We recently talked to Omolara Balogun (OB), Head, Policy Influencing and Advocacy Unit at the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI), an organization established by the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) to strengthen the capacity of civil society in the region to be responsive, collaborative, resilient and influential through knowledge sharing, connecting and convening and policy influencing. In this interview, Omolara discusses the importance of accountability for CSO capacity strengthening.
GS: Why is CSO accountability important for WACSI?
OB: Accountability cuts across much of our work in WACSI. CSO accountability is particularly important to WACSI since they are our primary constituency. Our interest on the notion of accountability can be explained partly due to the changes in the policy and political environment in West Africa; in particular, the transition of West African countries from military regimes towards democratically elected governments. In this context, the need for CSOs to start operating in a democratic setting and providing requisite support to newly instituted democratic institutions to be accountable to their own people was widely acknowledged. Given that a key role of civil society is to hold government accountable, it would be ironic if the ones demanding accountability–that is, CSOs–were not accountable themselves. Unless and until we are accountable to ourselves, our beneficiaries, peers and to our respective mandates, we should not have the moral standard to demand accountability from another person or entity. Thus, strengthening civil society accountability is practically the same as legitimizing our work and existence, as well as our demands for accountability from government.
In WACSI, CSO accountability is at the crux of our capacity development, as well as our advocacy work. With respect to the former, WACSI has for over a decade designed and delivered different training, coaching and mentoring programmes that target both the operational and institutional capacities of civil society such as in leadership, board governance, financial management, strategic planning, and monitoring & evaluation, all of which contribute to overall CSO accountability. With regards to our advocacy work, WACSI recognized from inception that a new approach underpinned by collaboration between CSOs and government is most essential for a strong democracy. Collaboration was essential because most of the political actors in the new democratic regimes had their background rooted in despotic regimes. Thus, investing in facilitating dialogues and building trusted relationships between government and the people -represented by civil society- was an integral component of WACSI’ advocacy priority. WACSI was well positioned and has the mandate to create neutral spaces for civil society to convene, engage and dialogue with policymakers, development partners and private sector on diverse issues to promote good governance, democracy, sustainable development, and peace and security. WACSI also provides support to government through fostering civil society’s meaningful participation in policymaking, policy implementation, monitoring and evaluation processes. Strengthening civil society with the skills to bring evidence into public policy making processes, as well as influencing governments’ policy priorities and directions through (in)direct engagement soon broaden WACSI’s advocacy stream of work since 2017.
As an organization, WACSI strives to be accountable to multiple stakeholders. Internally, WACSI is accountable to its board, management, staff, associates and volunteers. WACSI is also externally accountable to the people and institutions with whom its work, partners who support our work, beneficiaries who benefit from our services, as well as to the environment in which we operate. Here, we hold dear to the principle of ‘do not do harm’ which is crucial to external accountability.
GS: What are some of the key challenges and opportunities for CSO accountability in West Africa?
OB: There are numerous challenges that civil society in West Africa faces in terms of accountability. One is around civil society legitimacy. The legislations governing civil society operations in many countries are weak, outdated and no longer fit-for-purpose. These existing legislations tend to subdue civil society autonomy by seeking to control or shrink civic space. Another challenge centers around leadership and governance -including board and management relationships—in fact, many organizations have had to phase out due to leadership problems. In the region, several organizations were founded by individuals who have served in dual capacities of executive directors and founders for more than two decades. However, with the advancement witnessed in the civil society ecosystem in recent years, coupled with the increasing demand from civil society to government on tenure limitations, people (ordinary citizens and government) are beginning to ask similar questions around good governance, leadership principles, tenure limitations and succession to civil society leaders. Issues of resource (mis)management have also been a challenge for some CSOs. There have been several stories about mismanagement of funds, which erodes the sector’s collective credibility. Another area where CSO accountability is challenged relates to engagement with their own constituencies. While many CSOs have managed to build solid relationships with donors and governments, they have not been able to do same with communities they claim to speak for or work with. These are some of the issues which over the years have collectively affected our accountability as a sector.
Concerning opportunities, we are a diverse group of civic organizations working on various issues within the same ecosystem. We are increasingly experiencing threats that challenge our work and existence, regardless of how old, well-resourced or influential an organization is. The notable threats in need of immediate attention include shrinking civic space, growing insecurity and extremists/terrorists’ activities (especially in the Sahel Region), which have compelled us to rethink our collective role and mode of operations. These and other crosscutting challenges are bringing society together, irrespective of thematic focus, location, size or differences. This creates an opportunity for civil society to work together and address emerging issues that threatens our holistic existence, operation, or results. For example, as government laws and regulations towards civil society become more oppressive in the region, there is an increasing consensus that civil society must pay more attention to self-regulation – similarly to other professional bodies such as the bar association, and pharmaceutical or medical community.
We have also witnessed an increase in donor demand for grant application from CSOs as consortiums rather than as individual organizations. This has to some extent foster peer accountability among consortium members. This trend around forming a consortium to qualify for a grant has gone a long way on strengthening accountability issues, as measures of checks and balances, governance, leadership are jointly developed and consented to by members.
GS: How would you see the Global Standard for CSO accountability contributing to WACSI work?
OB: For WACSI, the Global Standard for CSO Accountability can be an important instrument to help us move the conversation around civil society self-regulation forward in West Africa, despite fears from some CSO practitioners about losing independence. On the contrary, self-regulation can enhance our autonomy and effectiveness as a sector. Some of the existing laws regulating NGOs in the region are not only obsolete as stated earlier, but the emerging issues within the development ecosystem generally call for civil society as a sector to develop its own standards, sets of norms and rules to guide its own operations.
GS: How do you think the CSO accountability relates to current debates around shifting the power within civil society?
OB: I think there is a fundamental interconnection between civil society accountability and the global ‘shift the power’ debate. The unbalanced aid relationship often characterized by direct and indirect impositions and conditionalities that benefit donors’ interest, coupled with the behavior of international donors are major concerns to southern CSOs.
While some have justified that the increased engagement of intermediary fund management organizations by international donors is because southern CSOs’ lack the capacity to absorb and manage a huge grant, and others have cited low accountability and gross mismanagement of donor resources from few local actors as part of the reasons, the fund managers are introduced. Consequently, this approach continues to deny local CSOs from direct management of financial resources, as well opportunities to learn and build their own capacities. Until there is a deliberate effort to change the global approach to development financing and capacity transfer, southern CSOs will remain on a secondary level while northern CSOs will be at the top, including leading most of the global debates and making decisions in the distribution and use of development funding. For this change to happen, northern CSOs and the donor community must be conscious of the need to transfer these opportunities, that is, be deliberate about shifting the power to their southern counterparts.
As mentioned earlier, this issue relates with the debate around CSO accountability because most of the national CSOs in West Africa, which are knowledgeable of the local context and lead the dialogue and projects with the communities, are in a difficult situation to embrace a broader concept of accountability since they are not directly managing resources that need to be accounted for. We hope that the conversation on ‘shift the power’ can revisit this approach to development financing for southern CSOs. While the donor community must be deliberate about power, resources, and capacity transfer, the Southern CSOs must demonstrate high level accountability across all levels to gain trust internally and externally, and to operate at par with their northern counterparts. This issue should top the accountability agenda of northern CSOs as well, so that southern CSOs are no longer seen as project ‘implementing’ partners.
In conclusion, it is when we are accountable to ourselves and the constituencies on whose behalf we speak, operate, and draw our legitimacy and credibility, that we can collectively hold our leaders accountable.