Transnational NGOs, Accountability and Representation, and Global Governance

Transnational NGOs, Accountability and Representation, and Global Governance

Notwithstanding that for many academics, the debate over global governance has shifted away from NGOs, and the debate over NGOs has shifted away from ‘representativeness’ and ‘legitimacy’ to ‘accountability’ in a narrower and more local sense, I suggest in this review essay, in the new AJIL (January 2009), of a 2006 book on NGO accountability, that the questions of legitimacy and governance have not really disappeared.  Submerged, but not gone, with incentives to make claims of legitimacy that are as inflated as ever, and one of these days we will see the return of the repressed.  The book under review, NGO Accountability, has outstanding essays by Steve Charnovitz (who in many respects pioneered the narrowing of the focus of accountability to make it practical and useful) and Enrique Peruzzotti. Steve asks a question specifically of something that David Rieff and I wrote about NGOs a few years ago, in which we challenged the dynamic that led transnational NGOs so unerringly in the doors of the United Nations.  The excerpt here takes up that short answer; I give a longer account of that dynamic between global civil society and international organizations in this draft chapter, up on SSRN.  

Here is an excerpt from the unedited version AJIL allowed me to post at SSRN (the essay runs about 4000 words) …

Accountability is a matter that only partly overlaps with the concerns of representation. Representation and democratic participation—seen from the viewpoint of organizational accountability—are mechanisms by which an organization can be made accountable for itself and its actions—provided that meaningful ways exist for those being represented to exercise participation in and, ultimately, control over the organization. But that is rarely the case with NGOs. If the claim, after all, is to represent the peoples of the world, it seems vanishingly small that the peoples of the world will be able to exercise meaningful control or even express themselves with respect to the method and content of that representation. This is no less true, of course, in many other governance settings that make far more modest claims about representation—ordinary corporate governance, for example—and so we look for public accountability in most instances in different ways. Fiduciary obligation enforced by courts, legal rules regarding utilization of resources in charitable public trust, and so on are mechanisms of accountability that have frankly little to do with democracy or representation in any specific, concrete sense, but instead rely on bureaucratic or legal structures in the fashion of a financial regulator, auditors, and courts of law. Accountability only partly overlaps with representativeness, and accountability is very frequently best obtained through mechanisms that are not fundamentally about representation or democracy except in the most abstract sense of the rule of law.

Democracy and representative legitimacy are, however, values in and of themselves, quite apart from their potential to establish accountability. In that regard, to ask about accountability is really to ask whether NGOs are representative of those they claim (or once claimed) to represent and whether they merit the legitimacy that they claim such representativeness confers. In this sense, to ask about accountability is not merely to ask whether NGOs “responsibly” exercise their power but instead whether a basis exists for them to be invested with such power in the first place. Before getting to the question of whether NGOs meet the standards of fiduciary duties, we must first ask on what basis they claim to be legitimate fiduciaries. And if it is on the basis of representing “people” or “peoples” or “the world’s Peoples,” then we should not frame the question of accountability as a merely technical question of execution and so presume the quite radical conclusion that they have legitimate claim to “represent,” and account for the interests and desires and values of all these “people” in the first place. NGOs helped themselves to this legitimacy by making otherwise unsubstantiated claims of representation; this issue persists for the legitimacy of global governance independently of, and prior to, the issue of whether or not NGOs properly execute their fiduciary duties.

Critique of international and transnational NGOs is thus only partly about accountability in the fiduciary sense or even the single-issue sense versus social trade-offs sense. Rather, the critique centers on the NGOs’ assertion of a legitimating role in global governance. The implication is that they hold a position—simultaneously adopted by NGOs as a means of gaining admission to officialdom and assigned to them by international organization bureaucracies in search of legitimacy for themselves—on that most highly contested of issues, global governance. Peruzzotti and Charnovitz, in their respective chapters, disentangle these separate issues, accountability from global governance. To the extent they offer or critique policy proposals—such as Charnovitz’s skepticism that NGO regulation can or should somehow seek to force NGOs away from single-interest advocacy—they focus on the issue of accountability rather than representation. These authors would seem to either accept the critique of representativeness or simply believe it to be overstated: in either case, they thus have reasons to focus on narrower and more practical issues of accountability.

My own concern, however, continues nakedly to be that powerful incentives for international and transnational NGOs to claim representativeness—as part of a mutually reinforcing dynamic in which global civil society offers legitimacy to international organizations in a notably undemocratic vision of global governance and takes back recognition, access, and legitimacy in their turn—are as present as ever. Charnovitz inquires of my own view why lobbying by an NGO to a “group of governments poses more risks to democracy than the same lobbying by that NGO to its ‘home’ government” (p. 42, n.11). The brief response is that to frame the question this way begins by presuming that lobbying a public international organization is the same as lobbying a “group of governments”—as though the UN were merely an agglomeration of member-state governments and not an institution with its own dynamics, interests, politics, and all manner of institutional existence beyond the member-states, singly or together. With respect to a single (democratic) government, NGO lobbying in the NGO’s domestic (democratic) society must contend with an electorate, a ballot box, and the checks upon the legitimacy claims of the NGO because it exists within a democratic structure and process against which its advocacy can be tested. That perspective is also true when NGOs lobby groups of (democratic) governments. Lobbying international organizations, however, is not the same as lobbying “groups of governments,” even if the international organizations are somehow in principle the servants of their member-states, and the differences between these two categories, national government(s) and international organizations, and the implied differences of incentives and strategic behavior, are as considerable as public choice theory might suggest. NGOs in the international arena do not have to contend with the appurtenances of democracy that would confront (and often confound) them in a national democratic society. Moreover, for a decade or so international NGOs came perilously close, or more, to claiming to be that democratic, or at least representative, structure in the international arena. These structural concerns about global governance have been relieved to some extent today by outside criticism, but the incentives that lead to such claims have not gone away.

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