This paper examines the growing power of a group of privately owned and operated pressure groups that fall under the general category of non-government organizations, or NGOs. NGOs occupy an increasingly prominent political rÃ?le, influencing policymaking in all areas of social and economic change. They are one visible manifestation of societyÂ’s recognition of the inability of governments to solve major problems by legislation or command. They are also a reflection of the realisation that people can achieve more by acting together for a common cause or interest than by leaving it to the actions of governments or individuals.
The paper focuses on NGOs that have been established with the specific objectives of influencing public opinion, shaping public policy and persuading political leaders to introduce international and national laws, regulations and codes of conduct covering the activities of industry, commerce and the professions. They have also helped defeat efforts to introduce such positive measures as the now-defunct Multilateral Agreement on Investment. Over the last few decades, partly in response to the public relations activities and lobbying efforts of NGOs, the private sector of the economy has been forced to operate under an increasingly heavy burden of regulation. While much of this regulation covers the environmental, health and safety impacts of their operations, there has also been a sharp increase in regulation covering corporate governance, the way companies are managed, the information they have to disclose, their duties to shareholders, to customers and to the public generally. Accompanying this raft of national and international law has been the introduction of various Codes of Conduct, sometimes mandatory and sometimes voluntary, that set out certain standards of behaviour for those who subscribe to them.
There is no such public scrutiny of NGOs, nor is there much evidence of accountability. There is a ‘double standard’ operating here under which companies have to meet extremely high public expectations about their economic, environmental and social performance while their chief critics, NGOs, are able to conduct themselves without formal restraint apart from the criminal law and without any requirement for them to show social responsibility.
This paper is concerned with the governance of such organisations and questions their right to claim to represent the public interest when there is little evidence of genuine public consultation about policy or of accountability by the main office holders. It does not attempt a critical analysis of the policies advocated by individual NGOs, although it does make some observations about and criticisms of specific behaviours of some NGOs. It examines the steps that have been taken by various NGOs and international bodies to introduce or to encourage the introduction of Codes of Conduct. It examines their effectiveness and the response of governments and international institutions. It argues that it is in the interests of NGOs to establish and live by their own Codes of Conduct against which their performance might be judged and their leaders held accountable.
It suggests that the time is right for governments and inter-governmental bodies, such as the United Nations and its agencies, to insist that NGOs that receive public funding or seek a formal role in the process of determining public policy should meet certain qualifying standards. These standards would ensure that such NGOs are genuinely representative, have demonstrated expertise and knowledge, and are accountable for their actions. This is not a proposal for a license to advocate, nor should it be seen as a constraint upon free speech.
The Role of NGOs in Contemporary Society
Voluntary association is one of the defining characteristics of a free society. The ability of groups of citizens to organise together in pursuit of common aims and objectives is one of the features that sets democracies apart from totalitarian and authoritarian regimes.
Voluntary associations can and do take an almost infinite variety of forms within various broad groupings, such as religious, social, sporting, cultural and intellectual. The activities of such voluntary associations are private and are generally subject to self-regulation, until such times as their activities begin to impinge upon the broader society. Many take upon themselves an advocacy role, while for some NGOs, advocacy is the principal activity, the one which consumes most of their available energy and resources. It is then that voluntary associations become a legitimate subject of interest to, and scrutiny by, other groups within society.
Professional associations such as those of doctors, lawyers, dentists and psychiatrists usually determine who can practice a particular profession, regulate their behaviour and usually have some influence over remuneration. Trade unions represent another kind of voluntary association. Their principal objective is to protect the interests of their members, although this is often diluted by union involvement in political parties.
In a different vein are the multinational environmental organisations such as Greenpeace and the World Wide Fund for Nature or humanitarian aid organisations such as The International Red Cross, Oxfam and Save the Children Fund. Many countries are host to local branches or subsidiaries of such multinational bodies or have their own smaller organisations operating internationally in similar fields.
In a real sense organisations as diverse as these act as a constraint upon the tendency for governments to aggregate power unto themselves. They also exemplify the ‘self-help’, co-operative approach that is essential for society to function properly.
Voluntary associations can operate within totalitarian or authoritarian systems but their freedom of action is seriously constrained by the hostility towards them by the governing regimes, particularly if they are multinational institutions such as aid agencies and environmental groups. This can compromise their ability to achieve their objectives, as well as limit their ability to work with local communities.
The number of NGOs is impossible to calculate but it is safe to say it is very large. In a detailed report published in 1995, the Commonwealth Foundation estimated that in Britain alone there are more than 500,000 NGOs, and that the turnover of the 175,000 registered charities in the UK was 17 billion pounds sterling a year. It refers to one estimate that in India alone there are 100,000 NGOs, with 25,000 registered grass-roots organisations in the state of Tamil Nadu. Obviously, they vary markedly in size, resources, focus and influence. The report quoted UN Development Program estimates that the total number of people ‘touched’ by NGOs in developing countries across the world is probably 250 million, although this almost certainly understates the case if account is taken of the NGO influence on public policy making.
Another way of understanding their influence is to look at the scale of operations of some of the largest. For example CAREÂ’s budget in the mid 1990s was put at about US$400 million; Amnesty International is better funded and has more resources than the UN Centre for Human Rights; while the development assistance offered by NGOs is greater than that provided by the entire UN system, excluding the IMF and World Bank.
Governments are increasingly turning to NGOs, as well as to for-profit companies, to deliver services previously provided by the public sector, such as finding jobs for the unemployed and running social welfare programs. According to the Commonwealth Foundation more than half of Australia’s welfare services are supplied by not-for-profit charitable organisations, estimated to number about 11,000 and turning over a total of A$4.4 billion a year. This means that large amounts of public money are being channelled through organisations that vary from the well-established and reputable, such as the Salvation Army and the Red Cross, to smaller groups or organisations that are virtually unknown and with no record of financial or administrative skills to do the job required.
NGOs and Public Policy
Over the last three decades NGOs have played an increasingly influential role in the formulation of public policy, not only at local and national level but also at the international level. These NGOs see themselves as champions of the public good, with a mission to reverse the physical, environmental and social harm that they claim has been caused by corporations and governments. They seek international regulation or prohibition of certain activities they regard as harmful and are strident in their demands for greater transparency and public accountability on the part of governments and industry. In some cases these organisations gain official recognition in the regulatory process and have a right to nominate representatives to tribunals, supervisory boards and other bodies, which implement or oversee regulatory activity. Today more than 1300 NGOs have official consultative status with the United Nations.
In some cases, NGOs have been funded to participate in efforts by the United Nations to establish global responses to perceived environmental problems such as global warming, hazardous waste disposal and the use of dangerous chemicals. They have been leading players at, for example, the Rio Earth Summit, The Cairo Population Summit and the Beijing Conference on Women. In recent years NGOs have successfully campaigned against the introduction of progressive measures such as the now-defunct Multilateral Agreement on Investment. A group of NGOs and other activists is planning a campaign of civil disobedience and other guerrilla-style action at the next Ministerial Meeting of the World Trade Organisation in Seattle in November.
Ironically, the groups justify this campaign on the grounds that the WTO is unelected and unaccountable! Inasmuch as the WTO was set up by officials from a majority of elected governments and relies for its authority on the compliance of these elected governments to its rulings, it is a model of accountability by comparison with most NGOs.
There is scarcely a single issue of public policy on which one or more NGOs does not have a strongly-held position, usually opposed to the orthodox scientific, economic, or political opinion, and often representing a minority view. This is not necessarily a criticism, since it is important to test the validity of and challenge the assumptions behind conventional thinking.
The key point is that these voluntary associations have been formed specifically for the purpose of influencing and changing public policy. They are advocacy organisations, essentially political in nature, whether their immediate concerns are economic, industrial, environmental or to do with social policy, such as health, education and welfare. There is a small number of big players that dominate the world of pressure groups, and have gained for themselves positions of influence and power in national and international political systems. Among the most prominent are the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Greenpeace, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and Friends of the Earth.
These NGOs exercise influence and often power in our society in ways which sometimes seem disproportionate to their memberships and the weight of their arguments, and which often run counter to the wishes of the majority. Very little is known about how many of these organisations are funded, whom they represent, how they reach their decisions, and to whom they are accountable. Voting membership is usually tightly controlled, with regular contributors and donors rarely consulted about policy, strategy or tactics. Contributors always have the right to withhold further support if they disapprove of the actions of particular NGOs, but their contributions enable such organisations to claim a mandate to speak and act on behalf of a larger number of people than their actual membership.
Consumer advocacy groups in many large industrialised countries publish magazines offering advice on a wide range of products, goods and services. Subscriptions to such magazines can run into tens or hundreds of thousands, giving some of these groups the opportunity to claim that their views on policy matters represent the views of large numbers of consumers. Consumers International, a global federation of ‘consumer’ groups, claims to represent 247 organisations in 111 countries. That may be so but how many actual, effective members do these organisations have? The reality is that the vast majority of consumers are not members of these organisations and are therefore excluded from their deliberations on policy and from their decision-making process.
NGO Pressure for Tighter Regulation of Business
Over the past 30 years business enterprises have found themselves under increasing public scrutiny and criticism bordering on hostility over a variety of environmental, safety, social, financial and economic failures. On the international level one can cite the following: Chernobyl, Bhopal, oil spills such as that by the Exxon Valdez in Alaska, the Aberfan coal tip collapse, the Thalidomide birth deformities case and the fierce argument over infant formula food in third world countries. A similar list could be drawn up enumerating incidents and events in most industrialised countries.
As a result companies, especially those operating on a multinational or global scale, have been increasingly subject to Codes of Conduct which are supplementary to national and international law, and which often contain a strong social dimension. Companies have to employ considerable resources to ensure that they comply fully with all regulatory requirements at local, national and international level. Their activities are subject to close public scrutiny and any failure to comply with the letter or spirit of a law, code of conduct or even a guideline is widely reported. Company management is subject to legal sanction, public criticism and shareholder reaction.
Much of the domestic legislation in the western democratic countries regulating the conduct of business has come about as a result of political campaigns by NGOs. While many people have questioned both the scientific validity and the long-term consequences of the problems identified and the solutions proposed by such groups, few have questioned their motivation or their desire to bring about what they regard as worthwhile solutions to potentially serious problems.
In today’s politics, the key mantra is ‘consultation with stakeholders’. The word stakeholder originally meant those with a direct interest in the subject under discussion e.g. the owners, employees, customers and neighbours of an industrial plant. Today the word is very loosely defined as any person or organisation that claims to have an interest, no matter how remote.
Therefore in a world of ‘stakeholder power’, where media coverage is often the principal way to raise political awareness and invite action, skilful, well-organised NGOs are well placed to have a powerful role in determining public policy and influencing political decision-making.
Inevitably, in response to the policy positions, strategies and tactics of some of these NGOs, their own organisations are beginning to come under intense scrutiny, especially by some of their ‘victims’. These NGOs are increasingly being scrutinised for any flaws or weakness in their structures and behaviour in order to limit or damage their credibility. Such scrutiny exposes a glaring inconsistency between the treatment of business enterprises and that of NGOs. To whom are NGOs accountable? Whom do they represent? If business has a ‘social responsibility’, surely NGOs must also behave in a socially responsible manner?
The Credibility Gap for NGOs
If governments and business organisations have lost a measure of public trust, then it is equally clear that NGOs have their own Â“credibility gapÂ”.
NGOs are often contemptuous of governments, business or other institutions in society with whom they disagree over policy objectives or the means to achieve those objectives. However, while they are outspoken in denouncing what they regard as unethical and immoral behaviour by other institutions, they are reluctant to apply the same rigorous standards to their own activities.
They have been prominent in calling for greater controls over business enterprises, commercial agencies and professional groups. They also want to see greater transparency in the activities and operations of business and much greater accountability on the part of those with authority in government and business.
Thilo Bode, Executive Director of Greenpeace International, has threatened to step up its campaigns against companies that fail ‘to practice what they preach on sustainable development’. He said that ‘multinationals are much more vulnerable, because they have to be accountable to the public every day Â– governments have that only once every few years.’ This, of course, raises the obvious question: ‘To whom is Greenpeace accountable and how often?’
There are legitimate concerns about the secrecy, sources and application of funds, management procedures and practices, corporate governance and lack of democratic processes within some prominent NGOs. In a large number of countries the outspoken, aggressive, more entrepreneurial and freebooting style of some multinational NGOs comes into conflict with cultural or religious traditions, sensitivities and institutional systems. This often gives rise to the charge of neo-imperialism when national leaders take exception to the behaviour of some NGOs. .
There is growing concern at the exaggerated, often apocalyptic tone of public statements; serious doubts about the integrity and honesty of some of the scientific and technical claims made by some NGOs; and increasing alarm at some of the more high-risk stunts undertaken to attract media publicity. In some cases, there is ample evidence of a willingness to fabricate ‘evidence’, particularly of a ‘quasi-scientific’ nature, and to rely on misinformation and distortions of the truth, as exemplified by the Brent Spar case. There is also an enthusiasm to engage in personal vilification of people and institutions that take a differing point of view.
The more radical groups, such as Greenpeace and some animal rights activists, have no compunction about breaking the law and damaging or destroying private property in order to promote their cause. The most recent example in Europe has been the wilful destruction of genetically-modified crops in the United Kingdom. The head of Greenpeace in the UK, Lord Melchett, justified his actions, which resulted in his arrest and that of a number of his colleagues, on the grounds that the British Government, in allowing and participating in such trials, was not following the wishes of the British people and that Greenpeace was therefore acting on behalf of the people. While public opinion polls showed that a majority of people opposed to GM crops, it was not immediately evident how and when the people had asked Greenpeace to undertake this criminal action on their behalf. A majority of people in some countries probably favour capital punishment, but that does not justify lynch mobs killing those suspected of having committed murder. When an NGO disregards a law that the majority believe is legitimate, such as trespass, their demands for changes to other laws seem less credible.
These factors all combine to leave such organisations with a growing credibility problem. Governments are less inclined to take seriously those NGOs that misunderstand science or fabricate data in efforts to support their case. The public is less inclined to give money and other forms of support to organisations that prove to have many of the same failings that they accuse their opponents of having.
These concerns can be expected to intensify as NGOs, like other special interest groups, seek to become more and more involved in the political and decision-making processes which determine the outcome of development applications, business investment, environmental, health and safety standards and other matters that are of public importance. It is for this reason alone that society should demand higher standards of behaviour and governance from those NGOs with whom they deal.
I am not proposing that NGOs be required to obtain some form of licence to advocate their views, or to promote their beliefs. Nor am I suggesting some form of the now-discredited UNESCO proposal for a New World Information Order. However it is perfectly reasonable for governments, and for the public at large, to demand similar standards of social responsibility and accountability from NGOs that receive public funding or have an officially-recognised role in public policy formulation to those they demand of business. This would not compromise the rights of those individuals or organisations not recipients of public funding or not formally involved in decision-making to propagate their views as vigorously as the law permits.
One way to meet public expectations would be for NGOs to adopt their own voluntary Codes of Conduct. Another way would be for governments to impose such Codes, as has happened in several African countries such as The Gambia, where an NGO Code of Conduct sets out standards of corporate governance and behaviour for local and international NGOs. In South Africa legislation was passed in 1998 to facilitate the establishment of non-profit organisations in the post-apartheid era. The legislation provides for a voluntary register of non-profit organisations, and sets out standards of governance, accountability and public access to information.
In the United Kingdom the Government has reached agreement with the peak council of national voluntary organisations on a compact ‘aimed at creating a new approach to partnership between Government and the voluntary and community sector.’ The compact recognises, in the words of the Prime Minister Tony Blair, that ‘Government and the sector fulfil complementary roles in the development and delivery of public policy and services’. Work is underway on preparing specific Codes of Conduct covering such areas as government funding of voluntary and community organisations, consultation mechanisms, volunteering, black and minority ethnic groups, and relationships with local government.
It is interesting to note that no mention has yet been made of a Code of Ethics governing the behaviour of the parties concerned, although the compact document recognises ‘the need for integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership’.
It is also noteworthy that, with its emphasis on NGOs that are funded by government to deliver welfare and other services, the compact does not cover those NGOs not involved in service delivery, such as Greenpeace or the Friends of the Earth.
Codes of Conduct Â– Precedents
Codes of Conduct are increasingly widespread among commercial, professional and government organisations but, notwithstanding the tentative moves outlined above, very few NGOs have taken the initiative to establish their own Codes.
The obvious question to ask is: why have so many commercial and professional organisations found it necessary or desirable to have Codes of Conduct but so few NGOs have done likewise? Are there important differences between the structure and behaviour of NGOs and that of other groups in society to make such Codes unnecessary for NGOs? Or is it simply a matter of the larger NGOs in particular taking the view that this has no relevance to them, that they donÂ’t need to undergo the discipline of being accountable for their actions?
Codes of Conduct are essentially a response to the high level of public mistrust of institutions and of the individuals who run them. The business sector has become increasingly subject to Codes of Conduct that supplement national and international law. A recent inventory listed over 180 such Codes in existence today in OECD countries, some resulting from inter-governmental negotiations, while others were initiated by business associations or by individual companies.
These Codes are either general in their application, e.g. the OECD Guidelines for Multinationals, or they have specific application to particular industries or types of companies, e.g. the Code of Conduct for companies selling infant formula food or the European Code for companies involved in the arms trade. Those business enterprises covered by Codes of Conduct are subject to intense public scrutiny over their compliance with the provisions of the Codes. Failure to comply can result in adverse criticism and hostile reaction from governments, news media, and shareholders, consumers and customers, all of which in turn can affect the financial and operational performance of the company.
Government agencies also face mistrust from a population that demands the highest standards of probity and performance across the range of human and other services provided by the agencies. There is mounting evidence of political corruption and unethical behaviour among politicians and public servants in the very countries that pride themselves on being at the heart of the democratic system. The 1990s have been marked by a series of political scandals at the highest levels of government in the United States, the European Commission and the United Kingdom. A partial response is that there is a Code of Conduct for law enforcement officers and an International Code for Public Officers.
The same concern applies to the professions Â– lawyers, doctors, journalists, accountants and many others Â– all of whom enjoy positions of responsibility and privilege in their dealings with their clients. One of the oldest Codes of Conduct for any profession is the Hippocratic Oath for physicians, while other arms of the medical profession such as psychiatry and nursing have also seen the need for a code for themselves. The recent UNESCO conference on Science Communication in Budapest even called for a Code of Conduct for scientists as a way of regaining some public trust in science.
The ethical dilemmas in contemporary journalism are well known. Journalists in North America, Europe and Australia have had various codes of ethics and behaviour for over 50 years, while individual newspaper groups, magazine publishers and broadcasting organisations, whether privately owned or in public ownership, have their own specific standards and principles which co-exist with the codes of ethics of their employees.
Yet, as mentioned earlier, only a handful of NGOs has adopted Codes of Conduct. The most effective are those adopted by relief organisations such as the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, which sponsored a voluntary Code of Conduct for emergency response work.
In Australia a group of over 70 aid organisations, under the banner of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid, have a Code of Conduct governing its members. Adherence to the Code is a requirement for any NGO seeking funding from the Australian Agency for International Development, a government body that disburses overseas aid. The Code contains many sensible things to do with such matters as financial reporting and disclosure, but it is seriously flawed in other respects. For example, it prohibits an NGO from making misleading or false statements about other agencies. However, it is conspicuously silent on the obligation not to make false or misleading statements about others, such as politicians, public servants, religious or business leaders who might have a different view on some matters of public policy.
A Framework for a Code of Conduct for NGOs
In 1996 the Commonwealth Foundation published a comprehensive report: Non-Governmental Organisations: Guidelines for Good Policy and Practice. The report was commissioned in response to proposals made at the first Commonwealth NGO Forum in Zimbabwe in 1991, and was in part at least, a response to proposals by some developing countries to impose guidelines on NGOs wishing to operate in those countries. A four-year research and consultation program culminated in the reportÂ’s presentation to and endorsement by the Second Commonwealth NGO Forum.
The Report recommended that governments provide a supportive legal and institutional framework for NGOs, that they should endeavour to work in partnership with NGOs, and that governments should assist NGOs by granting them tax relief, exemption from or reductions in taxes and duties, as well as a range of other support mechanisms.
The report went on to recommend guidelines for NGOs covering such areas as:
Â· values, including high ethical standards both organisationally and individually;
Â· transparency, including objectives and how the organisation is managed, controlled and financed;
Â· legal structure;
Â· governance, including accountability to the public, members and funders;
Â· management practices and financial management.
Its recommendations are broadly consistent with commonly accepted good practice in business , although they are silent on such contentious questions as the rights of members to participate in policy formulation, on involvement in party politics and whether there should be penalties for non-compliance.
While the Commonwealth Foundation regards the ‘development and implementation of these guidelines as a high priority for the future’, progress has been slow, especially as far as implementation is concerned. According to a Foundation official, one reason for this is that many northern hemisphere NGOs take the view that such guidelines are more applicable to ‘southern’ NGOs than to themselves. This is, to put it mildly, a very patronising view towards the worldÂ’s poorer countries.
The Guidelines were endorsed at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in 1995. A series of regional conferences in 1996-7 culminated in a seminar held before the 1997 CHOGM in Edinburgh. The action plan from that seminar laid emphasis upon the way governments and NGOs should co-operate in the development process. It also included recommendations that governments should examine existing legal frameworks and regulatory mechanisms to determine their contemporary appropriateness, and that governments should establish and make known clear principles concerning their relations with NGOs.
Last year the Commonwealth Foundation established a joint working party on government/NGO partnership development. The working party hopes to produce a report in late 1999 or next year with recommendations for action.
Adopting a Code of Conduct would be a public affirmation of an NGO’s bona fides and would give governments, news media and citizens some confidence in the organisationÂ’s integrity and honesty. It is important to remember that there is no universal Code that should apply to all NGOs. Their aims and individual circumstances vary too widely for that but at the very least, an acceptable Code should contain the following elements:
Â· An obligation to be legally constituted, with full disclosure of financial information, including sources of funding, application of funds and audited accounts;
Â· Clearly identified aims and objectives together with a commitment to operate within the law in pursuit of those objectives;
Â· Open democratic processes, including the election of officers, and the participation of members in decision making such as the establishment of broad policy;
Â· A commitment to avoid becoming involved in party politics while still being free to pursue legitimate public policy objectives;
Â· A code of ethics for all staff and members who engage in activities on behalf of the NGO.
The code of ethics should commit individuals to conduct themselves with integrity in their dealings with people inside and outside the organisation, to deal honestly with money, resources and information, and to respect the honesty, integrity and motivations of other people. For example, scientific claims made by environmental organisations should be subject to some form of refereeing by suitably qualified bodies or individuals.
The Code should also cover workplace and employment practices, and contain guidelines covering potential conflicts of interest.
Why NGOs should adopt Codes of Conduct
There are two powerful arguments as to why it would be in the best interests of NGOs to adopt their own individual Codes of Conduct.
NGOs have claimed for themselves, and in many cases have been granted, recognition for their special experience, skills, knowledge and expertise in their fields of interest. This recognition is used to exert influence and pressure upon governments and the public policy making process. This pressure can be overt or covert; it can take the form of intellectual persuasion or the threat of direct political action. In other words, NGOs seek to convert their reputations into power. This is a perfectly legitimate objective but in democratic political systems, people and organisations that wield power are expected to be accountable for the exercise of that power.
For organisations that exercise or seek to exercise power in democratic societies, a Code of Conduct should be seen at the very least as a necessary defence against some of the criticisms outlined above, viz. that they are secretive, undemocratic in their decision-making processes and have less than rigorous standards of governance. This is essentially a defensive argument but one that should be persuasive to those perceptive NGO leaders who recognise the validity of the public concern and are keen to respond.
Adherence to a public Code of Conduct would thus enable NGOs to answer the accusation of double standards and enable them to head off the imposition of compulsory Codes of Conduct by regional or national governments.
Their critics could no longer say that they were demanding standards of behaviour, accountability and transparency in business that they were unwilling to accept in their own organisations. This is especially true of those global, entrepreneurial NGOs that are effectively multinational enterprises with turnover running into millions of dollars annually, large staffs that are well paid relative to their clients, and often with career paths and promotional prospects, international assignments and frequent travel as part of the normal conditions of employment. Of course, not all NGOs operate on this scale or in this manner but many of the more prominent and most politically active of them do.
The second argument supporting voluntary Codes of Conduct is a more positive one. A Code of Conduct establishing definite standards of ethical behaviour, corporate governance, democratic working systems and financial transparency would enable NGOs to build their support bases and give them greater credibility and authority in their activities.
At present, it is too easy for unscrupulous people to claim that their NGO has a large membership or that it represents the views of a large number of people.
It is too easy for unscrupulous people to make exaggerated, distorted or false claims about the scientific properties and implications of particular pharmaceuticals, chemicals, industrial processes or agricultural practices without credible and reliable verification from reputable professional or scientific bodies.
It is too easy for unscrupulous people to question the integrity, motivation, honesty and ethics of individuals involved in activities of which an NGO disapproves.
A Code of Conduct would enable NGOs to enhance their legitimacy by demonstrating their accountability, their openness to public scrutiny, their adherence to acceptable ethical standards of behaviour, and their commitment to a democratic approach to members and supporters.
Taking such a step would enhance the credibility of NGOs and strengthen their claims to legitimacy. Given their special status and power within the political process NGOs need to subject themselves to the same level of scrutiny as they demand of others. NGOs that seek to make a virtue out of highlighting the failures of governments, business and other institutions should be subjected to the same degree of scrutiny that everyone else faces. They too need to be accountable for their actions. Failure to do so would leave them open to the charge of hypocrisy.
Action for Governments and intergovernmental institutions
The reluctance of NGOs to take the initiative and put their houses in order might be understandable but it is no excuse for inaction. After almost a decade of discussion and debate, the time is surely ripe for Governments and intergovernmental organisations such as the United Nations, the European Union, the OECD and the World Trade Organisation to insist on effective guidelines to ensure that those NGOs involved in public policy development meet certain qualifying standards. Such NGOs should have demonstrable expertise, knowledge or experience. They should be genuinely representative, accountable to the public at large and to their members for their actions, and transparent in reporting their activities. One way to achieve this would be to insist on adherence to, and compliance with, an acceptable Code of Conduct for any NGO seeking a formal role in Government service provision or in public policy formulation. Being a signatory to an acceptable Code of Conduct should also be compulsory for all NGOs that seek public funding or subsidy of any kind.
Governments and international institutions have an obligation to act in this area in order to protect the integrity of public policy decision-making and to restore public faith in the process. They have a right and a duty to demand high standards of probity from organisations that demand and are given an unelected seat at the table of power. They also need to act with some degree of urgency, notwithstanding the complexities involved.
The business sector, especially organisations that operate on the international level such as the International Chamber of Commerce, should continue to press hard for some equity of treatment in this area. Companies and their representative organisations should also, as a matter of course in their external relationships, ask NGOs and their representatives for some evidence of their bona fides, such as a copy of their Code of Conduct or Code of Ethics.
Companies also need to be more resolute in their support for proposals and measures that seek to liberalise trade, encourage investment and promote economic growth. They know, and governments know, that this is the way to reduce poverty, provide employment, health and education to the millions of people still living in unacceptable circumstances.
Given their overlapping responsibilities Â– to shareholders, customers, employees, governments and to society at large Â– it is understandable if company executives sometimes decide to take the line of least resistance when important public policy debates turn controversial and they are vulnerable to criticism, threats or consumer boycotts that can seriously damage their business and all those who depend upon it. However there are times when the long-term interest demands leadership and courage.
The best hope for the worldÂ’s poor is to raise their living standards. We cannot condemn them to perpetual misery by giving an unjustifiable power of veto over sensible, progressive policy measures to an unrepresentative and reactionary minority living in relative comfort in the industrialised world.
The Commonwealth Foundation, London 1995. Non-Governmental Organisations: Guidelines for Good Policy and Practice
Australian Council for Overseas Aid, Canberra, 1997. Code of Conduct for NGOs
International Red Cross and others, 1998. Code of Conduct for emergency response work
The Stationery Office, London, 1998. Compact on Relations between Government and the Voluntary and Community Sector in England
Financial Times, 18 August 1999. Â“Greenpeace boosts threat to target multinationalsÂ”
Financial Times, 15 September 1999. ‘Consumer groups oppose further liberalisation’.
Financial Times, 15 September 1999. ‘Coalition in drive to stop trade talks’.