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NGO accountability must be put under the spotlight


The past half a century witnessed a proliferation of charity and civil society organisations, which for their assumed non-alignment to government have become known as non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

The name, which has since become dominant in our social, political and humanitarian arena, came from the United Nations to refer to organisations that do not form part of a government and are not conventional for profit business.

While shaping of the global development policy agenda has been dominated by supranational institutions such as the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund and others, NGOs have dominated the implementation of these policies, to some extent threatening to substitute governments.

The colossal amounts of cash poured into this sector have made the NGO more attractive than some business ventures in some countries.

After the earthquake the razed down Haiti in 2010, William Easterly, a well-known economist observed it was easier to start an NGO than a business.

In Zimbabwe we had our own phase where there were more new NGOs registering than companies and of course, all the skilled workforce that was supposed to be part of economic revival were absorbed from our public and private sector into this non-profit business.

In recent years, due to the increasing amounts of funds in the hands of NGOs, concerns have been raised from different sectors about their role and accountability.

Some donors, governments, corporations and international agencies raise important questions about the effectiveness of NGO work, the legitimacy of their advocacy and to some extent, how their presence has promoted government laziness especially in Africa.

In fact, in many cases, accountability is defined in the sense of submitting donor reports, instead of service delivery.

Despite this criticism for alleged lack of accountability, NGOs continue to thrive and sometimes much better than business.

NGOs won’t die for as long as there is more poverty, disasters and social issues to be dealt with. Even if we remove human suffering they will still exist.

They will also not die as long there is money somewhere to finance projects and programmes for “a worthy cause”.

But “worthy causes” will always be there as much as NGOs have been with us for decades. They will continue being part of our lives. They mutate and adjust with every changing environment.

Some are good at what they do while others cash in on the poor. Perhaps we may need to focus on encouraging initiatives that can improve accountability for the benefit of people whose lives they try to redeem.

Recently, The Global Journal announced the release of its inaugural “Top 100 Best NGOs” list.

This is the first international ranking of its kind which may send shivers down the spine and motivate debate within the NGO community and other interested players.

In the past most NGOs gauged their competiveness on the size of their global budgets, geographical coverage, their history and their philosophy, values and principles and less on their ability to address the real issues.

This explains why some NGOs even after having worked in the same village for over three decades on a budget equivalent to the value of Harare central business centre, the village and its people still remain very poor.

Recognising the significant role of NGOs as influential agents of change on a global scale, The Global Journal has sought to move beyond outdated clichés and narrow conceptions about what an NGO is and does.

From humanitarian relief to the environment, public health to education, microfinance to intellectual property, NGOs are increasingly at the forefront of developments shaping the lives of millions of people around the world. The idea is not to witchhunt but, to improve service delivery.

For reason, The Global Journal awarded Wikimedia Foundation the first place among their top 100 for 2012. Wikimedia Foundation are famous for their Wikipedia Initiative (not to be confused with WikiLeaks), “a quintessential example of the power of a great idea well executed” which has “transformed the way in which the world obtains information, reaching 477 million visitors per month. Entirely volunteer-driven, the site has rapidly become the largest collection of shared knowledge in human history”.

Of course, Wikimedia won’t distribute condoms to your door steps, or donate a monthly food pack. Neither does it employ a dozen people to distribute one dog blanket to rural family nor does it assume local people can not find solutions to their problems.

But in less than a decade, with limited resources and mainly genuine volunteers, it has managed to rekindle the world’s insatiable appetite for knowledge with over 20 million articles in 282 languages and over 477 million visitors per month.

Perhaps what attracted The Global Journal was the fact that Wikimedia has achieved a lot more with limited resources contrary to most NGOs who achieve less with huge sums of cash.

Of the rest of the giant NGOs, only Oxfam, Care International and Médecins Sans Frontières make the cut in the top ten suggesting that a lot more needs to be done to improve both accountability and service delivery.

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