Kevin Jon Heller at Opinio Juris says NGO Monitor should practice what it preaches when it comes to transparency about donations from government funders. The dialogue in comments on this and older threads is illuminating and raises some interesting questions about the accountability of the NGO sector. Like Heller, I would like to see greater transparency from both Human Rights Watch and NGO Monitor.

I think it’s a shame that NGO Monitor is so policitized by its emphasis on Israel because the general argument it makes is quite cogent: who watches the watchers? The NGO sector of global civil society is supposed to be promoting accountability by states, but is largely ungoverned itself. Various academic studies have demonstrated that while NGOs may genuinely be altruistic, they’re also self-interested bureaucracies whose behavior is closely related to that of firms. William DeMars’ recent book is a useful example. I don’t think this is an indictment at all; it just means they we probably need to think about governance mechanisms for the NGO sector just as the NGO sector wants to strengthen global governance mechanisms for states.

For example. If and NGO claims not to take money from governments, should that include only direct donations, or indirect channels as well? (At issue here is Human Rights Watch’s receipt of donations from the Dutch government through OXFAM Novib, reported by NGO Monitor, for example.)

On the other hand, why shouldn’t NGOs take money from governments? Why shouldn’t governments fund human rights work? (I was recently at a conference where Bert Lockwood, editor of Human Rights Quarterly, pointed out that if the human rights movement had a day’s worth of the US defense budget it could do a lot more good than it already does.) The problem of course is the risk or perception that political strings would be attached, but this need not be the case, any more than National Science Foundation funding for research should be assumed to render scientific research “US biased.”

What ought to be attached are standards for reporting and accountability to the public. Just as with scientific research these standards are (in theory) based on norms governing the scientific enterprise, rather than the political concerns of the government, the standards applied to NGOs should be drawn from human rights law, not from donor priorities. NGOs (and NGO-watchers) should be expected to make the case that their work meets these criteria. And this should be demanded not only by governments who fund human rights work but also by private citizens – that human rights NGOs stay true to the work they claim to be doing.

[cross-posted at LGM]