June 7, 2021
María Barón is the Global Executive Director of Fundación Directorio Legislativo, an NGO from Argentina which works with civil society organizations (CSOs) and networks in the region and globally towards strengthening democracy and making parliaments more open and transparent. Together with the government of Korea, María is also the current civil society co-chair of the steering committee of the Open Government Partnership (OGP).
We recently spoke with Maria Baron (MB) about the relationships between CSO accountability and the strengthening of civil society, as well as protecting civic space and power shift. We also asked her how the Open Government Partnership could contribute in this regard.
GS: Why is CSO accountability important in the current context of shrinking civic space across various countries around the world, when it may appear that the opposite would be more logical?
MB: In recent times, several governments have introduced a wide range of measures – some of them subtler while others more explicit – to exert more control over CSOs. Although this phenomenon is present in countries across various regions of the world, I would like to share three examples from Latin America because due to the primary regional focus of my work. In Mexico, the current administration eliminated national public funding available to CSOs at the beginning of its tenure and, more recently, has questioned the allocation of international funding to national CSOs. Meanwhile, the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador adopted more restrictive provisions with the regulatory framework for civil society, citing alleged threats to public order.
While these government measures are oftentimes adopted in response, for example, to the work of CSOs advocating for transparency or integrity in cases of corruption, in reality, these measures end up affecting all CSOs. Moreover, the smaller CSOs, such as community-level organizations which rely on domestic funding, end up being the most affected ones. The existence of a vibrant civil society is linked to the protection of civic space and the possibility for all kinds of organizations to operate, regardless of their size or area of work. Thus, strong, dynamic, autonomous and well-resourced organizations are needed, which are also responsible and accountable based on self-regulation frameworks.
Therefore, I would like to mention three main reasons in support of CSO accountability. First, at the Fundación Directorio Legislativo, our work is centered on the accountability of public institutions, whose reactions to public scrutiny are usually characterized by reluctance or a defensive response. So, it would be a contradiction for us to demand accountability from the public institutions if CSOs themselves do not lead by example. Second, CSO accountability is the right thing to do from an ethical point of view, regardless of the cost of doing so. Third, if civil society as a whole – organizations of different sizes and geographic regions which are focused on different issues – had a common standard of accountability, such as the Global Standard for CSO Accountability, it would serve as a shield for the organizations themselves and donors could support us. However, the extent of implementation of the Global Standard may vary according to the size and capacities of each organization. For less institutionalized CSOs from outside large capital cities, accountability processes might need to be simpler and the tools should be tailored to their own context in order to strengthen the organizations rather than weaken them, while avoid reproducing unbalanced power relations.
In sum, instead of weakening us, accountability would strengthen us vis-à-vis the government, precisely in situations such as the current moment, where civic space is shrinking.
GS: In your opinion, how does CSO accountability connect to the broader global debate on power shift?
MB: On the one hand, it is crucial that those ones who exercise power are accountable for their decisions. On the other hand, power relations affect the directionality of accountability processes.
To date, power shift has mostly been a topic addressed in global fora, but there is still a long way to go to materialize it in concrete actions. Likewise, power shift is not only associated to direct access to funding from international cooperation by CSOs in the Global South, but also to how priorities get established and decisions are made by bilateral agencies and international private foundations in the allocation of their resources, as well as to the fact that CSOs in the Global North are usually the main recipients of international cooperation funds to implement projects in the Global South. In other words, a true transformation of the power relations between CSOs located in the Global South with their peers in the Global North and donors entails transparency of decision-making processes of donors and intermediary organizations, while also accountability of all actors through stakeholders’ feedback.
In this regard, the openness of donors’ decision-making processes is not limited to holding consultations with organizations receiving support or funding. International donors and INGOs oftentimes consult with CSOs in countries where they operate or implement projects, but their own internal decision-making processes are not sufficiently transparent, as there is no accountability on how the inputs collected have been actually taken into account. That is, in most cases, donors and INGOs do not explain how the feedback collected has been used.
Furthermore, in some cases, bilateral international cooperation agencies channel their funding through private contracting firms, which raises the question about the extent of accountability towards the recipient communities on how international cooperation resources get spent. By outsourcing the management of resources to consulting firms, unequal power relations get established between the latter and the populations or communities receiving support, making it difficult for the communities ultimately benefiting from international resources to provide feedback to the international cooperation agencies themselves.
Finally, several international private foundations that promote social innovation are currently prioritizing support to other forms of organization or association, such as civic activists or online social movements, without paying sufficient attention to how these actors are accountable to the communities or groups for whose issues they advocate. This new grantee model raises a question not only of how they are accountable to the funder, but also to the communities or populations supposedly benefiting from their actions.
GS: We have recently seen that several governments have questioned the work of CSOs, their international funding sources and the composition of their boards, so how can the Open Government Partnership support civil society in this context?
MB: I think the Open Government Partnership is in a unique position because, on the one hand, it brings together diverse communities working on different streams of work (organizations promoting transparency, on the use of technology and digital innovation, and on citizen participation, etc.)On the other hand, OGP involves governments and civil society organizations, and is then in a very good position to promote civil society strengthening as compared to other spaces that focus mainly on defending civil society and monitoring the health of civil society in various countries.
From the Open Government Partnership, we have recommended a set of actions to strengthen civic space as part of commitments in future national and local action plans, including actions to protect freedom of expression, association and assembly which can be proposed by participating CSOs with the support of governments and international cooperation. These OGP recommendations to protect the civic space include -among others- adopting the Global Standard for CSO Accountability. Strengthening the civic space and civil society accountability are two sides of the coin, as both aspects complement each other and walk hand in hand.
With regards to the latter point, OGP could encourage that civil society practitioners applying to the OGP Steering Committee belong to CSOs that adhere to accountability standards. Also, OGP action plans and multi-stakeholder forums -both at national and local level- can promote these standards.