Fostering Accountability in Zimbabwean Civil Society

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Fostering Accountability in Zimbabwean Civil Society
Ignatius Adeh *

Transparency and honesty have become pressing is sues in the NGO business in recent years.
“Only a few NGOs seem to be transparent in their activities,” The Nepal News (2001) has
observed. Mike Moore (2001), Director General of the World Trade Organization, has called for a
code of conduct that would require transparenc y from NGOs. Such demands simply ask NGOs to
deliver what they demand of ot hers: transparency, honesty, and accountability. After all, he who
seeks equity, it is said in law, must come with equity.

Transparency is an indispensable aspect of acco untability: effective accountability requires a
statement of goals, transparent decision-making and relationships, and honest reporting of
resource use and achievements, which can emphasize the honesty and efficiency with which
resources are used or the impact and effectiveness of the work (Ramesh: 1996: 8). Access to
relevant and timely information about NGO activities is crucial to ensure that internal and external
stakeholders can hold the organization to account.

Not only must NGOs be transparent and honest, they also must be perceived as such. Otherwise
a government can politically isolate them, leaving them unable to generate voluntary support for
their work. In Zimbabwe, for instance, the newsp apers often publish sickening slams on NGOs by
the government or by members of the public. It is not uncommon to read such headlines as
“Unholy alliance: Washington fi nances anti-government NGOs” ( Zimbabwean Chronicle 9/17/02).
Such headlines have fueled public mistrust. An example can be seen from an informal interview
with an observer during the NGO exhibition conference in Harare in October 2002. Pointing to
newspaper headlines and to 4×4 vehicles parked outside the exhibition hall, he said: “Now, you
have a situation where NGO resources have in creased but the people still do not see any
apparent impact on the ground or a noticeable change in their lives. So where do all these funds
go to?” He maintained that a large part of such monies end up in flashy 4×4 vehicles and private
pockets, while the people for whom the funds are meant languish in hunger and diseases.
Indeed, increased resources have left problems seemingly unchanged, producing public disgust,
apathy, and discontent. People are increasingly ca lling on NGOs to show greater transparency
and honesty.

Who might oppose greater transparency? Transparency can conflict with the principle of
confidentiality and the right to privacy, which are entrenched in the laws of most states. The
concerns over confidentiality and privacy are legi timate, but a wealth of information can still be
made available to stakeholders and the wider public (GAR 2003: iv). There is also the selfish
desire of rent-seekers to hide their ill-gotten gains , coupled with the fear of losing power to the
newly informed (Florini 1999: 3, 22). In some cases even where it is in an institution’s interest to
be transparent, individuals within the institution may prefer secrecy in order to cover up
incompetence, to protect opportunities for rent-seeki ng, or simply to avoid public scrutiny (Stiglitz:
1998). Finally, transparency requirements can mandate additional activities and, in turn, place
additional burdens on an NGO’s already-scarce resources.

Defining Transparency
The Chambers Dictionary defines transparency as “being completely open and frank about
things.” In European Community discussions, it is the catchword for the openness of EC
operations to public gaze (Safire 1998). In busines s politics, it has been defined as “the release of
information that is relevant to ev aluating those institutions” (Florini 1999:5). In finance, it is “a

process by which information about existing conditions, decisions and actions is made
accessible, visible and understandable” (Group of 22: 1998). In institutions and organizations, it is
“the process of sustaining trust based relationships with stakeholders through open exchange of
information and knowledge” (Williams 2002: 5).

Stakeholders, including the general public, require information from NGOs in order to assess and
evaluate their activities. In this realm, tran sparency means access to such information.
Transparency builds trust and confidence on the part of stakeholders and the public in general.

For the sake of this article, I adopt the followi ng working definition: “Transparency is a process
whereby relevant information of an organization is made accessible to the stakeholders, including
the public, to enable them to assess, evaluate, and make their own judgment about that
organization.” My particular focus is on the availability of information about how NGOs manage
development funds. People seek information from NGOs to learn how money meant for
community development was spent. It is in this c ontext that NGOs need to explain and justify their

Relative Transparency
Some NGO leaders assert that their org anizations are more accountable than some
governments, and with some justification. The treaty establishing the European Commission, for
instance, guarantees any European Union citizen access to EU parliament, council, and
commission documents. But when the organizati on Statewatch sought a document setting out
far-reaching changes to the code of public access to EU documents, the Council turned down the
request on the remarkable ground that its “release could fuel public discussion on the subject.”

The government of Zimbabwe does not have encouraging record on the issue of transparency
either. Although the right of access is guaranteed by the constitution and some international
instruments, the government has used controversial legislation to narrow the space for public
debate, silence those perceived as critical of it s policies, and shield itself from domestic and
international scrutiny. Civil society organiza tions and human rights activists have also been
targets of state intimidation and harassment. M any have been forced to work in increasingly
restrictive and oppressive conditio ns, facing threats, disruption of meetings by the police, ongoing
surveillance by state security agents, and arbitr ary arrests. In November 2002 the Minister of
Justice, Legal, and Parliamentary Affairs, Patri ck Chinamasa, published a list of NGOs that he
claimed represented a threat to peace and security in Zimbabwe. Among those on the list was
Amani Trust, a Zimbabwean human rights NGO that provides support to torture victims (The
Independent: 2002 ).

Factors Influencing Transparency in Zimbabwe
Transparency and honesty in the NGO sector depe nd largely on the interconnection of external
and internal factors. External factors shape the environment in which NGOs operate, such as
cultural values, socioeconomic and political exig encies, and the influence of donors. Internal
factors relate to the NGO’s own organizational capacities and structures.

In my study of NGOs in Zimbabwe, I found t hat socio-political developments have exerted
enormous impact. NGOs in Zimbabwe have gone through series of challenges with regard to
their legal framework, their formation and legiti mization, their priorities and methods, and their
strategies and the way those strategies are implemented, coupled with demands to show
increased transparency and demonstrate honesty in the administration of resources. In fact, all
aspects of NGOs’ work have been influenced by the changes in the socio-political arena.

The government’s attitude towards NGOs varies: sometimes indifference, hostility, reticence, and
wait-and-see; other times, direct involvement, s upervision, and welcoming. The hostile attitude
has taken precedence as a result of political crises occasioned by the 2000 election, which the
opposition political party, NGOs, and the in ternational community condemned for flaws and
widespread voting irregularities. The government has decided to implement stringent policies to
stifle NGO activities and especially clamp down on critical organizations, all on the pretext of
correcting NGO financial mismanagement and lack of control. These anti-NGO policies, coupled
with harsh economic conditions, pose daunting challenges to NGOs.

Other external factors are also important, in cluding HIV/AIDS, droughts, poverty, poor economic
policies coupled with poor management in the publ ic sector, and the monstrous corruption that
has eaten deep into the body politic.

In terms of internal factors, NGOs in Zi mbabwe are plagued by inadequate organizational
capabilities—poor leadership, bad governance structures and management, wastage of
resources, and insufficient skills to get the job done.

The Transparency Deficit and Its Roots
I find that many NGOs in Zimbabwe do not public ly disclose necessary information within the
country. The stakeholders and the general public are entitled to information about the
management of development funds. A majority of Zimbabwean NGOs display increased
transparency of this sort to their foreign donor s, but not to other stakeholders. In respect to
finances and remunerations, many Zimbabwean NGOs are not transparent toward the
communities that benefit from their interventions.

Why? Transparency and honesty indicators—such as budgeting and monitoring, auditing and
evaluation, producing reports and press releases, holding public meetings, properly exploiting
information and communication technologies, and project management in general—all require
skills, capacity, and dedication. Skills and capacity often are lacking. Although staff motivation
and dedication are high, further, available data indicate a gradual decline in motivation due to
high inflationary trends, which have reduced sta ff remunerations to mere “peanuts.” Most NGOs
also exhibit inadequate financial resources and la ck of financial sustainability plans, shortcomings
that are blamed primarily on lack of capacity to identify new needs and develop viable projects
that can attract foreign donors.

Overall, Zimbabwean NGOs appear to be abov e average in honesty. True, many NGOs
exaggerate their successes while playing down their failures. Some also address desperate
financial situations by engaging in practices t hat one might describe as dishonest. But many are
transparent and honest about their strengths and weaknesses.

Fraud and corruption are ordinarily predicat ed upon personal benefit. In Zimbabwean NGOs,
kickbacks, fudged receipts, and project funds illegally diverted to non-project activities are often
driven not by a desire for personal benefits, but ra ther by a desire to assist the organizations’
activities and thereby help attain the project goal. Such practices, however, undermine
transparency and honesty standards. They should th erefore be discontinued. At a minimum, such
practices should be specifically negotiated with donors and other stakeholders.

Of the great number of NGOs in Zimbabwe, only a small proportion are truly fraudulent. The
activities of such a small group will not tarnish the internationally recognized good work of the
many other NGOs. Increased transparency in NG Os should diminish the corruption: dishonest
conduct would be easier to detect, and therefore to deter, through honest reporting, monitoring,
and evaluation.

Communicating NGO Accomplishments
It is noteworthy that despite the hurdles, NGOs are still able to engage and organize villagers into
groups and committees, thereby giving them t he opportunity to discuss common problems and
prioritize their strategies. NGOs continue to rende r services to their beneficiaries despite fears of
intimidation, arrest, and torture. They also ma nage to network with partners and maintain good
rapport with foreign donors. Other strengths of NGOs include teamwork within individual
organizations and fairly good communication with all stakeholders other than the government.

Weaknesses include inadequate management skills; poor planning in relation to identifying issues
systematically and strategizing goal s; the inability to clearly identify the beneficiaries of a given
project; the inability to counter the misinformation of the government-controlled media and
thereby eradicate public bias; and the lack of pr oper documentation of activities and practices,
which hinders learning and exchange of ideas. Additionally, they have not been able to adopt a
common national code of ethics.

While NGOs have adopted various means to communicate their efforts to the public, without a
nationwide, coordinated approach to their comm on problems, the circumstances necessary for
NGO transparency and honesty will remain elusive. In particular, Zimbabwean NGOs have not
been able to come together as a force to confro nt or engage the government. In a less hostile
socioeconomic and political environment, NGOs would be able to manage the available
resources (human, material, information, and financial) in a transparent and honest manner
acceptable to all parties. But do NGOs have the full backing of donors and other stakeholders to
confront or engage the government, bearing in mind the tense political environment? NGOs might
improve their situation by str engthening their advocacy and awar eness-building networks. With
increased promotion of their activities, the succ esses and the failures alike, they will be able to
win the hearts and minds of donors and the general public, thereby fostering a positive image of
themselves while at the same time rebutting the vindictiveness and bias of the government
information system.

1 From the NGO’s Perspective
Access to information: With today’s information and communication technology, e-mail and
websites are becoming the cheapest and fastest vehicles for delivering information. Independent
radio stations can also play a significant role . Through these avenues, NGOs can break through
the bias of the government-controlled media. The result will be enhanced public awareness of
what NGOs do and whom they represent. Only then can NGOs get the support they need from
their beneficiaries and the wider public.

NGOs are not secret cults but private institutions that carry out public functions. They are part of
civil society, and are therefore expected to be open and accountable. NGOs should endeavor to
show increased transparency to their beneficiaries and the wider public through making public
their reports. Transparency and honesty require NGOs to show their successes and their failures.
It may be wise, in fact, for NGOs to publish their annual reports in newspapers, just as private
businesses do at the end of every fiscal year

Members of an NGO’s staff should have access to a ll relevant information about the organization.
This will ensure that they properly represent the organization. They should undergo compulsory
orientation and have access to the founding document or constitution.

If NGOs want to prove themselves transparent an d honest, they should also make available their
reports, records, and other relevant information to social scientists seeking to survey their

experiences, successes, failures, and problems. The outcome of such analyses will in no small
measure contribute to knowledge. This sector of sc ientists, in fact, could serve as a laboratory for
NGOs, carrying out clinical diagnosis and evaluation of NGO strengths and weaknesses. In
Zimbabwe as in most developing nations, these people are virtually ignored, which leads to
wasted resources. Such collaboration and interact ion with social scientists will educate NGOs
and the public, and it will help policymakers as well as existing and potential donors. In
Zimbabwe, this would be particularly useful bec ause trust has become a scarce commodity. The
public could rely on the findings of social scientists who, with nothing to gain or lose, can produce
unbiased analysis.

Language: Language is a key component of information sharing, especially where the majority of
beneficiaries or recipients are illiterate. To maxi mize information sharing, reports, records,
documents, and other materials must be made available in multiple local languages and in a
simplified form that the majority of people might understand. Radio programs must also reflect the
peoples’ languages. For instance, thematic progra ms, interviews, and discussions should take
local languages into consideration. In areas where this is not affordable, the usual word of mouth
can still be relied upon.

Hierarchy: Most NGOs in Zimbabwe have a hierarchical structure, with power concentrated in the
director or chief executive. This model is no longer fashionable in today’s world, where
transparency is a watchword for all institutions. A much more transparent approach can
discourage dishonesty: namely, a decentralized form that places the local staff and the
communities at the center of decision-making, thereby giving them the opportunity to move up the
ladder within the management structure. Such a system should encourage engagement and
negotiation between and among stakeholders.

Monitoring and control structures: All NGOs should have proper procedures for receiving cash,
keep incoming funds separate from outgoing funds, and limit access to the safe and petty cash to
specified individuals. Further, receipts for money paid out must be taken, and receipts given for
money received. All staff must be given rudimentary training in accounting and handling of cash.
In addition, occasional inspections must be made of purchases to ensure that receipts and
invoices represent actual transactions.

Management and skill: Many NGOs in Zimbabwe need capacity-building in the areas of
operational management, monitoring and evaluation, strategic planning, and report writing. Most
of the managers and directors are self-made chief executives with little or no qualification. The
management staff and field staff need more management training if they are to handle their ever-
increasing tasks. Training could be provided by severa l local institutions or by institutions from

NGOs should also learn from one another. They might, for instance, register staff members with
the National Social Security Authority, as two NGOs, the Legal Resource Foundation (LRF) and
Zimcet, now do. In-house training can also send a signal of relative job security, which can
improve staff dedication and output. Further, NGOs could develop a national database of skilled
NGO personnel, modeled on the LRF project in Matebeleland called SAFDEM, which sought to
create a database of qualified Southern Africans willing to undertake peace missions abroad.

Delegation of powers: NGOs should adopt a framework where power is delegated to members of
staff, who can make decisions on behalf of the organization in the absence of the manager or
chief executive. Otherwise his or her absence prevents any meaningful activities from taking

Beneficiaries and the public: All NGOs should embrace Zimcet’s approach of creating ownership
in the beneficiaries by organizing villagers into co mmittees, which in turn confront their common

problems and participate in community projects. Documenting and disseminating information
about best practices could be helpful in this regard, as could improved advocacy techniques.

Reporting systems, auditing, and evaluation: Most of the NGOs complained of a lack of qualified
personnel for compiling reports for the various stak eholders, particularly donors with their varying
demands for particular formats and procedures. In addition, NGOs commonly rely on high-paid
outside auditors and evaluators. The fees drain much-needed finances from such organizations
unless the donors pay for the services. Building and strengthening capacity is needed here.

Disciplinary procedures: NGOs must put in place disciplinary measures to deal with staff and
members who attempt to gain personal benefit from the organization or its assets. Such behavior
by a few staff or few organizations debases NGO values and morals. When disciplinary action is
taken against erring staff, it should be made known to the public. In most African countries this
would be an image booster: it would show that the NGO has a no-nonsense leadership able to
drive out bad eggs.

NGO codes of conduct: While some NGOs have rules that se rve as code of ethics, most do not.
The majority said they desired a national code of conduct, which at the time of this study was
nonexistent. However, my visit to Zimbabwe for da ta collection rekindled interest in a national
code, and the National Association of NGOs (NANGO) undertook to create one. The first national
conference for that purpose was held in Bulawayo , and indications are that a draft is underway. A
national code of conduct that commands the suppor t of the majority of NGOs is necessary to
serve as benchmark for judging NGO actions.

Lack of focus: Initially, an NGO’s constitution or foundation document may establish a goal, but
over the years the organization moves from one goal to another without fully attaining the initial
goal. Almost all the shifts in focus were toward relief and welfare, resulting from bad government
policies, corruption, political violence, and t he drought of the late 1990s that left millions,
particularly women and children, in dire need of food and shelter. Experience has shown that
NGOs that have a focus and stick doggedly to it tend to record higher marks in transparency and
honesty. It is recommended that NGOs reject funds that may divert them from their goals, funds
that may decrease their efficiency, and funds t hat do not adequately provide for overhead costs
or what are generally known as non-project essential activities.

Coalition-building and networking: Most Zimbabwean NGOs have improved in this area, but more
needs to be done, especially in seeking partners hips locally and regionally rather than only from
northern countries. A wealth of experience exists locally, and it is not known to a lot of NGOs.
They must do better of reaching out to other like-minded NGOs locally and within the region to
share information and identify common interests. This will also affect transparency and honesty
within the NGO sector. Along with developing a co de of ethics and organizing more exhibitions,
NANGO, the consortium of NGOs in Zimbabwe, should come up with a framework for all the
representatives of the consortium to exchange ideas and experiences.

2 From the Donor’s Perspective
Donors should bear the additional costs of increased transparency and honesty. The cost of
creating a web page or exploiting other information and communication technologies should be
negotiated with donors and other stakeholders.

Donors must develop an independent test for det ermining that an organization is credible,
transparent, and honest before disbursing funds, in order to avoid the much-taunted misallocation
of resources that can result in financial misappropriation. In order to avoid misallocation, donors
must look before they leap. Donors must also realize that NGOs need help if they are to be

successful in waging war against the miscreants in their midst by sharing information about the
reputation of other NGOs.

Donors must also offer political support to NGO partners-in-development facing threats from the
government of Zimbabwe and other hostile regimes. In particular, donors must apply all pressure
necessary to make the government change its course of action on development issues in
Zimbabwe. They must call on the government to resp ect its international obligations with respect
to the freedoms of assembly, association, and free speech, and they should threaten punitive
sanctions for non-compliance. Donors can show t heir clear support for NGOs by sending an
unambiguous signal to the Zimbabwean governm ent regarding its actions toward NGOs and
people with opposing views.

3 From the Government’s Perspective
The government creates a policy framework for NG Os to operate. Therefore, the government of
Zimbabwe has no grounds to complain about i nadequate transparency and honesty on the part of
NGOs—it has the unfettered power to make and enf orce the laws that guide NGO actions. If it
wants a booming NGO sector, it must promulgate ju st laws and enforce them without political

A government serious about NGO transparency and honest management of resources needs to
set the necessary machinery in motion. That m eans that the government of Zimbabwe should be
encouraged to do the following:

a. Abrogate all the so-called “s trangulatory” legislation that gave extra-
legal justification to violence against NGOs and people with opposing views.

b. Promulgate just and acceptable laws and initiate policies that promote
collaboration with NGOs. When acceptabl e laws are made and truly enforced, the
atmosphere of fear, distrust, misgiving, and suspicion will be eradicated.

c. Strengthen law-enforcement procedures so that laws on NGOs can be
truly and honestly enforced.

d. Instead of confronting NGOs, welcome them and work together so that
NGOs can fully contribute.

e. Work closely with NGOs in order to make joint coordination of NGO
activities a reality.

f. Reverse its position on media campaigns to smear NGOs in the public

g. Harmonize its local laws with its responsibilities under international
laws and instruments.

If these recommendations are adopted, NGOs in Zimbabwe can attain increased transparency
and honesty in the management of resources. But if such measures are not seriously considered,
NGOs could find themselves part of the problem they are fighting against—which could constitute
the worst nightmare for stakeholders, particula rly beneficiaries, and raise needless questions
about the legitimacy of NGOs.

Transparent and honest management of NGO resources pleases donors and other stakeholders,
and is necessary to ensure continuous support and thus sustainability. More broadly,
transparency is critical to development and a thriving democracy. It enables civil society to
understand, analyze, and participate in discussi ons relating to community development and other
social issues. Zimbabwean NGOs must understand th at transparency is indispensable if they are
to realize their overall goal of social transformation.

Florini, Ann (1999): Does the Invisible Hand Need a Transparent Glove? The politics of
transparency. An overview paper prepared for the Annual World Bank conference on
Development Economics, Washington D.C., Carnegie Endowment for International
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Global Accountability Report (200 3): Power without Accountability. , accessed August 17,

Group of 22 (1998): The Report of the Work ing Group on Transparency and Accountability.
Washington, D.C.: International Monetary Fund.

Independent newspaper of Zimbabwe (2002): Clamp down on dissent. February 8.

Moore, M. (2001): World Trade Organisations Quotes. Speech at the WTO Symposium on
issues confronting the World Trading System. July 6. quotes/mts/transparency.htm , accessed August 4, 2003.

Nepal News (2001): Transparency in NGOs. February 28.

Ramesh, Janeki, in Edwards and Hulme (1996): Strategies for monitoring and accountability:
Beyond the Magic Bullet . NGO performance and Accountability in the Post-Cold War
World. Conn.: Kumarian Press.

Safire, William (1998), cited in Florini (1999): New York Times, On language: Transparency, totally. January 4.

Stiglitz, Joseph (1998): Distinguished Lecture on Economics in Government: The Private Uses of
Public Interests: Incentives and Institutions and Institutions. The Journal of Economic
Perspective 12.2: 2-32.

Williams, Anthony (2002): Transparency in Networ ked Economy. An overview paper prepared for
Digital4Sight Inc.

* Ignatius Adeh, LL.B (BL), M.A., is a development policy consultant based in Germany.
Copyright 2004 by Ignatius Adeh.