It’s funny how we find coincidences. This week I have been preparing for an event focusing on the independence of humanitarian agencies in Iraq, received a copy of a paper by David Rieff seeking to dispel MSF of any notion that they can truly be independent, finished preparing a lecture on accountability and saw the December edition of Interaction’s Monday Developments, which focuses on the nature of NGO accountability.
It stated me thinking of how the notions of independence and accountability are at once very simple to proclaim and yet complex to practice.
I do what I do because I believe it to be the right thing to do at this time and place. That is really all independence is.
I work with colleagues to acquire resources from one set of people, process them and use the resultant products as service to another group of people. I have an obligation to all of those I interact with in this process to demonstrate that I have acted in good faith and with competence. That is all there is to accountability.
It is in the impossibility to fully meeting these two objectives of independence and accountability that the harsh complexities of reality surface.
Development and humanitarian NGOs have traditionally been most concerned over their financial independence from government, yet this, should really be the least of their worries.
Try this little test: Do you believe in the power of representative government and democracy? Do you believe in respect for human rights, freedom of speech, religion and assembly? Do you believe in freedom from want and violence? Do you believe that people should have the right and the means to better themselves through their own efforts? If you believe in all these then you are clearly a supporter of the American Revolution and dream, and as such surely you want to build a world where others, not just American’s can strive for and live such a life?
So, if interests and ideals are aligned why would you not want to be “a trusted partner with the US government”? If interests are aligned and they want what you want, then your independence has not been compromised. Not, that is, if you exist in a vacuum.
In the real world, where your accountability is primarily to those you provide service for, you are deeply compromised. Nation states, corporations and even aid agencies are complex bodies. They may truly espouse one set of values and end up with a much more compromised practice.
As aid agencies and those researching aid, we have knowingly set ourselves up to work for and hopefully with, the most marginalized communities in the world. Our prime accountability is to act in good faith and with competence to help them achieve all those aspirations we jointly hold to be true.
To do that, we need to be as sure as we can that we stand apart from the ideologies biases and desires of national states, corporations, religious movements, political ideologies and cultures including all such baggage that we as individuals accumulate in our lifetimes. Just as the principle of neutrality requires the humanitarian agency to feed the malnourished in a crisis, even if they personally are convinced such people have committed horrendous war crimes, the intertwined principles of independence and accountability require the development agency to do everything they can to distance itself from the ideology and practice of all those who effect the lives of the marginalized.
This can mean making some deeply personal and uncomfortable compromises. I, for instance, cannot help being a white middle aged British male with strong inclinations towards socialist politics and pacifism. That is who I am, but when an aid worker I need to put that on the back burner and not try to espouse and promote my vision of a better world, but rather the vision espoused by those I seek to serve and the specific mission of the organization I work for.
Striving for independence is thus both central to any true attempt to be accountable to our mission and those we seek to serve, and at once an every changing and complex imperfect action – of course we are never truly independent, but it is only by constantly striving for independence and being fully aware of the personal and organizational compromises we make that we can start to be accountable to those we see to serve.
There is a second path of course, no less intellectually honest; that is the path of commitment to our cause, not their aspiration. Our cause may be American security, Islam, Socialism or gender equality and there is absolutely nothing wrong with organizing to promote any of these things, but don’t kid yourself that you can serve two masters equally well. If you work for the cause, the cause, not the people you serve, comes first.