ArticlesCivil Society Groups Must be Held to the Same Standards of Accountability as Government Institutions…

Civil Society Groups Must be Held to the Same Standards of Accountability as Government Institutions…

The number of civil society organizations (CSOs) in Sierra Leone has shot up since the end of the war. The role of CSOs and NGOs shot into prominence particularly during the country’s 11-year civil conflict (1991-2002). These organizations played a critical role in providing relief and emergency care during and after the war, and also contributed in no small measure to bringing an end to the conflict.

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 Marching for Gender Equality in Freetown in 2007

Some CSOs, for instance, led advocacy campaigns, organized protests, participated in peace talks, and raised international public awareness about the gravity of the conflict. After the conflict, NGOs and CSOs have continued to provide and monitor the delivery of health care services; they have also remained engaged in environmental, security, capacity building, governance issues, among others. These efforts have helped to consolidate peace and prevent the country from relapsing into conflict. It should be noted, though, that CSOs and NGOS are no alternatives to governments; their efforts are only meant to be complimentary, and should not be used as a justification or excuse by any government to shirk its responsibility to its citizenry.

A fundamental element of the work CSOs do relates to oversight and monitoring functions of both central and local government activities. The assumption is that these organizations have the capacity, resources, and the independent-thinking ability required to hold governments accountable in a manner that individual citizens cannot. In Sierra Leone, elections for presidential, parliamentary and local council positions are held every four or five years which means that citizens can only get a chance to make a judgment on the performances of elected officials on periodic basis. The job of monitoring and assessing government performance on a continuing basis, therefore, rests primarily with CSOs. When CSOs perform their oversight functions with distinction, governments are more likely to be efficient and committed to fulfilling their pre-election promises. In African democracies, governments are somewhat reluctant to provide regular account of their stewardship to the electorate, much less give unhindered public access to information. This is where CSOs in particular can play a critical role in terms of constantly reminding them about their obligations to the public.


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Women’s Groups Marching for the Gender Bills
in Freetown in 2007 (Photo Courtesy of Justin Hane)

In spite of their monitoring responsibility, and probably because of it, CSOs have a responsibility to be accountable and transparent in the conduct of their business in just the same way as government institutions. This article is basically about the inescapable need for CSOs to be transparent in the way they conduct business, and how they can claim or reclaim the moral high ground as the legitimate monitors of government institutions.

This article also seeks to respond to the question of “how a monitor gets monitored?” I make bold to state that CSOs do not need to be monitored; they can dispense with the need for monitors by doing the right things – providing audited quarterly or annual financial reports, complying with standard procurement rules, providing accurate report of their activities to their funding partners, getting the public to know their funding levels just as governments disclose their annual budgets to the public. These are all doable, and it is critical that CSOs begin or continue to do so.

I chose to discuss this issue because during a meeting of CSOs several weeks ago, a heated argument reportedly ensued regarding the extent of accountability or lack of it in civil society. I am not sure whether there were any winners on the day, but it once again brought to the fore the need to face the issue head-on, initiate discussions about it, and start on a fresh path to addressing the anomaly. This issue cannot be wished away; it requires serious and sustained discussions with the view to agreeing on common ways to addressing it. Otherwise, the cloud of suspicion that hangs over our activities, even if unjustified in some cases, will persist for the foreseeable future.

I am also aware that one of Sierra Leone’s leading consultancy firms has been hired to undertake a study on the degree of accountability in civil society. It is obvious that the consultant will seek to inquire into the funding regime of CSOs, their procurement procedures, internal control mechanisms, quality and quantity of projects, value for money, among others. I suspect that some civil society groups may find the raison d’être of the research a little strange, but I think that this will b a fantastic opportunity to either keep the debate or suspicion alive or put an end to it for the foreseeable future. It is important that every CSO cooperate with the researcher, I think, as it would help dispel the rumours and suspicion surrounding their activities.

While CSOs have a responsibility to be accountable to the members of the public, I think that funding agencies also have a role to play in helping foster accountability among them. It is very important that CSOs continue to get the funds required to undertake their various, critical activities. Funding agencies should also take strong interest in what their grantees are doing by not only taking part in some of their activities, where possible, but also paying occasional visits to their offices or project sites to get a sense of what they do. I do not suggest that this is not happening, however, I think that there is room for improvement.

On June 2, I got a chance to meet with the new Programme Officer of the Global Funds for Human Rights (GFHR), one of CARL’s funding partners. The meeting went well, and I was extremely impressed with some of the probing questions that the officials got to ask. These are the kinds of visits and questions that help us do things in a consistently proper manner. After all, we are just humans! While governmental accountability is mandatory, the need for CSOs and NGOs to be accountable and transparent is largely a matter of logic and necessity. It only makes sense that those who pretend or actually hold governments accountable for their actions are themselves accountable and transparent in every sense of it. It is not asking for too much! It is simply normal, and the right thing to do.

Consistent with the issue of accountability is the need for CSOs to build and protect their integrity. One of the fundamental ways of doing this is to remain insulated from government interference or control. CARL believes that CSOs must cooperate with government institutions at all times with the view to collectively addressing the challenges that confront Sierra Leone. However, CSOs must resist the temptation of being co-opted by the government. If they can successfully build a bulwark against government co-option, civil societies will continue to play a critical role in governance. That way, they will continue to enjoy public confidence, just as their ability to continue providing alternative voices and direction to the government will remain unscathed. The opposite completely undermines their capacity and integrity, and could ultimately make the government unresponsive to the needs of its people.

Finally, and on a different note, it is important that CSOs begin to undertake joint programming initiatives. Collaboration is required to optimize resources, minimize waste and avoid unnecessary duplicity. Over the coming weeks and months, CARL will initiate discussions with CSOs that focus on similar objectives with the view to sharing experiences and resources. CSOs cannot afford to be unnecessarily undertaking similar programmes in the same community; or to be criss-crossing the same town to implement similar projects with the same objectives. It is only through effective communication among CSOs that this can be avoided. It is important that CSOs begin to communicate, and do so in good faith.