05 May 2000 - 07 May 2000

The international impact and accountability of NGOs

Chair: The Hon Sara Morrison

Over a gloriously sunny weekend at Ditchley we looked at the international impact and accountability of Non-Governmental Organisations.  When we last looked at Civil Society, some five years ago, our predecessors were not wholly confident how to describe what appeared to be a new phenomenon.  Five years later we had no doubt of the existence of a strong and influential force at work under the generic title of NGOs.  But we still needed to debate the question whether Civil Society went wider than NGOs, and considered, on the whole, that it did.  We also distinguished between the differing characteristics of small domestic NGOs, large national and international NGOs, rich Northern NGOs, relatively poor – but locally influential – Southern NGOs, advocacy and aid delivery NGOs – some of which did both.  We agreed that attempting to draw general conclusions or distil common principles and practices for such a heterogeneous collection of organisations was an exercise fraught with qualifications.

Whatever the problems of classification, we readily agreed that in the past few years the growth in number and influence of NGOs had been remarkable.  We accepted that the context in which they were now operating was different in several important respects from a decade ago.  Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and diminution of the threat of a nuclear exchange between the super-powers, the role of Governments had generally declined as had respect for their authority.  This had occurred at a time when the IT revolution had given unprecedented access to information to millions of people world-wide together with the ability, instantly, to transcend national boundaries in coordinating views and lobbying tactics among like-minded groups.  The power of the internet had allowed NGOs to fill vacuums left by political parties and Governments who had moved much more slowly in addressing the environmental, economic and human rights concerns of their electorates.  We were reminded of the grim fact that 3 billion people existed on less than $2 a day.  We were also reminded that not all information acquired via the internet was necessarily accurate.

NGOs had had notable successes, in particular in the environmental and womens movements, the campaign for land-mines, third world debt relief etc.  The Earth Summit at Rio had probably been a defining moment for Government recognition of NGOs as powerful players on the international stage.  They were widely regarded as part of a vibrant democracy.  But we were warned at regular intervals during the conference that NGOs were deluding themselves if they thought that they could, at present, rival Governments in their ability to execute policy or command material resources.  They needed to learn how to change outcomes as well as win arguments.

NGOs were compared to the hedgehog in the Greek saying, who knew one big thing and concentrated all their energies on a single goal while Governments were like foxes who knew many things – and had the complex task of balancing priorities in order to come to a policy which took account of a wide range of interests.  In their relations with Governments, NGOs were urged to be both professional in their advocacy and disciplined in the presentation of their case.  It was easy to swamp a Government with a “swarm” of e-mails but an understanding of how a Government bureaucracy handled information would pay bigger dividends in changing policy.  An unstated thought was that NGOs would also do well to try to understand the limits of Governmental power and freedom for action.  It was suggested that the best outcome an NGO could hope for was to find that it was no longer the sole champion of a particular issue which had been taken up by the public at large and by the Government on their behalf.

Relations with Governments led us to examine the phenomenon of NGOs fulfilling the role of agents of Aid Ministries in delivering humanitarian assistance.  This had advantages in that NGOs might know the local circumstances of the country receiving the aid better than many aid officials.  But it created a number of other problems.  An NGO could imperceptibly find that its independence of thought and action was eroded.  It also raised the whole question of the interaction between “Northern” and “Southern” NGOs.  The former had greater material resources, the latter had greater knowledge of the local community and usually had a greater potential to find solutions for the longer term by harnessing local energies and enthusiasm.  We were told that the key to this relationship, and indeed the wider relationship between Northern and Southern agencies, depended on whether the transaction was seen as one of “assistance” or one of “solidarity”.

In the advocacy arena it was acknowledged that NGOs had made remarkable strides in recent years.  Cross-national, and some cross-sectoral, NGOs had emerged with enhanced influence on governments and large corporations.  But just as “joined-up” policy making had become necessary in domestic politics as an acknowledgement that problems seldom allowed for simple single-dimensional solutions, so the same was true of major international problems.  It was thought that not many NGOs were building connections across a range of issues to create the capacity to influence governments and multilateral institutions across a whole area of policy.

In an age of “small” government and privatisation of increasing areas of state activity, we acknowledged that NGOs needed to understand and influence the private sector more than they had in the past.  It was argued by a few that there were signs that some large firms were becoming increasingly aware of the need, in their own corporate interest, to take civic and environmental interests into account in their activities.  Others took a more pessimistic view that the exploitative nature of free-market economics was by no means balanced by a general obligation to societies in the developing world.  Both sides were agreed, however, that NGOs would do well to spend more time trying to understand and enlist the efforts of the private sector in support of their causes.

It was pointed out that one of the first organisations with which NGOs came into contact in a crisis, was the military.  Military operations were usually carefully planned, involving a concentrated application of resources aimed at meeting urgent short-term goals.  It was difficult for the military to appreciate the complexity of local societies or the need to build long-term structures if their efforts to re-establish order were to succeed.  We heard that in Britain studies were under way to see if the local knowledge and expertise of NGOs could be more effectively combined with military operations to enhance the peace-building efforts of both.

We agreed that the media also played an important role in the development of NGOs.  Large, well-resourced NGOs had early on understood the power of public presentation of their causes.  They had hired PR executives in the same way as other big organisations.  From the point of view of the media generally we were told that there had been a gradual realisation that what had previously been dull technical gatherings to discuss international finance and trade questions, were now, thanks to the activities of NGOs, “good stories”.  The WTO meeting at Seattle followed by the joint IMF and World Bank meetings in Washington had proved this point.  There needed to be a better understanding by the press of the issues, it was argued, not just of the theatre on the street.  There also needed to be acceptance on the part of NGOs that criticism of their views and actions in the press was part and parcel of normal life and not an unacceptable attack on organisations whose motives were, by definition, benificent.

Two other key themes ran through the whole conference – accountability and trust.  The increasing influence of NGOs had inevitability given rise to questions about their accountability.  If democratic Governments derived their legitimacy from their voters, and corporations were accountable to their shareholders, to whom were NGOs accountable?  Some of us thought that the most direct line of accountability was to the donors who supported the work of an NGO with their contributions of money or time.  Others argued that there should also be accountability towards the recipients of NGO assistance.  Some urged that this accountability should also be extended to official aid-agencies and Governments.

The possibility and desirability of establishing codes of conduct or peer-group monitoring were also considered.  Several examples of codes of conduct were referred to, but as yet there was little experience of how they might work in practice.  We were warned against trying to stifle the free expression of views by applying formal sets of rules.  Some NGOs were too small to be able to meet these obligations.  It was argued that since northern NGOs were already publicly established bodies subject to the laws governing such bodies, further regulation was unnecessary.  Whatever the formal position, there appeared to be a general feeling that NGOs could only survive if they accepted the same rules of transparency and honesty as they were demanding of their official interlocutors.

During our discussions, Trust, emerged as perhaps the NGOs’ most precious asset.  The influence they had been able to exert on public perceptions and Government policy was to a large extent based on the fact that NGOs were trusted more than most official institutions.  Rightly or wrongly, NGOs were believed to express the “real” voice of the people while Governments were often viewed as being out of touch and more concerned with power than people.  Those with experience of running NGOs pointed out that trust in NGOs was built up in the same way as for other organisations serving or selling to the public.  If an NGO was seen repeatedly to be wrong in its judgements, or inaccurate in its information, it would lose public confidence and would ultimately go out of business in the same way as shareholders would desert a firm whose product was found to be unsatisfactory.  Trust did not, however, only apply between an NGO and its supporters.  It was also a crucial element in all its other relations; with its partners in the south, with Governments, with the media etc. 

Some of us attempted a look at the future and tried to imagine what Civil Society, including the NGOs, might look like in the next ten to twenty years.  Many agreed with Yogi Bera that nothing was more difficult to predict than the future.  Some saw it as a systemic clash between the principles of a neo-liberal economic system with one which took more account of equity.  Others thought that the rise of the internet would spread information on an unprecedented scale and transform democracy as it is currently practised pulling in its wake a need for different forms of governance.

We indulged ourselves in speculation about global governance.  Huge changes in, for example, population growth, technology, private investment eclipsing public investment in the developing world etc, all seemed to point to new forms of governance.  We accepted, however, that this was a theme for another conference.

We ended our conference on two contrasting notes.  One a warning that the current situation was so grim for so many people that violence could not be excluded in their efforts to change the situation in which they found themselves.  The other was to re-emphasise the importance of the individual, educated, informed and motivated to work for change.  This is an issue to which a future Ditchley conference will no doubt return to see whether our hopes and predictions have proved any better founded than our predecessors.

This report reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chairman:  The Hon Sara Morrison
Chairman, World Wildlife Fund

Dr John W Foster

Ariel F Sallows Professor of Human Rights, College of Law, University of Saskatchewan.
The Hon Roy MacLaren PC
Ambassador and High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.
Dr Sylvia Ostry CC
Distinguished Research Fellow, Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto.
Ms Peggy Teagle
Director, Canadian Consortium for International Social Development.

Professor Henry Lesguillons

Professor of Law, University of Paris - Nanterre.

Mr Anthony Judge

Director, Communications and Research, Union of International Associations.

Ms Lesley Abdela

Chief Executive, Project Parity.
Dr Helmut Anheier
Director, Centre for Civil Society, London School of Economics and Political Science.
Mr Colin Ball
Director, The Commonwealth Foundation.
Mr Michael Shaw Bond
An editor, New Scientist.
Mr Thomas Burke
Environment and Political Adviser, Rio Tinto plc.
The Rt Hon Baroness Chalker of Wallasey PC
Life Peer (Conservative).
Dr Malcolm Chalmers
Senior Lecturer, Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford.
Sir Geoffrey Chandler CBE
Chair, Amnesty International UK Business Group.
Lady (Lucy) Chandler
Former Deputy Chair, Save the Children Fund.
Dr Meg Huby
Senior lecturer in Social Policy, Department of Social Policy, University of York.
Mr Sunder Katwala
Research Director, Foreign Policy Centre.
Sir Anthony Kenny
President, Development Programme, University of Oxford.
Dr Malcolm MacGarvin
Environmental Policy Consultant.
Mr Justin McKenzie Smith
Human Rights Policy Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Ms Dianna Melrose
Deputy Head, Policy Planning Staff, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Ms Sally Morphet
Research Counsellor – Global Issues Research Group, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Mr Alan Phillips CMG
Executive Director, Minority Rights Group International.
Mr Adam Roberts
Foreign Correspondent, The Economist.
Mr Charles Secrett
Director, Friends of the Earth.
Colonel Fiona Walthall OBE MBA
Assistant Director for Peace Support Operations, Joint Doctrine and Concepts Centre, Ministry of Defence.
Professor Robert M Worcester
Chairman, Market and Opinion Research International (MORI).

The Honorable Barber B Conable Jr

Former President and Chair, Executive Director, The World Bank.
Dr Michael Edwards
Director, Governance and Civil Society, Peace and Social Justice Section, the Ford Foundation.
Dr Donald L Guertin
Director, Program on Energy and the Environment, The Atlantic Council.
Mr Axel Krause
Contributing editor, Europe Magazine, United Press International and TV5, France.  Paris representative of the Ditchley Foundation.
Mr Bruce L Newman
Senior Fellow, Center for Non-Profit Management Kellogg Graduate School of Management, Northwestern University.
Mr Todd Petersen
Chief Executive, HelpAge International, London.
Mr Frank Sieverts
Assistant to the Head of Delegation, International Committee of the Red Cross, Washington.
Professor Eugene B Skolnikoff
Professor of Political Science, Center for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Professor Walter Stafford
Professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy, Robert F Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, New York University.
Mr James T Sykes
Senior Adviser for Aging Policy, Medical School, University of Wisconsin.

Monsieur Jean-Christophe Bas

Pan-European Dialogue Manager, The World Bank, Paris.
Mr John Clark
Principal Social Development Specialist, The World Bank, Washington.
The Honorable Matthew F McHugh
Counselor to the President, The World Bank, Washington

Mr Bernard Kuiten
External Relations Officer, World Trade Organisation, Geneva.