Corruption is usually seen as a problem that is pervasive in government and the public sector as well as in finance and business or when both of them interact. However, civil society is arguably no more immune to potential corruption than companies or governments.
According to a Transparency International (TI) survey 28 per cent of people globally think that civil society organisations (CSOs) are corrupt or extremely corrupt. In some countries, such as Lebanon, Serbia, Sudan, Venezuela, the percentage is even above fifty. What is going wrong in our sector?
It comes as no surprise that globally – according to the same survey – more people think that politicians or businesses are corrupt; however there is an important difference here. Civil society inherently seeks to serve the common social good. Furthermore, some CSOs have budgets that rival the budgets of the poorest countries, yet citizens cannot vote them out like politicians or decide to not buy “their goods” like from a business that does not meet their standards. Our own voluntary transparency and accountability is arguably ever more important. These values are part of our ‘license to operate’ and our duty to deliver on. It is something that forms the heart of a set of eight principles that CSOs agreed to in 2011.
A stark reminder of the importance of being respected and credible came just over a month ago when the latest corruption scandal in FIFA – a CSO – broke revealing that at least two generations of football officials reportedly abused their positions to acquire millions of dollars in bribes. Billions of people around the world follow football, yet corruption in FIFA not only meant that money was wasted and undue influence exerted on the sport, but also less opportunities and access for people to enjoy the game. All football fans paid the bills of the corrupt for years while FIFA as a CSO with little oversight was not held accountable.
Of course FIFA is a rather extreme example of one of the more opaque CSOs but there is a lesson in there for all of us. CSOs need robust strategies to weed out corrupt practices. Corruption is a sensitive issue for many CSOs, because it can have knock-on effects on their reputation and funding base.
Here prevention becomes key. An estimated US$24.5 billion was spent on humanitarian work in 2014 – a new record. Yet without the right mechanisms in place, accountability can be difficult and corruption and mismanagement may divert funding from the ones who need it most, thereby undermining the very work of CSOs.
Good governance and anti-corruption in all sectors, be it public, private or civil society, are critical forces behind eliminating poverty and preconditions for the sustainable development of our planet. This is why I strongly believe in the importance of a stand-alone goal on governance as part of the future Sustainable Development Goals. It includes a specific target to reduce bribery and corruption. CSOs, including TI, will play a critical role helping and pushing countries to deliver on this universal goal over the coming years.
But who watches the watchdogs? Currently there are few legal frameworks capable of holding CSOs to account. Although some important voluntary initiatives setting standards exist, and here the INGO Accountability Charter indeed sets a new standard, civil society at large needs to go further to establish active accountability, not only following donor requirements but – more importantly – to establish active accountability towards the actual beneficiaries of our work. This must be done at all levels; globally, regionally and nationally. Home-grown initiatives, like Rendir Cuentas in Latin America, is an example of how CSOs can drive the accountability agenda.
We also need to do better on how we report on what we do and spend. The International Aid Transparency Initiative, which has 340 publishers of aid information (many of which are CSOs including the TI Secretariat), helps to provide a common standard to report and track development monies. This is relevant to many other CSOs and they too should use this tool.
As the Managing Director of TI, I constantly seek to improve the mechanisms we have in place. Yet we are far from being perfect. To ensure our own transparency, integrity and accountability is indeed a journey that needs constant improvement and the utilization of new technologies and social innovation. It is not only an important safeguard of our reputation; it is core to our mission and our beliefs. Importantly, it is also essential to the effectiveness and impact of our work.