We are not huge fans of the term “closing civic space” for reasons Michael Jarvis has pointed out– it can be anodyne, all-encompassing and potentially ideological. But there are, of course, a number of political regimes around the world that are questioning the legitimacy of NGOs and pushing back against efforts to support accountability and transparency. A recent survey by the Transparency and Accountability Initiative of its grantees, for example, indicated that 70% are concerned about issues related to civic space.
The Accountability Lab operates in countries where we see these dynamics. So, inspired by a recent blog by Saskia Brechenmacher and Thomas Carothers which draws out these issues based on discussions with civic activists and analysts across multiple countries, our team at the Accountability Lab decided to take a closer collective look at our own legitimacy in the places we operate. How are we building public support for our work? How can we push back against forces that might seek to curtail our efforts? What can we do to ensure we are lifting up and supporting other organizations that are legitimate? Which other organizations are modeling the behavior we seek to emulate? There is a lot more rigorous research to be done around these issues- both for ourselves as an organization and also more broadly- but these questions provided a starting point.
First, the article focuses on the identity of civic groups as societal actors: “who they are”. Local credibility through being based in and led by members of a community is key. At the Accountability Lab, we are registered in the US but we are also registered as a local organization in all of the places we operate, with local structures, Boards of Directors and processes. The Labs’ entire staff across all of these countries are nationals of those places, and often have deep experience as part of social change movements in these contexts. That has not in any way exempted us from challenges- we have had moments of deep soul-searching and genuine push-back around our work at times. But we hope we have learned from this and have found overall that our local Labs mean we are better positioned within given contexts; understand the political-economy of change; and, more prosaically, can maintain our operations, even when foreign NGOs might be the target of government restrictions.
Second, legitimacy is shaped by what an organization does and how they do it, including three core elements: downward accountability, transparency and political independence. At the Lab, we try our best to be transparent in everything we do- with all of our core documents, financials and policies open and online at any given time. Around the world, we place a premium on building systems; sharing lessons across countries through monthly open calls; meeting global standards when it comes to issues such as financial management; and staying out of politics. We also use international frameworks where feasible- such as the Open Government Partnership, for example- as umbrellas under which we can push for change; while also making sure that the issues concerned are understood in a way that resonates locally. With the Open Government Partnership (OGP) for example, we have made the case that open government is as much about efficiency as it is about transparency. Talking with our colleagues, the other element we feel strongly about is taking a positive approach to our work at all times– we find holding up others and offering solutions is more politically feasible than the opposite, especially in places where civic space may be under threat.
Third, legitimacy comes from those with whom we work. It is easy to question organizations that seem far removed from the people they claim to serve, sequestered in air-conditioned SUVs and upscale restaurants in capital cities. At the Lab, we learn the most when we are in communities, finding the best ways we can to build coalitions and bring in new, diverse voices. Our Accountability Incubator is one way of doing this- it is a mechanism through which we can find and lift-up local solutions to key accountability challenges. The incubator has led to ideas such as the Community Justice Teams and Citizen Helpesks which have created positive space for local ideas and actions around justice, earthquake relief, natural resources and public services. We are inspired by incredible organizations such as Mazdoor Kishan Shakti Sangthan in India and G-Watch in the Philippines who constantly model this behavior, and are continually finding ways to sustain their efforts, even in the face of significant political challenges.
Finally, the article argues civil society organizations build legitimacy based on the impact they have. We would argue that this means moving well beyond the rigid donor output matrices and flashy numbers that some NGOs like to put out (although quantifying change can be important) and meaningfully talking to communities about the change our work has created and how it can be improved over time. We carry out annual learning surveys in which we try our best to do this; and where we can, we bring in external research to help us objectively assess what is working and why, or why not. Measuring impact in the accountability space can be difficult and we love learning from organizations such as Twaweza and the Open Contracting Partnership, who take the impact of their work seriously and are constantly finding intelligent ways to understand their contributions to larger processes of change. Learning can happen at all levels- we hosted the 1st Organizational Learning Awards in Liberia recently and found some incredible examples of small organizations that are pushing the envelope in terms of understanding impact and using data to improve what they do.
Legitimacy is a process, rather than an end point- it is derived from hundreds of daily interactions and decisions that slowly shape the ways an organization is perceived and understood. As such, it has to be based on a set of values that are embedded- it cannot be turned on or off. This means that as civic space continues to close around the world, civic actors need to get ahead of this trend- meaningfully working to build local ownership, approaches, partnerships and impact.