NGOs Live by the Code, Ideally

By Xeno Acharya, Global Washington intern

The use of a code of conduct as an ethical guide is not new. Previously popular with the military, the code has recently become fashionable among NGOs. Over the past decade, a lot of NGOs have formed and tried to adhere to various codes of conducts. They come in different flavors, these codes. They are either country specific (click here to see an example of code of conduct for NGOs working in Ethiopia) or project specific (click here to see an example of code of conduct for NGOs working in HIV/AIDS), or they are country level codes that empower recipient countries and prevent donor communities from monopolizing aid activities, such as the Paris Declaration (2005).

Recently, a few big players in the global health arena have partnered to produce yet another NGO code of conduct for health systems strengthening. These partners, including Health Alliance International, Partners In Health, Health GAP, and Action Aid International, have managed to add more than forty-five different NGOs as signatories for the code. The NGO code of conduct for health systems strengthening came about as a response to the recent growth in the number of international non-governmental organizations initiated by increased aid flow. Due to crowding of NGOs with similar niches, recipient country governments have a hard time managing all the programs, making effective project implementation virtually impossible, thus counteracting the purpose of aid in the first place.

The NGOs code of conduct for health systems strengthening has the following six articles:

I. NGOs will engage in hiring practices that ensure long-term health system sustainability.
II. NGOs will enact employee compensation practices that strengthen the public sector.
III. NGOs pledge to create and maintain human resources training and support systems that are good for the countries where they work.
IV. NGOs will minimize the NGO management burden for ministries.
V. NGOs will support Ministries of Health as they engage with communities.
VI. NGOs will advocate for policies that promote and support the public sector.

These types of codes offer practical ethical standards for NGOs and donors engaged in development work. These standards aim to improve the quality and impact of their work. All of this sounds well and good, but the question still remains—how much of this well intentioned code is having an effect and changing NGO behavior? A brief talk with one of the strongest advocates for the health systems code, Dr. Steve Gloyd of Health Alliance International, suggests that the code is not being adhered to even by signatories who were at first excited about it. “Most of the staff in the signatory NGOs don’t even know about the code”, said Dr. Gloyd when asked about its effectiveness. The signatories are voluntary participants of the code, acknowledging it as a guiding principle to real change. Some NGOs, however, face structural problems in implementation that the code fails to address.

What is missing from this effort to improve NGO functioning in low and middle income countries? What would the alternative look like? Although having a centralized, international monitor for NGO activities in recipient countries (such as a coalition of donor agencies, foundations, and big international NGOs) would be ideal, it would probably not be feasible because of the vast number of NGOs around the world. However, a network of the few biggest players in global health in collaboration with recipient country governments could not only manage the NGO code of conduct, but it could also monitor NGO effectiveness and alignment with country national development strategies. Using country governments to help monitor NGO effectiveness (and adherence to the code) has the drawback that governments are prone to corruption. This however could be overcome through checks done by the coalition. If the recipient country’s government is corrupt and dysfunctional, channeling aid away from the government and to its local NGOs could help in initiating a dialogue, both within the recipient country and internationally among donor communities. Mandating the code for all NGOs working in a recipient country will decrease the tendency to dismiss it as something optional. Perhaps the monitors of the code could learn something from the way the military makes ‘recommendations’ for a code of conduct!

GDRC NGO Codes of Conduct

Anti Corruption Resource Centre – Developing a code of conduct for NGOs

Organization for Economic Co-operation & Development – The Paris Declaration and Accra Agenda for Action