does agree that it is "entirely valid" for NGOs to examine how representative they are and whether they are claiming to represent groups when they have no mechanism to make themselves accountable.

The World Development Movement has a democratic structure based entirely on membership in northern hemisphere countries. "We don't claim to be representative of people in the South," he says. "How can we be?"

But he believes that calls for NGOs to justify their right to speak on public issues, such as world trade, ring hollow when made by institutions with even less claim to a popular mandate.

"Calls questioning legitimacy from multinational companies should be taken with a grain of salt as they only have tenuous claims to legitimacy themselves," he says.

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