Research Findings: NGOs and accountability issues

There are over 11 thousand Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in Uganda (Mwesigwa 2015) and those NGOs often operate within a binary paradigm in which they perceive themselves as the voice of Uganda’s civil societies, particularly of those sections of the population that they categorise as marginalised and/or oppressed. Thus, NGO descriptions of those for whom they profess to work and for those who they profess to benefit often include tear-jerking and emotive terms such as: victims, voiceless, poorest of the poor, and wretched of the earth.

NGOs in Uganda, therefore, self-promote their work using imagery that often presents them as the saviours of Uganda’s citizens from the state – the Government of Uganda GoU. NGO activists (Mwesigwa 2015) claim to fight against corruption, human rights abuses and maladministration and they assert that they provide basic social services to Ugandans who otherwise are not accessing such services from the GoU, as they should.

On the other side of the dichotomy – NGO saviour versus GoU culprit – the GoU is increasingly suspicious of NGOs (Owaraga 2015) – recently categorising them as a security risk and as entities whose methods of work have become subversive and undermine accountability and transparency within the NGO sector  (Mwesigwa 2015). The GoU, thus, justifies its move to enact laws that will see the GoU more strictly and more stringently regulate the work of NGOs operating within the borders of Uganda. The GoU’s governing body for NGOs – the NGO Board (Ministry of Internal Affairs 2015) – holds a vision of:

 A vibrant and accountable NGO Sector, enabling citizen advancement and self transformation.

Deducing from the vision of the NGO Board, the GoU seems to appreciate that there is value addition in having NGOs operate in Uganda – “citizen advancement and self transformation.” In this regard the GoU and NGOs agree. Where the disagreement seems to emerge is on whether NGOs are accountable and the degree to which their work is causing “citizen advancement and self transformation” or not.

So, what is an ‘accountable NGO’ in the context of Uganda? In a presentation on an NGO initiative of self-regulation and accountability – The NGO Quality Assurance Certification Mechanism (QuAM), an officer of an indigenous Ugandan NGO (UNGO), the Development Network of Indigenous Voluntary Associations (DENIVA) (Namisi n.d.), defines NGO accountability as:

Promoting openness in everything that the organisation does where, how, when and why. It is also about people participation in the organisation’s activities and decision-making processes.

Seemingly, the GoU and NGOs agree on the definition of accountability. Their agreement, for example, can be deduced from statements made by the GoU’s Spokesperson. Mr. Ofwono Opondo (Mwesigwa 2015) is quoted as having  said:

NGOs claim they are providing water and when you go there you don’t find anything. We want them to specify their area of jurisdiction and what they want to do exactly.

Within the dominant NGO discourse in Uganda, NGOs claim their mandate and legitimacy as being derived from those for whom they work and those who benefit from their actions – often referred to in NGO-speak as ‘beneficiaries’. It would follow, therefore, that an NGO’s accountability would be incomplete if the NGO did not open up to its ‘beneficiaries’ about what the organisation is doing or has done where, how, when and why; and if the NGO ‘beneficiaries’ did not participate in the NGO’s activities and decision-making processes.

My research on NGOs (Owaraga, Trust in partnership – a southern perspective on conditionalities attached to NGO funding 2003), however, interestingly found that when it comes to discussions related to NGO financial management and financial reporting, NGO managers consider their organisation ‘beneficiaries’ to be the staff and board of UNGOs.    Even the few who acknowledge their organisation beneficiaries to be Ugandan poor men and women, at the same time held a view that it is not necessary to involve the true NGO ‘beneficiaries’ – as in the victims, the voiceless, the poorest of the poor, the wretched of the poor – in financial management and financial reporting.

For example an officer working for an International NGO (INGO) of the global west, which works in partnership with UNGOs concluded as follows:

Beneficiaries of UNGOs are normally not involved in the financial management and reporting, and often it is not relevant for them to be involved – it depends on the character of the organisation. We find it more relevant that all staff members of UNGOs are involved in budgeting and reporting. This we emphasise and encourage very much. 

The practice of not involving UNGO beneficiaries in discussions related to UNGO financial management and financial reporting is arguably one of the reasons that have raised suspicions of corruption against NGOs in Uganda. Most financing for NGO activities in Uganda is from external grant funding – usually from the global west and which is given to NGOs in the name of the NGO’s proclaimed ‘beneficiaries’ – use the funds to benefit the people of Uganda or a section of Uganda’s population, kind of thing. When beneficiaries and the GoU have insufficient or no information about the amounts granted to UNGOs and for what purposes, one can appreciate the context of their suspicions, however, false they may be.

Worse still, in many cases even the involvement of all UNGO staff in discussions related to UNGO financial management and reporting is not effective. Sometimes back, for example, as a Consultant, I was contracted by an INGO to facilitate a planning workshop for their UNGO partner. During the workshop, I noticed that a number of participants, who included both staff and members of the UNGO, were having difficulties contributing to discussion on their organisation’s plans and budgets and this was making the workshop unproductive.  I side stepped the discussion on finances and asked them questions about their organisational structure and legal status.

When I did so, the discussions became lively and it turned out that even though the UNGO had a constitution, most of the members had never seen it before the workshop.  It was made by the Executive and important articles on financial management and reporting were not included. Only the Executive and a clique of a few others were aware of the UNGO’s financial matters. So, even though the constitution stipulated the existence of a supervisory committee, it had never been put in place. And even though the constitution stipulated annual general meetings, none had taken place in eight years. The Executive, nevertheless, had successfully solicited external funding from INGOs on behalf of the membership and the beneficiaries of the organisation.

Sadly, cases of ‘brief case’ NGOs – NGOs that exist on paper but do not practice what is on paper – are becoming increasingly common in Uganda. Opportunists are setting them up for their own self-interests. Yes, they are able to get away with it, because after all they need not account to those in whose name they raise funds. A UNGO executive, for example, surmised as follows:

Conditionalites on financial management and financial reporting attached to UNGO grant funding by INGOs are too complicated and so we ‘spare’ our membership from them. 

The trend in the NGO sector is: UNGOs report to INGOs and INGOs also report upwards to their back donors – bi-lateral and multi-lateral government agencies, foundations, etc. – and sometimes to the public of their respective global western countries. In justification of this status quo an INGO officer explained as follows:

The two parties (UNGOs and INGOs) have different parts to play, so the duties of each are different. In the same way, we report to those who give us funds, we report to them on how we spend that money, but we do not ask them to report to us. The funding goes in one direction, the reporting in the other.

UNGOs in fact rarely, if at all, ever ask their INGO partners to report to them in the same way and in the same depth in which their partner INGOs asked them to account. No doubt, we, UNGO executives, feel intimidated to ask, because we are scared to question our benefactors – the power relations within our partnerships override trust as the mechanism of control within our partnerships (Owaraga, Non-Governmental Organisations in Uganda 2015). As the saying goes, be careful not to bite the hand that feeds you.

Works Cited

Ministry of Internal Affairs. NGO Board. 2015. (accessed September 29, 2015).

Mwesigwa, Alon. “NGO bill aims to muzzle civil society, say activists.” The Guardian, 24 June 2015.

Namisi, Harriet. “The politics of NGO regulation: government; self or both?” Powerpoint Presentation, Kampala.

Owaraga, Norah. “NGOs increasingly not trusted by government.” The Humanist View. 22 September 2015. (accessed September 29, 2015).

—. “Non-Governmental Organisations in Uganda.” The Humanist View. 12 September 2015. (accessed September 29, 2015).

Owaraga, Norah. “Trust in partnership – a southern perspective on conditionalities attached to NGO funding.” Msc. accademic research, 2003.

One response to “Research Findings: NGOs and accountability issues”

  1. “NGOs Riddle” is a characterization I attach to NGOs. Possibly examples and opinions across the world might give a broad and rich perspective view. on this matter.

    Sarah Ooko, a development journalist based in Kenya, concludes her “NGOs and development in Africa” article as follows: “The very best NGOs follow an old proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

    Which leads us to another a half century question: “Why have aid agencies been in Karamoja for so long?”

    Which begs another questions: “Who holds NGOs accountable when things get way out of control at the expense of those supposed to be helped?” Case in point: Who is held to account when Half a Billion Dollars is raised to build homes for Haitians that were devastated by Earthquake only to end up with Only Six Homes Built!

    Leaving Haiti in the same condition it was in just after the earthquake of 5 years ago:

    So, how about developed countries, do they have NGOs, and for what what purposes?
    Approximately 1.5 million NGOs operate in the United States. These NGOs undertake a wide array of activities, including political advocacy on issues such as foreign policy, elections, the environment, healthcare, women’s rights, economic development, and many other issues.

    Read more:

    Whereas many NGOs are local and call themselves as the voice of Uganda’s civil societies, the question is: “How many of those local NGOs don’t get any support from without in any form, be it financial, or otherwise?”

    To sum it up, it therefore boils to Control. As the saying goes, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” That makes African governments unease, but not only them, many educated youth are starting to take another look at the Development in Africa through NGOs from without with suspicion and questions, – What’s behind the West’s fascination with “saving” Africa?

    FRAMED investigates the images and myths that cast a continent as a victim:


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