NGOs and Accountability: What it says in the Papers

16/04/2012 at 1:41 pm 2 comments

Guest post by Marguerite Hughes


A recent Google search for “NGO accountability” yielded me 6,640,000 results.  While this is far less than a similar search for “NGO performance” (35,700,000), it nonetheless clearly reveals that NGO accountability has generated much discussion. (see also the resources Dóchas has collected)

In particular, an abundant literature has emerged discussing what conceptualizations of accountability might be most appropriate for NGOs.  Contributors to this literature have generally rejected so-called “principal-agent” approaches that confine an NGO’s obligation to account to those who have formal power over it (e.g. donors) in favour of a broader accountability (often termed “stakeholder” accountability) that requires NGOs to account to all those who are effected by its activities (e.g. clients, donors, other NGOs).

In addition to discussions of the theory of NGO accountability, a substantial body of research also exists on how NGOs practice accountability.  While examples of innovative practices that result in NGOs accounting to multiple stakeholders exist, the majority of this literature points to an ongoing emphasis on accountability to donors by NGOs often at the expense of accountability to clients.  A first practical challenge identified with making stakeholder accountability work is that different stakeholders may want different things.  A second practical challenge is that some stakeholders (e.g. donors) are likely to have more power over NGOs than others (e.g. clients).  As such, unless there is a willingness by more powerful stakeholders to allow NGOs to prioritise the wishes of less powerful stakeholders then practising stakeholder accountability is problematic.

While the theory and practice of NGO accountability have received considerable attention, there is an almost total absence of literature considering how accountability is talked about either by NGOs or in relation to NGOs.  As part of doctoral research I conducted recently, I sought to partially fill that gap by considering newspaper coverage linking NGOs with accountability in an Irish context.

Why might media coverage of NGOs and accountability matter?

One might well ask why media coverage of NGOs and accountability is important. Of course I cannot reasonably assert that particular media coverage will have a certain impact.  However, there is a vast empirical heritage demonstrating that media coverage is influential.  For example, the media theories of first- and second-level agenda setting suggest that through the frequency and prominence of particular coverage the media may not alone influence what issues people think are important, but also what they think.  The theory of media priming extends this reasoning to argue that media coverage may suggest what issues should be used in evaluating actors.

What did I do?

I conducted a quantitative content analysis of all Irish Times newspaper content published between 1994 and 2009.  In other words, I (along with a second coder) read and coded (answered a series of questions about) each newspaper article.

What did I find?

Firstly, I found a total of 144 articles in which NGOs were linked with the term “accountability”.  88 of these were concerned with NGOs reportedly questioning or discussing the accountability of non-NGOs.  Of the 56 that were concerned with the accountability of NGOs in 22 articles the approach to accountability was not discernible.  In 32 of the remaining 34 articles NGO accountability was described in principal agent terms compared to only 2 articles in which NGO accountability was described in stakeholder terms.

When I specifically looked for articles in which NGO views on NGO accountability were reported I found only 12.  In 5 of these articles the approach to accountability was not discernible, in 6 accountability was described in principal-agent terms, and in only 1 was accountability reportedly described by an NGO in stakeholder terms.

In sum, therefore, I found that it was far more common for NGO accountability to be described in principal-agent terms than stakeholder terms in Irish Times coverage and that this finding held true both in relation to coverage in which comments were attributed to NGOs and coverage in which comments were attributed to non-NGO sources.

What might this mean?

Taking into account the media theories of agenda setting and priming my findings suggest that principal-agent accountability could become more salient in the minds of Irish Times readers than other forms of NGO accountability and might in turn be more likely to be used by them in evaluating NGOs than other forms of accountability.  Put simply, this could mean that members of the public would be more likely to judge NGOs based on how they account to their donors (or other bodies to whom they are required to account) rather than their clients.

Assertions by Irish NGOs that they need to ensure downward accountability are commonplace (see, for example, Trócaire’s Leading Edge report) .  If Irish NGOs are genuinely committed to this goal then it seems reasonable to suggest that they should be promoting this understanding of accountability among their potentially powerful Irish stakeholders (some of whom will no doubt be Irish Times readers).   In other words, if Irish NGOs really want to be downwardly accountable, then they should be embracing every opportunity to convince the Irish public who support and fund them that accountability should be understood in this way.  Given the power of the media to influence public opinion, media would be an obvious place to communicate this message.

The fact that so many Irish NGOs have adopted the Dóchas Code of Conduct on Images and Messages suggests a strong awareness among Irish NGOs that their communications have the potential to influence public opinion in relation to the developing world.  Perhaps, however, NGOs are not sufficiently aware that ALL of their communications including those relating to apparently technical issues (e.g. their own accountability) might have the potential to influence public understandings of development.

My finding that only 2 Irish Times articles in 16 years described NGO accountability in stakeholder terms suggests that NGOs have thus far failed to harness the power of this media source to educate the Irish public about current understandings of accountability and the roles of different stakeholders in development initiatives.


Entry filed under: NGOs. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Dóchas  |  16/04/2012 at 3:18 pm

    This blog post is also relevant in light of the on-going consultation by the European Commission on the role of civil society in Development (see

    There is now widespread recognition of the obligation of States to provide an “enabling environment” for the work of NGOs and civil society organisations. Yet, public attitudes to (and understanding of) the work of “charities” is an important aspect of such an enabling environment – and one that NGOs themselves can help shape.

  • 2. R Storey  |  20/05/2012 at 7:35 pm

    This research is faulty in that it is not possible to find one Irish Times article which links narrative with financial reporting.
    Irish NGOs do not do accountability.


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