How can we make multilateral institutions more accountable?

Robert Lloyd

Based on a talk given by Robert Lloyd, Project Officer in the Accountability Programme of the One World Trust, to the AGM of Federal Union, 12 March 2005.

The question of how to make multilateral institutions more accountable is one with which the One World Trust has been grappling for the past 5 years through its Global Accountability Project. By drawing on our research and thinking, I hope I can go some way towards providing some clarity and insight with regards to this very important issue.

It is a complex and detailed subject, so I can only really touch the surface. As a note, throughout my presentation I will be referring to multilateral organisations as intergovernmental organisations (IGOs), as this is the terminology we use at the Trust and the one that I am used to.

Why are IGOs unaccountable?

There are currently over 300 IGOs, including regional organisations that operate worldwide. They perform a wide range of tasks that, in one way or another, affect nearly every person in the world.

Some of these organisations such as the Atomic Energy Agency are far removed and appear to have minimal direct impact on people’s lives. Others, like the World Bank and World Trade Organisation, take and implement decisions which impact directly on individuals’ livelihoods and communities. While others still, such as the OECD and the Bank for International Settlements, set standards which have a very diffuse but yet profound impact on livelihoods and services.

The common feature of all IGOs is that they lack effective mechanisms to enable those most affected by their decisions to hold them to account. There are limited channels of representation at IGOs. Currently, the only routes for citizens to make their voice heard are mediated or channelled through either national governments that make up the membership of an IGO or increasingly, through Civil Society Organisations (CSOs).

Yet there are problems with both of these channels which prevent the views of citizens being fully represented.

With regards to national governments, for example, over a quarter that make up the UN’s membership are not even directly elected. In addition, only a few national governments have enough capacity to ensure their views, and hence the views of their citizens are represented at the international level. In practice it is very difficult for a country such as El Salvador for example, to ensure its interests are represented at any IGO. Furthermore, national self-interest rather than the views of the electorate can prevent real representation and accountability.

There are similar questions surrounding the ability of CSOs to be properly representative. Most notably, by their very nature, they represent very narrow interests, and furthermore, they lack a democratic mandate.

It against this background of an increasing concentration of power at the global level and deficient mechanisms for holding it to account, that the Trust developed the Global Accountability Programme.

There are two key strands to our work in GAP

First, there is the Global Accountability Framework. This unpacks the idea of accountability to try and get a better understanding of what it actually means for a global organisation to be accountable. In doing so it identifies four dimensions that are key for an organisation to be accountable.

Under each of these dimensions we are developing operational guidelines that identify the processes and procedures that need to be in place in order for an organisation to increase its accountability.

And secondly, based on this framework, there is the Global Accountability Index. This is a set of indicators we are developing that can be used to assess an organisation’s accountability, identify good practice and highlight accountability gaps.

It is the first of these areas of work, the Global Accountability Framework which will form the focus of the remainder of this presentation. Before moving on to this however, it is first necessary to identify what it is we mean by accountability.

Although the concept of accountability has gained broad usage among policy-makers at the national and international levels, there is little agreement over what is actually meant by the term.

At its simplest, accountability is about the processes by which organisations are answerable for their actions and the consequences that follow from them. Around this, there is consensus. Where positions diverge however is around the issue of who is entitled to hold these organisations to account for what, and how.

According to traditional understandings of accountability, only those with formal authority over an organisation or individual have the right to hold them to account. Such traditional accountability is exercised by the electorate, shareholders and those formally identified as members of an organisation. For understanding accountability at the global level the Trust believes this model is too narrow.

The Global Accountability Project therefore uses the stakeholder approach to accountability. This argues that the right to hold an organisation to account should be invested in “any group or individual who can affect or is affected by…an organisation” (Freeman 1984).

This model distinguishes between two types of stakeholders:

– internal stakeholders (an organisations staff, its shareholders, members and supporters) and

– external stakeholders – those that are affected by an organisation’s policies and activities but are not formally a part of the organisation.

In order for an organisation to be accountable, balance must be struck in how these different stakeholders are engaged.

As well as balance, however, selectivity is also required in how stakeholders are engaged. Full participation from all stakeholders in a global decision is often unrealistic. Instead organisations need to prioritise whom to engage through a stakeholder analysis that identifies those most affected by a decision. It is these groups that need to have the greatest access. Using this understanding of accountability the Global Accountability Framework has identified four main dimensions of accountability.


Unless an organisation is transparent about what it is doing; what it is trying to achieve; how it is trying to achieve it; what its decision making process are; and who the decision makers are, it is impossible for anyone outside the organisation to hold it to account.


Accountable organisations must enable their members to participate fully in decision-making processes. They must also identify who their external stakeholders are. They must be clear about how they make this choice and the choice must be challengeable. And they must be clear on what terms stakeholders are engaged, what decisions they can affect and what not.


An organisation must evaluate its work in an open participatory and transparent way. It must allow stakeholders to help determine the terms of the evaluation. If this isn’t the case, the organisation will fail to learn effectively and will continue to make the same mistakes; it will fail to improve its accountability.

Complaints and redress

When all else fails do people affected by an organisation have the chance to have a complaint heard fairly with the possibility of gaining redress if the complaint is upheld?

I am now going to focus on two dimensions of accountability – participation and transparency – and apply them to a number of IGOs. This way I will highlight specific areas in which IGO accountability is lacking and identify specific reforms that IGOs can take to increase their accountability in these areas.

Although I have chosen transparency and participation as my focus this is not to argue that these are the most important dimensions of accountability. All are essential and interlinked

There are two components to participation: participation of internal stakeholders and external stakeholder engagement both need to be present for an organisation to be accountable. Many IGO have formal structures which give some members more decision-making power than others.

In the World Bank for example, 6 countries including the UK all have direct representation on the executive and therefore all have one vote each. All other nations are grouped into constituencies, with each represented by an Executive Director. At its most extreme this results in 46 African countries being represented by just two people each with one vote.

Similarly, in the Bank for International Settlements the 6 founding members hold the majority of votes and dominate the executive.

Barriers to participation also exist in more informal ways. For example, in the WTO formally, all decisions are made through consensus, but in practice key decisions are made behind closed doors through the Green Room process, excluding all but the most powerful countries.

Although IGO accountability to member states is weak, their accountability to external stakeholders is even weaker.

Over the last decade IGOs have begun to engage with external stakeholders through a variety of means such as committees, consultations and conferences. It is now common practice for most IGOs to consult on both their projects and policies at the local, national, regional and increasingly, international levels. The World Bank for example, is seeking to mainstream the engagement of a wide range of external stakeholders in the development of all of its countries’ policies and lending.

An interesting development at the WTO, for example, has been the recent consultation it undertook with civil society over the selection of the next Director General. Although this consultation has no formal bearing over the final decisions, it is an important example of how an IGO should engage with a wider group of stakeholders before an important decision such as this made. It is certainly a shift in the right direction.

Despite the increased efforts of a number of IGOs to involve civil society groups in their decision making, external stakeholder engagement remains inadequate for a number of reasons.

First, it remains informal and ad hoc. This means that external stakeholders don’t have consistent access and influence. Secondly, it is largely driven by the needs of the IGOs rather than the stakeholders.

There are thus three key reforms that IGOs can make to improve the participation of internal and external stakeholders:

– IGOs need to have clearer and more transparent processes for identifying which stakeholders they engage with and why

– Institutionalised spaces need to be created that formalise engagement with external stakeholders

– Most importantly, IGOs need structures of representation that better reflect the stakes of all member states in decision-making processes.

So, what about the transparency of IGOs?

Access to timely, relevant information about an organisation’s activities and policies is vital to ensure stakeholders are able to hold an organisation to account. Most IGOs actively demand greater transparency of other actors through good governance conditionality, but, however, they fail to apply this same principle to themselves.

The One World Trust’s 2003 report “Power without Accountability” which analysed the accountability of a number of global organisations including the WTO, the Bank for International Settlements, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the OECD and the World Bank, showed that IGO transparency is lacking in a number of areas.

With regards to the transparency of their governing bodies it was found that only the UNHCR made public the agenda, draft papers and minutes of its governing body meetings. Of the rest, all except the BIS provide a summary of decisions taken at the governing body level.

Transparency around their executive bodies was even worse. None of the IGOs published the agendas of meetings. The World Bank and the BIS provide summaries of key decisions, but only the WTO provides draft papers and minutes for its executive meetings.

There are thus two key reforms that IGOs can make to improve their transparency:

First, IGOs should provide better access to their governing body and executive body meetings. This information must be available far enough in advance to give stakeholders who wish to, the opportunity to make their views heard.

Secondly, IGOs need to have an information disclosure policy that clearly states the documents which the organisation will and will not disclose. They must also have clear criteria to be used in cases of non-disclosure.

I would like to finish by stepping back and looking at our work within the context of the broader debates on democracy and the democratisation of multilateral institutions.

It was argued at the beginning of this presentation that there is a democratic deficit at the international level, and that traditional channels of representations are not providing citizens with an adequate voice in the decision-making processes of IGOs.

One obvious way of addressing this is by strengthening the role of parliamentarians in the oversight of IGO activities. This is a necessary development and one that the Trust is working on through its parliamentary oversight project. Another would be to scale up these traditional forms of electoral representation to the international level and have parliamentary assemblies at the various IGOs.

However, although democracy is probably the most precious form of accountability that we have, alone it will not make IGOs more accountable to those they affect for a number of reasons.

First, elections are rarely used as a mechanism for holding politicians and representatives to account for their actions; rather, they are a means for showing party allegiance and expressing support for future policies. In this regard elections represent an imperfect accountability mechanism.

Secondly, many people are disengaging from traditional political institutions. Voter turnout is down, and trust in parliamentarians is falling as are political party membership numbers. People don’t feel represented through these institutions.

For these reasons, in order for IGOs to be democratically accountable, structures and processes need to be developed that go further than traditional political structures and engage more directly with a wider range of stakeholders.

This is already occurring at the national level, where participatory forms of governance are emerging that are redefining the relationship between citizen and state. In the UK, we have initiatives such as citizen juries, public consultations on GM technology and gender budgeting. In Brazil, the participatory budgeting model has become wide spread. While in India participatory planning is used across a number of states. These are new forms of public engagement and accountability, emerging structures of a more participatory democracy.

What GAP is promoting through our stakeholder accountability model is the development of such participatory governance at the international level; not to replace traditional forms of representation, but rather to supplement and support them in holding IGOs to account.

In the end, what matters most in democratic decision making is that people can influence and challenge the decisions that impact upon their lives. By making IGOs more open, transparent and participatory, we feel that we can open up the space for citizens to do this, both through traditional political institutions and through more direct forms of political engagement.

Robert Lloyd is Project Officer in the Accountability Programme of the One World Trust. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union or the One World Trust.

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