U.S. non-profit groups have to file a 990 form to the IRS, open to the public.
Long ago, I used to have this vision of making a worldwide civic movement called by one simple word: "Accountability".
I thought this over-arching concept would make links among movements that had become very separate, bureaucratized, and even hostile to one another, whether concerned with human rights, democracy, social justice, environment or natural resources.
All the basic civil rights of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly would naturally be the basis for such a movement, that would not have to play the game of never taking a political position (when in fact it was taking them all the time) because it would not be strictly mandated by law in one country or morality contingent on this or that religion, but based on a kind of civic responsibility that is hard to capture sometimes by literal references to rights or morals. In this vision I had, Accountability would never fund-raise or collect donations and spend money, and thus have no need to become mired in financial, tax, and registration problems. It would try to frame the issues, and take action where needed.
I thought Accountability was a great idea, because you could pick as much or as little of it as you were prepared to handle at your level -- if you could call entire nations to account on their torture overseas or at home with media access and skilled lawyers and doctors, and you would of course seek resources to accomplish this, but as an independent entity subscribing to the overall principles of Accountability, and using this network like you would use Wikipedia or Facebook to find information and connections. If all you could do was to get your arbitrary landlord in your neighbourhood to be fair to the poor, then you'd do that much -- with help from whatever you took from Accountability -- with whatever people gave. You could enter the stream at any level, and swim as deep or as long as you wished -- or merely remain a well-wisher on the banks.
Of course, this dream was from a different era, and I suppose is typical of people from the 1960s or 1970s who look for globalistic solutions. It's hardly practical, but I still think it's a useful idea to look for ideals to create social movements that develop a sturdy capacity to address real social and political problems that do not yield so readily to hortatory references to rights or morals. You want a teenager not to seek an abortion and you exhort her not to, and yet, what was your plan for funding the raising of this child? You wanted a woman to leave her abusive husband and invoke women's rights to seek an order of protection, but what was your plan to support her now that she lost her sole source of income, her spouse? The ways to seek accountability in these situations aren't so instantly clear, our role as moralizers or rights defenders are more clear than our remedies, but it seems to me that you could begin to organize around certain principles -- accepting responsiblity, paying as you go, helping the poor, volunteering your time -- ingredients that are needed in any NGO, but aren't really themselves so studied as methods to avoid what happens in so many poor countries, especially those ravaged by war -- taking up arms, using violence, stealing, pillaging, rape as a way of life.
Sergei Kovalev used to tell me that you could actually get a situation where a state would obey all the treaties it had signed and yet there'd still be something missing, I suppose it was liberal democracy or free enterprise, which is hard to deliver as "rights". By the same token, we see all around us in America the delivery of the framework of liberal democracy and free enterprise, and yet diminished lives, people without health insurance or secure housing, awful public schools...
Meanwhile, as I had to put aside this dream for other more practical projects, the discourse around "NGO Accountability" went on apace, and enjoyed a surge of activity from around 2003-2006, before dying down somewhat. I'll say right off the bat that civil society is not made up of NGOs alone, and that fact seems often forgotten when NGOs with UN status go around referring to themselves as Civil Society in capital letters ("société civile -- c'est moi" might be their slogan). NGOs just happen to be a form in which a lot of us interested in human rights or social justice can take part in civic action, especially at the UN or OSCE. It's also important to remember that to enjoy the internationally-recognized right to freedom of association, a group does not have to be registered by a government; this fact is often lost on those zealous to bind "accountability" to a state-designed or government-approved regimen for civic action.
As I begin to re-explore these issues of "NGO Accountability" again, I find some interesting developments:
o Nobody seems to be talking about the subject currently -- searches point to discussion forums of 2003 or 2005 or 2006 that seem to have faded away, although not completely. Impressive resources pages have been organized, there was even an INGO Accountability Charter developed and signed -- but there isn't a current debate in 2008.
o I'm not aware of any major human rights organization that has built any sort of "accountability" regime or tools into its activities or mandate, the way businesses are now all supposed to have "social responsibility" incorporated into their mission -- although a number of groups have engaged in accountability reviews or signed statements -- but I bet I'm not sufficiently informed on this.
o American Enterprise Institute, which once started an "NGO Watch" for some reason, retired the concept as such, and now the former links lead to a site called "Global Governance," which is more about public demand for accountability of international institutions like the UN rather than a focus on NGOs per say. There are some interesting resource pages that remain from this project as originally conceived; Ken Anderson, a lawyer and expert on international law, formerly of Human Rights Watch and now a critic of the human rights movement, has an interesting paper on the distinction between "liberal internationalism" and "democratic sovereignty" as real-world choices that movements have to make.
o AEI's seizure of this issue naturally spawned a backlash of those concerned that it was merely a right-wing cover to use ties with the Bush Administration to club leftwing political opponents and to try to challenge the tax status of some NGOs whose views were disliked or seen as "too political"; Naomi Klein even said AEI "marginalizes and criminalizes more independent-minded NGOs by claiming that their work is a threat to democracy".
o The Ford Foundation appeared to take a number of steps to mitigate the scandals that emerged with the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, where charges were made that this American philanthrophy had funded Palestinian hate groups who demonized Israel. Some groups were then defunded, new language was developed for grant contracts, and that appeared to head off a threatened Congressional inquiry, but this prompted concern in such quarters as The Nation that government intrusion on political grounds, a la McCarthyism, was going to place a chill over critical groups working on controversial issues and threaten necessary work, i.e. the defense by the ACLU of the civil rights of persons charged with terrorism against the U.S. Since then, there has been an active campaign to get Ford to remove language from their grant letters telling grantees that they must refrain from promoting bigotry, terrorism, or calling for the destruction of any state.
o Lisa Jordan of the Ford Foundation has published a book on NGO accountability, although it appears to be more about how first-world NGOs should behave in the third world responsibly, rather than addressing the kinds of issues of ideologies and human rights raised by Durban.
o NGO Monitor, an organization that took up the issue of Durban and the hate groups that destroyed the NGO Forum and cast a pall over the conference, and which also monitors how leading human rights groups report on the Israel-Palestine conflict, is still going strong and having an impact on mass media with its findings.
o There is now a three-part series by Michael Jordan published on the JTA website on the heirs of Durban, making the charge that Ford still funds the same hate groups.
o ICARE and Magenta Foundation have amassed likely the fullest archive of Durban-related materials on the web, from which I continue to learn more and more. I was at the Durban conference and wrote a 20 page field report at the time, and now have a retrospective blog posted here.
o The topic of accountability has now, as it travels to China, morphed into a different form, as four major GONGOS in China set out to establish what accountability should mean for civic groups, raising troublesome implications for those who are critical of the government -- or of those GONGOs.
I'll never forget a story told by a New York labour leader in the 1980s, Sam, who visited the Soviet Union and asked the official Soviet Peace Committee about the persecution of independent peace activists. He was told not to worry about them by Soviet officials who said that the Soviet Peace Committee had 80 million members -- virtually every adult in the USSR. What were 8 people in this little dinky group compared to such a "mass movement"? Their peace efforts, even if well-intentioned, were not needed. "Well," said Sam. "Why not 80 million...plus 8?"
I'm thinking about these issues as the Russian NGO world goes through an unprecedented level of assault; as movements like moveon.org are having more influence on the election campaigns for some people even than the mass media, having survived its FEC fines and reconstituted itself as a PAC, sometimes helped by Google; as the NGO accountability debate, having lurched left and right to question whether NGOs represent anybody or whether they should be controlled by representative governments, now seems to have subsided; as "social entrepreneurship" becomes the new buzz word for civic action that used to be called "NGO activity".
Still, I think the subject shouldn't die. NGOs need to keep calling governments to account as well as non-state actors. The media and the general public have a right to call NGOs to account, to live up to their charters. Governmental regulatory frameworks are needed, but should not be allowed to suppress free speech and association. Just as journalism is best self-regulated by professional media societies rather than by restrictive laws, so NGO advocacy and activity should be self-regulated. It shouldn't take a government hearing or regulation or even a grant letter to keep an NGO from calling for the destruction of a state, although such grant requirements are a good thing and should be encouraged. It should have been part of an NGO ethic of non-violence from the onset.