Watching the watchdogs
BY MANDAKNI DEVESHAR SURIE IN THE INDIAN EXPRESS
The NGO landscape in India is getting pretty crowded. According to the findings of a recent government survey there are an estimated 3.3 million registered NGOs working in the country — one for every 400 Indians. Not only has the number of NGOs in India risen dramatically but so has their influence. In some of India’s flagship development efforts — the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the National Rural Health Mission, the Right to Education or even the draft Right to Food Act — NGOs have been at the forefront both in formulating these laws and policies and in implementing them. NGOs have helped voice the concerns of some of India’s most vulnerable groups and focus the attention of the government on critical social and development issues. They have also spearheaded efforts to expose corruption and maladmistration in government bringing in much needed transparency.
But despite the growing influence of NGOs in India today, we know very little about them: their structure, activities, sources of funding and, more importantly, how accountable they are to the people they represent. This is alarming given the crores of rupees in development aid that NGOs receive from the government and from donors every year. Ironically, though NGOs have been watchdogs of the government for many years, there has been little regulation or monitoring of their own activities. Leading many to ask a very fundamental question: who watches the watchers?
Interestingly, although India has probably the world’s highest NGO population, the debate on NGO accountability is still in its nascent stages. Across the world, NGOs have been experimenting with different ways of addressing the issue of accountability; Indian NGOs would do well by learning from these efforts. For example, NGOs in Kenya are legally required to comply with the Code of Conduct for NGOs developed by the National Council of NGOs, a self-regulatory body set up under the NGO Coordination Act in 1990. The code ensures that NGOs comply with basic ethical and governance standards. Similarly, in Uganda, the NGO Quality Assurance Mechanism (QuAM) certifies NGOs against a set of quality standards designed to ensure NGO credibility. In Chile, Chile Transparente has developed transparency standards for NGOs which require organisations to publish online information about their mission, vision, activities, staff, details of funding etc.
Indian NGOs are slowly beginning to experiment with similar self-assessment tools and certification schemes, but the real problem is that information disclosure by NGOs continues to be a rare and uncommon practice. This is ironic given that NGOs that were at the forefront of the RTI movement.
Interestingly, the RTI places a legal obligation on NGOs to be transparent and offers one important mechanism through which NGO accountability could be enforced. Under Section 2(h) (ii) of the RTI Act, NGOs that receive substantial funds, grants or loans from the government are considered public authorities and are required to disclose information as per the law. While the term “substantially financed” has not been defined clearly in the act, arguably NGOs accountable to the government for the funds they receive from it are automatically accountable to the public under the RTI. The Delhi High Court has expanded this interpretation to argue that NGOs that perform “public functions” or provide services similar to those provided by the government, are subject to the RTI Act. Thus for example, private bodies such as Sanskriti School, New Delhi, the Indian Olympic Association and the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee have been brought under the purview of the RTI.
Over and above these legal provisions, the RTI Act also serves as a useful model for NGO disclosure. Section 4 of the RTI Act outlines 17 categories of basic information that public authorities have to disclosure proactively through websites, manuals and other means. This includes basic information about the organisation, its structure and activities, the rules and norms that guide its functioning, a staff directory and so on. NGOs can very easily, and at low cost, adapt the proactive disclosure provisions of the RTI Act and develop their own guidelines for information disclosure.
There is little doubt that NGOs are here to stay and with good reason. Many NGOs have been at the forefront of efforts to fundamentally reshape the development and accountability debate in India. Given this role that NGOs have begun to play, it is all the more critical that questions of NGO accountability be debated and resolved. In the absence of a clear guidelines or an official code of conduct, NGOs have a moral and ethical obligation to be transparent and answerable to the public for their activities. The RTI Act, the very tool that NGOs have used to hold government accountable, can help to initiate this process of setting norms and standards for NGO accountability.
The writer works at the Accountability Initiative, New Delhi