This blog first appeared in German on Xing.com
Oxfam, Save the Children, Weisser Ring – charitable organisations are not immune to cases of sexual assault and abuses of power. Is that surprising? Common sense tells us that it’s not, that of course these institutions reflect the problems that exist elsewhere in society. Morally, however, this knowledge is harder to digest than, say, the faults in the glittering world of Hollywood or in Germany’s media and film industries.
We naturally place high expectations on moral authorities such as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that support the weak of this world. Much like doctors, they should aim to do no one any harm, comply with high ethical standards and set an example in doing so, and keep their actions somewhat removed from the worldly profane. Money, power and exploitation have no business here.
This became clear a few years ago, with the scandal surrounding Unicef Deutschland. The disappointment felt by thousands of volunteer supporters about high consultancy fees led to disputes, resignations by the CEO and board members, the loss of donors, and serious damage to the image of Germany’s development aid sector as a whole. However, it also eventually led to improvements in governance standards at charitable organisations and clear responsibilities for decision-makers.
A similar thing is happening now. Misconduct by staff in Haiti, London and Lübeck, and abysmal management by the supervisory bodies are dragging an entire industry into the wake of the discussions surrounding #MeToo and other abuses. Of course, none of the cases should be downplayed, and serious efforts to address the problems and improve protections are urgently needed.
In the case of development agencies, some associations – in particular Bond in the UK and Interaction in the US – have begun working to improve common standards, reporting obligations and transparency. And here in Berlin, the globally active accountability organisation Accountable Now! is strengthening its standards for ethical action, including measures to protect women and children from assault.
But this will not be enough. It seems that facts alone cannot curb the excessive amount of criticism being levelled at aid organisations. This is especially true in the UK, where the mass media well and truly declared open season on the sector. For days on end, they ran cover stories, published confrontational interviews, and sent journalists out to hunt down the next “case”.
The special moral standards to which we hold NGOs can only partially explain the intensity of the criticism. Oxfam, for one, spent years loudly denouncing injustices and inequalities, which earned it many enemies in the establishment and so surely made it a very vulnerable target for a backlash. In today’s world of social divisions, just a few small events can be enough to trigger massive political campaigns.
In recent years, therefore, aid agencies have become more than just charitable organisations. They have increasingly assumed a political role and have helped to identify and fight injustices around the world. Millions of people’s lives have noticeably and demonstrably improved as a result – and despite corruption, wars and refugee crises, the work of NGOs is a cornerstone for constant (though often too-slow) progress in the battle against poverty and disadvantage.
In order to continue working effectively, however, these organisations must view the current situation as an opportunity to reflect on their mission and the moral foundations of their work – and to pair this with efforts to further professionalise protections that ensure the safety of their staff and those entrusted to their care.
Abuses of power are unacceptable, whether they happen in a charitable or state organisation or elsewhere in the economy and society. If they do occur, though, we must focus on making improvements instead of limiting ourselves to hunting down the responsible and guilty parties.
In a swift and uniquely composed and conducted campaign, CIVIL teams have reached thousands of people in direct communication, and many more through the CIVIL’s media platform, which is rich in content and highly influential in the society. Workshops and meetings, as well as the conference at the end of the campaign, have involved decision-makers at the local and national level, including politicians, government officials, institutions, civil society and media. Active citizen participation in decision making processes at local and national level have proven to be imperative for building a healthy democratic society.
Our analysis has shown that local governments have been put under pressure by the central government for a long time. Although the previous regime has fallen and a democratic government formed, the process of democratic transformation is very slow, and local level decision making is still facing big challenges. Fear of institutions and active citizenship is deeply rooted.
Nevertheless, CIVIL has shown visible success in encouraging active citizenship and strengthening public awareness on the Civic Charter.
The support citizens have given to the Civic Charter, at public squares throughout Macedonia, has shown that there is a strong will for cooperation and participation on issues within the area of the Civic Charter. As many have told us, they know best what the needs and priorities of their communities are. And they agreed with the Civic Charter.
The workshops and the conference have shown that there is readiness for cross-sectoral cooperation and partnership between civil society, the local and central government, business community and political parties in the field of citizen participation in the decision-making processes.
CIVIL through mutual interaction, pointed out to the participants of these sectors of society that if there is a wish, on the one hand, and political will, on the other hand, that joint cooperation will encourage effective participation, but will also contribute to the changes that the citizens need at the local and national level.
Leave no one behind – a brave and bold ambition that forms the theme of the Sustainable Development Goals, which aim to eradicate poverty and injustice by 2030. The international community, including the civil society sector, takes this as guidance for its programmes and projects. As part of that ambition, one area of focus will include the most marginalised communities and people in every country. And there are many: discriminated ethnic minorities, mutilated war victims, impoverished children, desperate refugees and displaced families, to name but a few.
Last week, the global ‘Leave No One Behind’ (LNOB) coalition met in Dhaka, Bangladesh, bringing together several of the largest international civil society organisations. The aim: to join forces to raise the voices of the most marginalised. The group has been working in five pilot* countries over the past six months and is developing a plan to combine data, distil learnings and use those for better programming and advocacy nationally and globally.
Bringing together many actors from different national contexts has many complexities, but provides for valuable learning, and hopefully, greater impact through a collaborative approach. In one country, for example, Vietnam, this coalition is already becoming the principal voice of civil society vs the Voluntary National Review which is submitted annually to report progress on SDGs. One overriding theme at the meeting was indeed, how the coalition can input into those government-led monitoring mechanisms, which too often lack disaggregated data and the voice of marginalised communities. And it proved beneficial to have representatives of the Bangladesh Government attend part of the meeting, which was hosted by the influential NGO BRAC, in order to discuss better linkage of monitoring between state and civil society.
Figuring out what marginalisation means is a key, and difficult task, because of its highly contextual nature. Bangladesh, again, is a good example of this, as it is now hosting one of the largest vulnerable and marginalised refugee communities, which fled from neighbouring Myanmar last year. Giving Rohingya people a voice is imperative, without losing consideration of those communities that are less visible.
Inclusive data gathering needs to cover quantitative data according to the many SDG indicators that exist. But every marginalised person has a story, which should be told so that underlying causes for discrimination and injustice are understood and addressed. In a world of increasing use of big and small data, their protection and the concerns for privacy need to be dealt with seriously, especially as marginalisation often has highly political dimensions. The LNOB coalition is seeking expert advice on data use so that people‘s rights are not violated.
The High-Level Political Forum of the UN exchanges progress and challenges on the Goals every year. The LNOB project is aimed at this Forum and will be represented there this year. It will link up with similar initiatives to bring the voices of the most marginalised and poorest into the centre of discussions. Without prioritising them, the international community will not achieve the Goals, nor live up to the needed structural changes that need to happen in social, economic and political terms.
If your organisation is interested in joining the coalition or in finding out more, then please contact the project manager Peter Koblowsky at firstname.lastname@example.org
*Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Nepal and Vietnam