Up and Down, and Inside Out: Where do We Stand on NGO Accountability?

  • Hyman van Zyl
  • Frederik ClaeyéEmail author
Original Article


This paper brings a review of the literature on accountability in development NGOs with a view to highlighting where we stand. There has been a shift from top-down approaches focussing on upward accountability mechanisms towards a growing literature that theorises and empirically investigates downward accountability mechanisms. This literature theorises a link between ownership of the development process and aid effectiveness. However, little attention has been paid to potential differences in the accountability mechanisms used in locally- and non-locally-owned NGOs. Considering that the members of locally-owned NGOs come from the same culture as the beneficiaries they serve, understanding how local NGOs’ implementation of accountability differs from other organisations would shed light on how to secure the trust of the beneficiaries. Such knowledge would assist NGOs globally to overcome the challenges of downward accountability and to enhance aid delivery.


Development NGOs NGO accountability Literature review Local NGOs Downward accountability 


Cet article présente une revue de la littérature sur la redevabilité dans les ONG de développement afin de mettre en lumière où nous en sommes. Bien que l’on se soit éloigné des approches descendantes pour se concentrer sur des mécanismes de redevabilité ascendante, il existe un corps de littérature croissant qui théorise et étudie empiriquement les mécanismes de redevabilité descendante. Ce corps littérature émet la théorie qu’un lien existe entre l’appropriation du processus de développement et l’efficacité de l’aide au développement. Cependant, peu d’attention est accordée aux différences potentielles dans les mécanismes de redevabilité utilisés dans les ONG locales et celles non locales. Considérant que les membres des ONG locales appartiennent à la même culture que les bénéficiaires qu’ils desservent, comprendre comment la mise en œuvre de la redevabilité des ONG locales diffère de celle des autres organisations permettrait de mieux comprendre comment obtenir la confiance des bénéficiaires. Une telle connaissance aiderait les ONG du monde entier à surmonter les défis de la redevabilité descendante et à améliorer la façon dont l’aide au développement est apportée.


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

No conflict of interest was identified.


  1. Agyemang, Gloria, Mariama Awumbila, Jeffrey Unerman, and Brendan O’Dwyer. 2009. NGO Accountability and Aid Delivery. Research report 110. London: The Association of Chartered Certi ed Accountants.
  2. Anderson, Kenneth. 2009. What NGO Accountability Means—and Does Not Mean. The American Journal of International Law 103 (1): 170–178. Scholar
  3. Assad, M.J., and A.R. Goddard. 2010. Stakeholder Salience and Accounting Practices in Tanzanian NGOs. International Journal of Public Sector Management 23 (3): 276–299.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Barber, Martin, and Cameron Bowie. 2008. How International NGOs Could Do Less Harm and More Good. Development in Practice 18 (6): 748–754.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bawole, Justice Nyigmah, and Zechariah Langnel. 2016. Downward Accountability of NGOs in Community Project Planning in Ghana. Development in Practice 26 (7): 920–932. Scholar
  6. Bendell, Jem. 2006. Debating NGO Accountability. NGLS Development Dossiers. New York, NY: UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service.Google Scholar
  7. Brett, E.A. 2003. Participation and Accountability in Development Management. The Journal of Development Studies 40 (2): 1–29. Scholar
  8. Burger, Ronelle. 2012. Reconsidering the Case for Enhancing Accountability via Regulation. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations 23 (1): 85–108. Scholar
  9. Burger, Ronelle, and Trudy Owens. 2010. Promoting Transparency in the NGO Sector: Examining the Availability and Reliability of Self-Reported Data. World Development 38 (9): 1263–1277. Scholar
  10. Burger, Ronelle, and Trudy Owens. 2013. Receive Grants or Perish? The Survival Prospects of Ugandan Non-Governmental Organisations. Journal of Development Studies 49 (9): 1284–1298. Scholar
  11. Burger, Ronelle, and Dineo Seabe. 2014. NGO Accountability in Africa. In The Handbook of Civil Society in Africa. Nonprofit and Civil Society Studies, ed Ebenezer Obadare, Vol. 20, 77–91. New York: Springer.
  12. Candler, George, and Georgette Dumont. 2010. A Non-Profit Accountability Framework. Canadian Public Administration 53 (2): 259–279. Scholar
  13. Carr, Stuart C. 2013. Anti-Poverty Psychology. New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Carr, Stuart C., and Tod S. Sloan. 2003. Poverty and Psychology: From Global Perspective to Local Practice. New York: Springer.
  15. Chew, Andrew, and Susan Greer. 1997. Contrasting World Views on Accounting: Accountability and Aboriginal Culture. Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal 10 (3): 276–298. Scholar
  16. Christensen, Rachel A., and Alnoor Ebrahim. 2006. How Does Accountability Affect Mission? The Case of a Nonprofit Serving Immigrants and Refugees. Nonprofit Management and Leadership 17 (2): 195–209. Scholar
  17. Coule, Tracey M. 2015. Nonprofit Governance and Accountability: Broadening the Theoretical Perspective. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 44 (1): 75–97. Scholar
  18. Dhanani, Alpa, and Ciaran Connolly. 2015. Non-Governmental Organizational Accountability: Talking the Talk and Walking the Walk? Journal of Business Ethics 129 (3): 613–637. Scholar
  19. Ebrahim, Alnoor. 2003a. Accountability in Practice: Mechanisms for NGOs. World Development 31 (5): 813–829. Scholar
  20. Ebrahim, Alnoor. 2003b. NGOs and Organizational Change: Discourse, Reporting, and Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Ebrahim, Alnoor. 2003c. Making Sense of Accountability: Conceptual Perspectives for Northern and Southern Nonprofits. Nonprofit Management and Leadership 14 (2): 191–212. Scholar
  22. Ebrahim, Alnoor. 2005. Accountability Myopia: Losing Sight of Organizational Learning. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 34 (1): 56–87. Scholar
  23. Ebrahim, Alnoor. 2009. Placing the Normative Logics of Accountability in ‘Thick’ Perspective. American Behavioral Scientist 52 (6): 885–904. Scholar
  24. Ebrahim, Alnoor, and Edward Weisband, eds. 2007. Global Accountabilities: Participation, Pluralism and Public Ethics, Vol. 34. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  25. Edwards, Michael, and Alan Fowler (eds.). 2002. The Earthscan Reader on NGO Management. London: Earthscan.Google Scholar
  26. Edwards, Michael, and David Hulme. 1996. Too Close for Comfort? The Impact of Official Aid on Nongovernmental Organizations. World Development 24 (6): 961–973. Scholar
  27. Ellerman, David. 2007. Helping Self-Help: The Fundamental Conundrum of Development Assistance. The Journal of Socio-Economics 36 (4): 561–577. Scholar
  28. Fowler, Alan. 2000. NGO Futures—Beyond Aid: NGDO Values and the Fourth Position. Third World Quarterly 21 (4): 589–603. Scholar
  29. Gibelman, Margaret, and Sheldon R. Gelman. 2001. Very Public Scandals: Nongovernmental Organizations in Trouble. Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations 12 (1): 49–66. Scholar
  30. Gibelman, Margaret, and Sheldon R. Gelman. 2004. A Loss of Credibility: Patterns of Wrongdoing among Nongovernmental Organizations. Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations 15 (4): 355–381. Scholar
  31. Goddard, Andrew, and Mussa Juma Assad. 2006. Accounting and Navigating Legitimacy in Tanzanian NGOs. Accounting, Auditing & Accountability 19 (3): 377–404. Scholar
  32. Gourevitch, Peter A., David A. Lake, and Janice Gross Stein (eds.). 2012. The Credibility of Transnational NGOs: When Virtue is not Enough. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Gugerty, Mary Kay. 2009. Patterns and Structures of NGO Self-Regulation in Africa. International Journal of Civil Society Law 7 (1): 7–21.Google Scholar
  34. Gugerty, Mary Kay. 2010. The Emergence of Nonprofit Self-Regulation in Africa. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 39 (6): 1087–1112. Scholar
  35. Gugerty, Mary Kay, and Aseem Prakash. 2008. Nonprofit Accountability Clubs: Voluntary Regulation of Nonprofit and Nongovernmental Organizations. Volume Overview & Chapter One.
  36. Jacobs, Alex, and Robyn Wilford. 2007. Putting New Approaches to NGO Accountability into Action. In Paper for the Development’s Futures Conference, November, NUI Gaway.
  37. Jacobs, Alex, and Robyn Wilford. 2008. Listen First: Practical Ways of Improving Accountability for NGOs. Concern and Mango.
  38. Jacobs, Alex, and Robyn Wilford. 2010. Listen First: A Pilot System for Managing Downward Accountability in NGOs. Development in Practice 20 (7): 797–811. Scholar
  39. Jordan, Lisa, and Peter van Tuijl (eds.). 2006. NGO Accountability: Politics, Principles and Innovations. London: Earthscan.Google Scholar
  40. Kilby, Patrick. 2006. Accountability for Empowerment: Dilemmas Facing Non-Governmental Organizations. World Development 34 (6): 951–963. Scholar
  41. Kovach, Hetty, Caroline Neligan, and Simon Burall. 2003. Power without Accountability? The Global Accountability Report 1. London: One World Trust.
  42. Lang, Sabine. 2013. NGOs, Civil Society, and the Public Sphere. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  43. Lee, Mordecai. 2004. Public Reporting: A Neglected Aspect of Nonprofit Accountability. Nonprofit Management and Leadership 15 (2): 169–185. Scholar
  44. Lewis, David. 2014. Non-Governmental Organizations, Management and Development, 3rd ed. Milton Park: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Mercelis, Fleur, Lore Wellens, and Marc Jegers. 2016. Beneficiary Participation in Non-Governmental Development Organisations: A Case Study in Vietnam. The Journal of Development Studies 52 (10): 1446–1462. Scholar
  46. Mohan, Giles. 2002. The Disappointments of Civil Society: The Politics of NGO Intervention in Northern Ghana. Political Geography 21 (1): 125–154. Scholar
  47. Najam, Adil. 1996. NGO Accountability: A Conceptual Framework. Development Policy Review 14 (4): 339–354. Scholar
  48. Nikkhah, Hedayat Allah, and Maarof Redzuan. 2009. Participation as a Medium of Empowerment in Community Development. European Journal of Social Sciences 11 (1): 170–176.Google Scholar
  49. Nussbaum, Martha Craven. 2000. Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. O’Dwyer, Brendan, and Jeffrey Unerman. 2007. From Functional to Social Accountability: Transforming the Accountability Relationship between Funders and Non-governmental Development Organisations. Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal 20 (3): 446–471. Scholar
  51. O’Dwyer, Brendan, and Jeffrey Unerman. 2008. The Paradox of Greater NGO Accountability: A Case Study of Amnesty Ireland. Accounting, Organizations and Society 33 (7–8): 801–824. Scholar
  52. O’Dwyer, Brendan, and Jeffrey Unerman. 2010. Enhancing the Role of Accountability in Promoting the Rights of Beneficiaries of Development NGOs. Accounting and Business Research 40 (5): 451–471. Scholar
  53. O’Leary, Susan. 2017. Grassroots Accountability Promises in Rights-Based Approaches to Development: The Role of Transformative Monitoring and Evaluation in NGOs. Accounting, Organizations and Society 63: 21–41. Scholar
  54. Ospina, Sonia, William Diaz, and James F. O’Sullivan. 2002. Negotiating Accountability: Managerial Lessons from Identity-Based Nonprofit Organizations. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 31 (1): 5–31. Scholar
  55. Schmitz, Hans Peter, Paloma Raggo, and Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken. 2012. Accountability of Tansnational NGOs: Aspirations vs. Practice. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 41 (6): 1175–1194. Scholar
  56. Sen, Amartya Kumar. 2000. Development as Freedom. New Delhi: Oxford Univeristy Press.Google Scholar
  57. Unerman, Jeffrey, Jan Bebbington, and Brendan O’Dwyer. 2007. Introduction to Sustainability Accounting and Accountability. In Sustainability Accounting and Accountability, ed. Jeffrey Unerman, Jan Bebbington, and Brendan O’Dwyer, 1–16. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  58. Unerman, Jeffrey, and Brendan O’Dwyer. 2006. Theorising Accountability for NGO Advocacy. Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal 19 (3): 349–376. Scholar
  59. Wallace, Tina, Lisa Bornstein, and Jennifer Chapman. 2006. The Aid Chain: Coercion and Commitment in Development NGOs. Rugby: Intermediate Technology Publications.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Walsh, Sinead Brenda. 2014. The Improbability of Accountability of Nongovernmental Organisations to Their Intended Beneficiaries: The Case of ActionAid. PhD Thesis, The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
  61. Walsh, Sinead Brenda. 2016. Obstacles to NGOs’ Accountability to Intended Beneficiaries: The Case of ActionAid. Development in Practice 26 (6): 706–718. Scholar
  62. Wellens, Lore, and Marc Jegers. 2014. Beneficiary Participation as an Instrument of Downward Accountability: A Multiple Case Study. European Management Journal 32 (6): 938–949. Scholar

Copyright information

© European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes (EADI) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.AidItNgqeleniSouth Africa
  2. 2.LEM UMR CNRS 9221 and Lille Catholic University, Faculty of Management, Economics and SciencesLilleFrance
  3. 3.Nelson Mandela University, Department of Development StudiesPort ElizabethSouth Africa

Personalised recommendations