Academic journal article Chicago Journal of International Law

Defending Accountability in NGOs

Academic journal article Chicago Journal of International Law

Defending Accountability in NGOs

Article excerpt


This symposium addresses the legitimacy of nongovernmental organizations ("NGOs"). Over the past few decades, the number of NGOs operating in world politics has skyrocketed. The financial and territorial reach and capability of these organizations has grown so much that states, international governmental organizations ("IGOs"), multinational corporations ("MNCs"), and other actors must take them seriously. Many NGOs consider themselves to be monitors of world affairs, holding states, IGOs, MNCs, and others accountable to widespread public sentiment. NGOs place pressure on various actors, and offer themselves as partners in governance, all in an effort to bring the aspirations of ordinary people to the international agenda. Scholars and practitioners have praised NGOs for years, but now critics are asking penetrating questions about them. What exactly is this public sentiment that NGOs claim to represent? How do NGOs become the trustees of it? Whose interests do NGOs represent and how accountable are NGOs to such constituents? Behind these questions is a concern for accountability. On what basis can they claim to act in the public interest? How justifiable is their operation as public authorities in world politics? In short, to whom and how are they accountable?

I address these questions by critically examining the concept and practice of accountability in the international system. I do so by posing the question of accountability not simply to NGOs but to states as well. We often assume that states (and markets) enjoy high levels of accountability because they are constituted to be sensitive to the will of the people. NGOs, in contrast, are seemingly accountable to no one, or to only a small group of interests that lacks ecumenical support from a broad-based constituency. This essay questions that premise. It demonstrates that critical questions deserve to be asked about how responsive states themselves are to their citizens and to the world's publics. Moreover, it articulates many ways that NGOs are accountable to broad-based publics-ways that are obscure to those looking through the narrow lenses of constitutional understandings of representation and accountability.

States and NGOs possess various mechanisms of accountability, each of which works imperfectly. When compared to each other, it is not the case that states come out shining while NGOs are tarnished, but rather a more complex picture emerges. NGOs, at times and from certain perspectives, appear more responsive than states to widespread public sentiment and, at other times and from different angles, less so. Indeed, the argument is that NGOs are not more accountable than states but differently accountable. And, this difference, in terms of evaluating NGO accountability, makes all the difference in the world


Let's begin by examining state accountability at the domestic level. The paradigmatic state for critics of NGOs is the liberal, democratic one, which enjoys constitutional checks on power and electoral laws and practices that ensure citizen voice in elections. These mechanisms create constant oversight and ensure democratic means of voting governmental officials into (and out of) office. As such, the liberal, democratic state stands as the paragon of accountability. In many ways, it was designed to realize this fundamental principle.

This is, of course, fine and good, as it goes. But the case should not be overstated. There are plenty of nondemocratic polities ruled by those who are immune from constitutional constraints and that worry little about satisfying a broadbased, collective interest. For instance, there are many kleptocracies, theocracies, and warlord regimes in which the concentration of power leaves many unrepresented. Critics of NGOs usually fail to mention nondemocratic regimes in their discussions of accountability. This is disconcerting given that, using a broad measure of democracy, just over 60 percent of states in the world are democratic. …

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