August 4, 2022
We recently talked to Shaazka Beyerle, Senior Fellow, TraCCC (Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center) at George Mason University in Washington DC. Among other publications, she is the author of Curtailing Corruption: People Power for Accountability and Justice. Her next release “Supporting Nonviolent Action and Movements: A Guide for International Actors” will be published by the U.S. Institute of Peace around the end of this year. This interview was conducted in a personal capacity and does not reflect the views of TraCCC or George Mason University.
GS: Why is it important for civil society working on anti-corruption to be accountable – even in countries where civic space is closing?
SB: This is an important question that civil society organizations do not often pose themselves. In preparing for this interview, I managed to communicate with a few CSO practitioners and leaders in the anticorruption field, so their inputs are incorporated in my responses.
Let me share a few reasons for why civil society needs to be accountable, including in contexts characterized by restricted civic space. First, civil society should model the norms, principles, practices, and behaviors they seek to foster in society.
Second, lack of accountability and transparency is a common accusation used by governments to crack down on CSOs and restrict civic space. In this regard, Dr. Ketakandriana Rafitoson, Executive Director of Transparency International Madagascar noted: “Most of the CSOs in Madagascar lack accountability as they don’t have the habit to disclose financial information to the public. They are only accountable to their donors (because they’re obliged to), and the government uses this failure to say ‘You ask for accountability and transparency, but you are not transparent/accountable yourselves. You are just troublemakers mandated by foreign interests’.” This is a key point that will require shifting the focus beyond CSO financial accountability, while exploring other ways of being accountable, for instance, to peer CSOs in the same country and the local communities with whom an organization works, so a government cannot accuse a CSO of representing foreign interests despite being recipients of foreign funding. Let me come back to this point later during our conversation.
Another important reason is that CSO accountability can contribute to civil society’s own credibility, trust and legitimacy. Some data shows that there is public mistrust of civil society, and some governments are taking advantage of this public perception, especially in the context of limited civic spaces. When the public trusts an organization – whether it is a formal or an informal one – a government can try to discredit its work, but the majority of the people may not buy into or believe it.
Last but not least, civil society accountability can also contribute to solidarity, encourage citizen engagement and nonviolent action, while countering government efforts to undermine CSOs and their efforts.
GS: Can you share any efforts being undertaken to deal with this phenomenon of closing civic space, particularly in cases where governments argue CSO lack of accountability for doing so?
SB: Let me make two initial observations: while the discourse and focus on this phenomenon has been at the national level, government efforts to restrict civic spaces are not only at national level, but also at sub-national one, and all the way down to the local level. There are also different degrees of shrinking civic space. So, we need to think in a more nuanced way about the challenge around restricted civic space. In addition, closing civic space does not happen in a vacuum; it tends to be part of broader efforts on the part of governments to crash or quell dissent, thwart democratic institutions and practices, control populations and strengthen authoritarian rule.
In order to confront attacks and campaigns from governments against civil society, CSOs have undertaken a range of tactics or actions:
Not getting pulled into fake government accusations. On many occasions, CSOs have been accused by governments of serving foreign interests due to the source of funding for their projects. Thus, governments may not necessarily accuse CSOs of lacking accountability, although it becomes implicit in the attacks and justifications to crack down on them. One way to deal with these accusations is not getting pulled into the attacks and negative campaigns launched by government, particularly when a civic organization is accountable to their primary constituents, that is, to the communities with whom it works, and is trusted by them.
In this regard, David Riveros Garcia, founder and Executive Director of reAcción Paraguay, a community organization engaging youth against corruption in Ciudad del Este, noted: “The last time we reached high intensity government-led campaigns questioning our funding and credibility in 2017, the mayor sent press releases to newspapers stating that we were covert CIA agents because of our US funding, while also claiming that the information we published was fake. …We avoided engaging with such campaign, because it would be a trap that would change our focus, resources and time towards a communication issue where they would be comfortable. Once we passed this situation, our credibility rose. So it backfired for them.”
Being non-partisan. Another way for a CSO to deal with government attacks is by remaining non-partisan. For instance, David Riveros Garcia stated, “Close to election time, people (government and politicians) tend to claim that we support X candidate or party. However, we remain focused and use the same strict standards for all candidates and parties. With time, many who were hesitant about us, even in the incumbent party, realized we were just as hard on the opposition.” Along the same lines, Hussein Khalid, Executive Director of HAKI Africa in Kenya, also recommended that CSOs avoid acting in a partisan way.
Adopting transparent practices. Transparency can be a key element for protection against attacks about lack of accountability. Further, transparency is a pre-requisite for accountability. In this regard, Hussein Khalid from HAKI Africa, stated: “Be transparent yourself (as civil society), ensure open processes e.g. when recruiting staff; carry out regular financial audits; etc. …When you’re open, your reputation becomes your best defense strategy.” In addition, Ketakandriana Rafitoson pointed out that “ Within TI Madagascar, we organize each year, during the first term, a public presentation of our activity report which addresses what we’ve done, our impact, successes, challenges and failures, as well as of our audited accounts. Such session is open to the general public, to our partners, to the government and whoever is interested to attend. Afterwards, all these documents are made available on our website.”
Being community-centered. Community engagement is an essential element for CSO accountability while also protecting against attacks from government. By engaging community members in the identification, planning, execution and evaluation of projects, a CSO demonstrates that its work is driven by the interests and needs of local communities and not foreign ones, regardless of where the funds come from. For instance, Hussein Khalid stressed the importance for CSOs to “… listen, support and directly involve communities in your activities, so you will have their support. In this way, the government knows when it attacks you that they’ll become unpopular.”
Created in 2009, the CSO Serbia on the Move, which is a hybrid NGO combining research, policy recommendations and nonviolent action campaigns, conducts a strategic analysis of each initiative undertaken. All of its projects must meet two core requirements in order to proceed:
(i) citizens’ support; that is, there must be written support from at least one thousand people. Moreover, SOM states, “If we cannot get such level of support, it is an indication that our citizens do not need the project or that we need to invest additional effort in explaining [to] people why our idea is important”;
(ii) community organizing; that is, all projects require direct (voluntary) involvement of citizens in its realization.
Other kind of actions which can be implemented by civil society when they get attacked by governments are: media partnerships; CSO partnerships; and use of evidence for advocacy. In this regard, Hussein Khalid recommended that CSOs “try to build media partnerships where possible and to go public on key findings. This may offer protection and will make government officials not want to be seen to silence critics.” Concerning the second type of action, instead of competing with each other, he stressed the importance for CSOs to “work jointly with others and share the risk. When working alone, it is easy to be targeted.” In sync with ‘people power’ dynamics, he underlined strength in numbers. Regarding the third kind of action, he added that “it is important to collect verifiable facts and speak from assured evidence. That way, even if the state accuses you of anything, you’ll have facts to back it up”.
GS: To what extent can global efforts such as the Global Standard for CSO Accountability help address this phenomenon?
SB: The 12 commitments from the Global Standard provide a useful framework for CSOs so they don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel yet can adapt it to their own contexts. Another relevant feature of the Global Standard is that it encompasses an international network and community upon which peer-to-peer learning activities can be conducted, while also nurturing informal relationships and trust that keep civil society strong. The Global Standard can also be a mechanism to connect in-country actors with international ones, contributing to an invisible web of relationships of people and civic groups that enable transnational solidarity and collaboration.
GS: How can international actors support social movements and to what extent accountability becomes or not an element for consideration for it?
SB: Accountability is a two-way process, but the onus has largely been on recipients of support to be accountable to international actors. The reverse is less common. Yet, as Eszter Filippinyi mentioned in the previous newsletter issue from the Global Standard, donor accountability is also required for rebalancing the relationships between aid providers and recipients. So, a first step required for international actors interested in supporting social movements is for themselves to start becoming accountable to the organizations and groups they support, which involves changing their own policies and practices. In a May 27, 2022 interview, Eszter Filippinyi also brought up the importance of pro-active inclusion by having international actors reassess diversity and equity in their own policies and processes and on who makes decisions about them. It is also incredibly important that they hold a mirror up to themselves in terms of the composition of their staff and leadership and develop new international support paradigms that recognize and operationalize intersectionality and enable localized civic initiatives and movements and citizen-state collaboration.
There are a range of options which be implemented by international actors supporting civil society in the Global South (see Box 1), by shifting the focus on financial accountability and rebalancing power relationships between them and the two parties.
Some donors have started to experiment with alternative approaches to support civil society in the Global South. For instance, both as an approach as well as a set of practices, trust-based philanthropy seeks to address power imbalances between funders and recipients. It involves an introspective approach on how funders’ assumptions, leadership, values, internal culture, and practices inadvertently reinforce or perpetuate inequities, and shifting practices to build two-way trust and transparency, as well as community leadership.