Speaking to Power: Civil Society Holding International Donors Accountable

By Alexander O'Riordan · 15 May 2013

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Picture: blogs.spectator.co.uk
Picture: blogs.spectator.co.uk

Inclusive Development, a tiny California based NGO that lists only three advisors on its website, managed to do what many larger organisations or governments failed to do: hold donors to account for their potential complicity in human rights abuses.

In 2010, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that aid to Ethiopia was being used in a political manner – as a reward to those that supported the ruling party and as coercion for those critical of the ruling elite. The report, while well received, resulted in almost no change to how donors programmed aid in Ethiopia. This was because a report detailing human rights abuses is about as effectual or surprising as raising attention to bulimia in the modelling industry.

To get a public organisation to change or take stock of its complicity in wrecking lives, one should never face it head on, especially not, as is almost always the case when civil society challenges governmental bodies there is a significant size disadvantage.

International donors are essentially governments or multi-government organisations specifically designed to take a problem and process it into a type of solution. So in the case of the 2010 HRW report, donors launched an internal review of their internal systems and unsurprisingly concluded no need for significant change, and that donor systems are sound and robust enough to be the basis for further funding.

Criticising a government or donor by saying it is not delivering is rarely cause for concern. For a large organisation a criticism like this is an opportunity to raise more funds and develop new modalities to respond to or mitigate the criticism. There are few cases where this is more apparent than in Ethiopia where in May 2005 election violence resulted in donors suspending budget support.  Some decision makers believed that suspending budget support would pressure Ethiopia to reform but instead this approach backfired spectacularly.

Donor budget support is funding directly to government budgets. When donors suspended budget support, the Ethiopian government cut essential services in health and education, amongst others. This meant that while donors pressured government, they also punished the poor (by cutting back on service delivery) for the crimes of the political elite. With mounting public criticism, donors scrambled to find another solution, one of which was the Protection of Basic Services Programme (PBS) that is the subject of the Inclusive Development complaint.

To put this donor failure into perspective, in 2003 the OECD reported donors disbursed USD 1.5 billion to Ethiopia but after the contested elections aid actually increased dramatically. By 2009 aid disbursed to Ethiopia had more than doubled to USD 3.9 billion.

Inclusive Development adopts a fundamentally different tack to Human Rights Watch and other rights organisations. Instead of trying to scale the World Bank and donors’ hermetically sealed walls of diplomatic protection and protocol, by arguing they are unintentionally complicit in human rights abuses, Inclusive Development implies that donors are intentionally complicit and what is happening in Ethiopia is by design and not by accident. A similar approach has been taken by a private law firm, Leigh Day and Company who is representing an Ethiopian refugee against the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) for its complicity in PBS. If, as Inclusive Development implies, the World Bank’s tacit support of human rights abuses is intentional then this is a complaint brought to the internal control mechanisms of the World Bank. In this case, the internal control system is an inspection panel that reports directly to the board and is essentially an internal anti-corruption and mismanagement mechanism. Similarly by taking a case to DfID in the UK and not in Ethiopia, its officials will not be afforded diplomatic protections.

The World Bank’s inspection panel is not perfect but it is one of the few mechanisms available to hold officials to account. Most World Bank officials posted to developing countries are protected by diplomatic protocols meaning they are largely immune from prosecution or punishment. However, a negative finding from the inspection panel can mean disciplinary action and it is for this reason that Inclusive Development’s complaint has already had a dramatic effect with donors and even some government officials arguing it would be unrealistic to expect budget support to continue to Ethiopia in the same manner. Similarly, a legal case against the UK’s DfID in the UK has significantly more implications than one brought outside of the UK.

There are at last three vital lessons to be learned for civil society.

First, we need to recognise that budget support is essentially coercive to civil society. When governments behave badly, donors are forced to choose between funding vital services and ignoring critical civil society or listening to critical civil society and being accused of punishing the poor. Budget support is not going to go away so civil society must call for all budget support to be accompanied by financial allocations to indigenous rights organisations to monitor implementation and diminish the risk of violations attributable to donors. In essence this is the only alternative to the possibility that donors cut aid as I hypothesised DfID did to South Africa because of growing risks associated with providing aid.

Secondly, if we want governments and multi-lateral organisations to be accountable, civil society needs to understand the levers of power and decision-making in such organisations. This invariably means engaging with internal control mechanisms. Here, it is vital these mechanisms are strengthened – for example the UN’s Ethics Office has proven remarkably incompetent in failing to protect 98% of whistle-blowers. In this regard, civil society needs a fundamental rethink on who are the real allies to African rights organisations. After all, if we rely on alliances with officials protected by diplomatic immunity or who reside in another country such as most rights organisations do, we delude ourselves into thinking we have more support than we do. On the ground, African civil society organisations stand alone and naked; with no funding for legal assistance or witness protection it is an open secret that participating in international investigations means retaliation against Africans while their international counterparts get to raise greater funding, get commended and promoted.

Third and most importantly, Inclusive Development has demonstrated that size is not as important as approach. If African rights organisations better understand how to influence the internal working of governments there is an enormous opportunity to build accountability by supporting and partnering with allies inside the organisation or government we want to change.

O'Riordan is an Aid Effectiveness and Donor Funding Researcher.

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