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Accountability, Ethics, and Integrity in the Human Rights, Development, and Humanitarian Aid Sector

Noam Schimmel, Lecturer, International and Area Studies and Development Practice | August 22, 2022

Human rights NGOs are often subject to relentless criticism by those they critique, and this is particularly the case when authoritarian regimes grow furious with them for making these abuses public, demanding an end to them, and affirming the importance of justice and accountability.

Non-state actors who are also criticized for human rights violations will also frequently attack human rights NGOs for similar reasons, justifying their human rights violations in relation to their particular ideology.
But human rights NGOs are not infallible, and it is important they are held to the same high standards of the very human rights which they seek to defend.

All too often, this is not the case.

It is often forgotten that human rights NGOs themselves have all the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of any other organization in which power and resources are vested.

Ideology, politics, prejudice, clashes of personalities, and donor influence that may not reflect the principles of human rights but the pragmatics of trying to advance them – all of these influence how organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Oxfam, Save the Children, and other human rights and development NGOs work.

They are not – as they often wish to portray themselves – above the fray of politics, ideology, power, and the exigencies of fundraising.

They do not transcend them because no organization can operate in a financial, political, and practical vacuum.
Moral choices are inescapable and disagreements about them are inevitable and inherent to their very enterprise.

There is an unhealthy privileged status that NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have in global discourse and public culture that elevates their status beyond openness to critique.
In the development sector – which itself embraces at least discursively many of the principles of human rights – we have seen how sexual abuse at organizations like Oxfam has been institutionally enabled.

One of the reasons why this is so, is because for so many years Oxfam and NGOs like Oxfam were treated almost reverentially because of their stated aims, which are unimpeachable.

It is not a comfortable position to be in to criticize a development or human rights organization whose stated values clearly are ethically sound and grounded in efforts to advance justice, freedom, and equality.

But it is precisely because NGOs are able to romanticize their own workings that the inevitable gap between their rhetoric and reality, between their stated aims and actual practices, often goes overlooked and they are held unaccountable.

For many years, organizations like Oxfam and Save the Children, United Nations agencies like UNICEF and UNDP, and human rights NGOs like Oxfam and Amnesty International have benefitted institutionally from a lack of critical engagement with their practices, rigorous assessment, and accountability for the very human rights laws and principles they seek to defend.

None of this is to downplay or deny the enormously good work that is done by many development, humanitarian, and human rights NGOs, including all the aforementioned ones.

But it is time to recognize that these agencies have power and that they are not democratically accountable.
Their main accountability is to their donors which are often governments and sometimes corporations and – though generally on a much smaller scale – individual donors from wealthy, typically Western countries in Europe and North America.

There is a structural gap between the interests and perspectives of donors and the interests, perspectives, and experiences of the individuals and communities human rights, development, and humanitarian NGOs serve and with whom they are supposed to work in equitable and respectful partnership.

One necessary way to address this gap and the resulting human rights failures it causes is by engaging with all these organizations directly, honestly, openly, and in a spirit of constructive critique.

Ask anyone who works or volunteers in the field of development, humanitarian aid, and human rights and you will likely discover perspectives that differ substantially from the public face of NGOs from these sectors.

They will present a much less tidy and pure perspective on what actually happens in the field, on the actual extent to which human rights are protected and respected by NGOs, and on the often difficult no-win choices and compromises that that need to be made in the practical pursuit of human rights, development, and humanitarian aid.

These compromises are often moral and often even legal.

Speak to individuals and communities in Africa, Asia, and Latin America about their experiences with development, humanitarian, and human rights NGOs and you will find more complexity, concern, ambivalence, and a wide and dynamic range of both positive and negative experiences than you would ever been exposed to in the idealized self-description and self-promotion you find on the websites of development, humanitarian, and human rights NGOs.

Although international human rights law is predicated on universality and equality and the interdependence of human rights principles and laws, in practice, decisions are being made constantly that privilege some laws and values over others for reasons of practicality, donor preferences, institutional ideology, and global politics.

Realpolitik does not only characterize states and international relations; it also characterizes the NGO sector.

Academic research on development, humanitarian, and human rights NGOs is a rich and growing field with book length studies of NGOs such as Amnesty International, Save the Children, Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, and others, including the many agencies of the United Nations.

Staff at Amnesty International in London have lodged complaints against the organization for racism, discrimination, and labor rights abuses. These receive little attention however, because of popular reverence shown such organizations.

Human Rights Watch has been criticized for selectivity and prejudice in how it purports to defend international human rights law, with particular criticism of insufficient concern for human rights violations in authoritarian regimes and for the respect and fulfillment of social, economic, and cultural rights.

In 2019 and 2020 Britain’s Parliament took strong action to demand greater accountability for human rights violations on the part of Oxfam, Save the Children, and other NGOs.

It revealed shocking gaps in protection of the rights and welfare of girls and women, and deeply flawed institutional mechanisms to prevent and stop such abuse.
Oxfam has responded by making numerous changes to its policies and practices.

While there is still much work to be done to advance the rights and welfare of girls and women interacting with NGOs, it was the critical, independent, and rigorously honest engagement with NGOs on the part of government that forced these improvements.

They did not happen voluntarily, and would likely not have happened voluntarily in such a comprehensive and publicly visible way that increases the likelihood of real and sustained accountability and change in NGO practices.

It is time that this respectful but critical and rigorous – rather than reverential – approach to analysis of and accountability for these NGOs be reflected in the media, governance, and in higher expectations from the public for integrity from those seeking to advance human rights, humanitarian aid, and development globally.

The ability to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights fully, fairly, without discrimination, and with respect for principles of universality and equality depends upon it.