Nivedita Datta (VANI)
VANI, the Indian NGO platform and IFP member is working since its beginnings on topics linked on CSO accountability. The number of Vos (Voluntary Organizations) in India is increasing very fast. In 2005, there were 1.2 million voluntary organisations in India. The country has multiple Acts related to Vos but the accountability requirements of all these Acts differ, with some of them not requiring any form of annual filings. Thus, there is no uniform accounting policy or reporting framework that applies to all NGOs. Voluntary Action Network India (VANI) advocated about Self-Regulation and introduced a Code of Conduct and started working with eight other networks and organizations across the five continents to develop shared standards for CSO Accountability. Their views and endorsement was sought to prepare a revised Code of Conduct entitled “Declaration for Responsible Governance and Management of Voluntary Organisations”. About 200 NGOs in India have signed the declaration so far.
CSO Self Certification: Challenges and Responses
Despite the widespread proliferation of CSO self-regulatory initiatives over the past two decades, there has been no thorough stock-taking and analysis of existing accountability and transparency initiatives. Previous research on the issues have been limited to specific regions, theoretically focused or relied on the same handful of initiatives for case studies. As a consequence, the scale of CSO self-regulation has been underestimated and examples of good practice have not been systematically captured or shared within the CSO sector. While CSOs can respond to growing scrutiny and criticism individually by developing new policies and procedures to raise standards, working at sector level enables the sector to speak with a more unified voice to external actors such as the general public, donors and regulators. It also facilitates the sharing of lessons across the sector, lowering the cost and time necessary to develop effective approaches to strengthening quality and accountability. Many of their works and achievements have gone unnoticed in the absence of proper documentation as reporting and show casing their work has been a weak area for development actors since beginning. In addition, there is also much confusion in the minds of general civil society about the nature and functions of Vos.
Also, we believe that accountability cannot be imposed. First and foremost, there is a need to make the sector understand that though its intent is to serve public interest. but it comes with a big responsibility. Self- Certification is noteworthy and it needs to be popularized. There is also a need for an enforcement mechanism to give it “teeth” for it to be taken seriously. The challenge is how to make tools available to organizations, so that they can choose the ones most appropriate to them to demonstrate their accountability. Accountability requires clarity about who is accountable, to whom, and for what Accountability and the rule of law requires openness and good information, so higher levels of administration, external evaluators and general public can verify performance and compliance to law.
There is broad social consensus, locally and globally, about the important role of civil society in building social capital and strengthening democracy. But public disenchantment with civil society could also foment apathy and indifference amongst people. However, the entire blame for this situation cannot be put on the voluntary organizations. The challenge of bringing about the renaissance era of Indian CSOs is a daunting task as the resources are scarce, spirits are low and bad habits are deeply ingrained. It is not suggested here that increasing the accountability of voluntary organization is the panacea to remedy this serious crisis. Rather, the premise is that promoting good governance among organizations could be an important step in regaining and enhancing their credibility. VANI has been playing an important role in this process since it is already internationally recognized for its outreach and continued advocacy on self-regulation. At the same time, it has built the necessary infrastructure to carry out a sector-wide campaign to shore up accountability practices as a measure of regaining public trust and recapturing the CSO community’s essential role in development processes.
There is a need to conduct an information campaign to launch Self-Certification initiative and plan for a sustaining mechanism to broaden and deepen awareness on accountability measures amongst CSOs. VANI has taken up a leadership role in this by working with organizations and networks, to promote responsible governance principles throughout the nation. For easy and quick understanding, the responsible governance document has been translated into regional languages. It is available on both online as well as off line medium. These capacity development initiatives have motivated VANI members to streamline and apply the principles in their own organizations. Although it has only been only few months since the revised framework including the principles came into existence, it is too early to find concrete examples of visible changes in Indian CSOs, either in their strategies or day-to-day practices. Declaration for Responsible Governance and Management of Voluntary organizations, however, have apparently stimulated discussions and mutual learning among CSOs in India on measures to review and improve their development effectiveness.
In difficult times, trust is vital to ensure the success of reforms. Openness and transparency can help redefine the boundaries between the stakeholders and CSO’s. Declaration for Responsible Governance & Management of Voluntary Organizations provides unique opportunities to improve transparency and accountability, facilitating better engagement with the stakeholders as well as improving user centered service delivery. Strengthening dialogue with civil society is a priority. Building a positive image of the sector will require a common and collective effort. In the process these systems of accountability should increase the pressure for more transparent local governance, in which loopholes will be easily and quickly identified and curtailed. It is to be hoped that the local mechanisms of accountability discussed above will in tandem with greater probity at the national level improve the degree of honesty at all levels, but at best this will take time. The message for the international development community is to press forward with as many of these accountability mechanisms as is feasible.
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