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NGOs too must be accountable and transparent

July 5, 2012

Civil society legitimacy and accountability is an extremely important issue, and it needs to be debated openly.

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Khoo Ying Hooi

Controversial deals exist not only in the business world, but also in the non-commercial platform. As the role of NGOs in policy formulation, implementation and enforcement has gained importance, so have queries surfaced related to their reliability and legitimacy as actors in the process of governance.

Good aspirations and values are sufficient grounds for NGO to claim legitimacy; but the pressure is piling on NGOs to provide evidence that they are effectively serving the purpose of their formation and are free from external interventions.

Today, NGOs are asked to address questions of accountability. The discussions and debates around accountability indicate that NGOs have generally being accepted as a form of civic expression.

Human rights group Suaram has recently hit the headlines over a range of issues – from its independence, accounting practices to the legitimacy of its advocacy.

These issues were magnified particularly since its involvement with the high-profile controversy – the Scorpene submarine deal.

Growing visibility and escalating criticism, among other factors, have led to immense pressure on Suaram to be more accountable, both from inside and outside of the arena.

Last week, Jaringan Melayu Malaysia (JMM) president, Azwanddin Hamzah, claimed that a check with the Companies Commission of Malaysia (CCM) revealed that Suaram was not a NGO, but a company registered under the name Suara Inisiatif Sdn Bhd.

He also claimed that the organisation had business revenue of nearly RM500,000 in 2009 and over RM400, 000 in 2010.

Azwanddin had asked Suaram to clarify the sources of its profit, the contributors as well as their motive. JMM also questioned the intention of an NGO like Suaram getting involved in matters like the Scorpene submarine scandal.

The episode resulted in a raid by the CCM on Suaram’s office early this week.

The struggle for accountability

NGO accountability is a complicated issue. An organisation needs to be accountable to various stakeholders – donors, governments, supporters and beneficiaries.

Each stakeholder appears to have a different level of influence and authority over a NGO. The mechanisms for assuring accountability between donors and NGOs, for instance, are usually strong because of their contractual commitments and the dependence of NGOs on donor funds.

The bottom line in balancing the needs of these different stakeholders is accountability.

Nowadays, it is not only the governments that are the subjects of scrutiny, but also the civil society groups. Civil society legitimacy and accountability is an extremely important matter, and it needs to be debated openly.

When “The Economist” posed the now important question “Who guards the guardians?”, it was referring basically to a greatly changed political and social landscape in which civil groups, deemed as the “guardians” of popular interests, have generated a much higher level of influence than before. In Malaysia, the NGOs are always seen as opposing the state’s national interest or are perceived as a threat.

In contemporary political discourse, these groups play a crucial role in creating and sustaining a rights-based society and are often seen as the key to improving the quality of governance, strengthening people power, enabling development and strengthening democracy.

Suaram has established itself in the last 20 years as a major human rights resource centre and a leading activist organisation in the country. It was established in response to the Operasi Lalang incident on Oct 27, 1987, when 106 members of political parties, trade unionists, educationists, social activists and other individuals were detained without trial under the ISA because they were deemed as “threat to national security”.

In response, 17 NGOs formed the ISA Detainees’ Family Support Group as a loose coalition campaigning for the release of these ISA detainees.

The experience of the following two years indicated the need for a more focused organisation to monitor human rights, to provide support to the detainees and their family and, most importantly, to repeal the ISA.

As a result, the ISA Detainees’ Family Support Group, ISA detainees and other NGO activists formed Suaram in 1989, aimed at defending and upholding human rights and particularly to campaign for the abolition of the ISA.

Suaram’s mission is to establish a human rights movement by building support and fostering unity of the people.

During the early days, Suaram focused on civil and political rights particularly on preventive laws like the ISA.

From time to time, the focus was also widened to also include workers’ rights, indigenous peoples’ land rights, rights of refugees and asylum seekers.

Some other campaigns include issues on environment, deaths in custody, accountability and transparency, freedom of information and press, freedom of assembly and association, as well as freedom of expression and speech.

Debating the future

The role and impact of NGOs have to be understood within the context of the country’s political and social development.

It is apparent that in recent years particularly since the “reformasi” movement in 1999 and the political tsunami on March 8, 2008, the involvement of local NGOs has been gaining attention in and out of Malaysia.

Some expressed concern that in recent years some civil society organisations such as Suaram have aligned themselves too closely with the opposition Pakatan Rakyat.

The fact that Suaram is frequently allied with opposition political parties against the ruling government has coloured the authorities’ assessment of Suaram in general. The direction of Suaram appeared to be inconsistent.

In Malaysia, there is generally no adequate framework for assessing the effectiveness of a particular human rights organisation. There are different sorts of NGOs with distinct missions, techniques and organisational forms.

Even when we focus on a few truly human rights NGOs, notably Suaram, Aliran, Hakam and a few others, there is a significant diversity of goals, strategies, techniques, and organisational forms among them.

However, there is often also a significant overlap of missions of the various organisations around particular issues, so that it is often difficult to disentangle their separate influences from their cumulative influence on other political actors and sectors.

While Malaysian NGOs have grown and consolidated their operations, many problems still remain: inadequate leadership and training, disagreements over methodology and direction, and ethnic divisions.

There is broad agreement that if NGOs are to hold governments and business accountable, they must ensure their own legitimacy, openness and transparency.

They should be able to demonstrate a democratic structure and adopt a non-partisan approach if they want to claim legitimacy.

They should focus on their primary agenda and not be diverted by the demands of donors or be bogged down by obstacles in their operational environment.

Ultimately, the NGOs will undoubtedly continue to be important vehicles as long as citizens need them to articulate their concerns and to help realise their needs.

It can be expected that Suaram will stay play a significant role for some time to come. The most important thing is that it will need to undergo some internal reforms.

The writer is an academic member of staff in Universiti Malaya; she is also a PhD candidate at the University Putra Malaysia. Her current research focuses on the civil society and social movements in Malaysia. She can be contacted at [email protected].

[main photo sourced from http://www.csid.unt.edu]


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