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Accountability Mechanisms and IOs: A Practical Guide

A primer on accountability with some practical considerations for those engaged with accountability mechanisms in IOs.

image of a hand of a puppet holing a wooden puppet on string in black and white

Accountability is an important issue for international organizations and comes up regularly in reform discussions. But accountability can mean many different things to different people. The term exists primarily in English, without an exact translation into most other languages. Scholars examining accountability in national public institutions have highlighted the

ambiguity of different typologies and understandings of accountability, noting that “accountability can become an elusive ‘magic’ concept with chameleonesque qualities.” (Schillemans et al. 2022)

The aim of this post is to outline some of the salient issues and debates around accountability of international organizations and provide practical resources to support those engaging with, or advocating to improve, accountability mechanisms in international organizations.

What do we mean by ‘Accountability’?

Broadly, researchers define accountability as a relational process in which the agent to whom authority for activities or results has been given, (the ‘account-giver’), provides information about their conduct and performance to an account-holder. The account holder ( who can be a supervisor, auditor, oversight board etc.) makes an assessment of this information and may respond with rewards or sanctions. Every accountability process therefore has three phases: an information phase, a debating phase and a consequence phase. (Schillemans et al. 2022).

Typically, most of us think about accountability mechanisms as tools to prevent abuses of power and corruption. While this is one important aim, accountability mechanisms can also have other purposes. Accountability mechanisms can also have an organizational learning function as a result of the external feedback on performance. This can also exist in a preemptive manner by facilitating internal discussions on better ways of doing things in anticipation of an assessment by an account-holder. In democratic states, public accountability mechanisms can also serve a larger political purpose of legitimizing actions of democratically elected governments, or conversely highlighting that governments are not adhering to their promises, resulting in the electorate replacing that government. (Bovens et al. 2008)

Accountability in International Organizations

To engage effectively with any accountability mechanism, and particularly if one wants to improve accountability mechanisms, it is important to understand the aim, structure and phases of such mechanisms. At the most basic level, we need to ask ourselves, who is accountable to whom, for what, and how?

These questions can also help us understand accountability mechanisms of international organizations, which are considerably less studied than their national counterparts. As an example, let us consider the United Nations system. The UN is an intergovernmental organization set up by its member states to solve collective action problems. Ultimately, the UN is therefore accountable to its member states to address those global problems better than an individual member state could do on their own.

Consequently the UN's accountability for ‘what’ is complex, imprecise and subject to a myriad of interpretations, which is one of the challenges facing accountability mechanisms in international organizations. Accountability ‘to whom’, on the other hand, is quite clear in the UN context - the UN is accountable to member states. However, this too poses challenges, as questions have been raised around potential accountability gaps in relation to 'beneficiaries'. (This has been raised generally in Pallis 2005, or more specifically by Arroyo, 2014 and Taylor, 2015 in relation to the role of international organizations in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake).

With this context in mind, it is easier to understand ‘how’ the different accountability

mechanisms within the UN function. Ultimately all accountability mechanisms in the UN are run by, or for, its member states to receive information, debate and potentially sanction or reward the organization primarily through continued financial support. Member states need to legitimize the funds they provide to the United Nations and given the ambiguity of ‘what’ the UN is accountable for, the focus tends to be on ensuring that the UN is a well managed and efficient organization, something which is easier to measure. A key aim of many, if not all, accountability mechanisms in the UN and most international organizations is to ensure continuous learning, improvement and efficiency in running the organization, along with preventing misuse of funds.

To learn more about the specific accountability mechanisms of the UN system, please download our infographic. (Click on the image below to download the pdf).

Are accountability mechanisms effective?

Not surprisingly, this is a key question for global researchers. From a public administration perspective, much of the literature has focused on the failures of accountability mechanisms, as these seem to be much easier to identify than positive achievements. These critical studies often highlight two areas of weakness: 1) accountability gaps, such as the question of whether and how international organizations are accountable to beneficiaries; and 2) accountability overload, in which multiplicity of accountability mechanisms consume so much time and effort from account givers so as to limit their capacity to perform their core functions effectively.

These risks exist for international organizations as well. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) has established social and environmental standards, with their internal audit function responsible for assessing compliance as a means of addressing some of the accountability gaps vis-a-vis beneficiaries. Many UN Executive Boards and the budget committe undertake field visits, which allows for direct engagement of beneficiaries. But for the most part accountability mechanisms focus on the UN's accountability to its member states.

As our info graphic illustrates, there are a multitude of potentially overlapping accountability mechanisms for the UN system which make accountability overload a realistic concern. Yet multiplicity of mechanisms, if leveraged effectively have also shown to be particularly effective in holding power accountable. (Aleksova et al. 2019, Willems and Van Dooren 2012, Bovens et al. 2008)

Behavioural science, which is focused on how accountability mechanisms affect behavior and decision making of public servants also highlights interesting points about when accountability mechanisms can be effective - or not. This research has demonstrated that public servants who know they will be assessed by an accountability mechanism tend to undertake more information-based and analytical decision making. Decisions tend to be of higher quality, and demonstrate cautiousness and more consistent judgement over time, leading to improved outcomes. In some cases where accountability processes can be considered excessive, caution can lead to high levels of risk aversion and decision avoidance, which can lead to negative performance and weaken an institutions ability to learn and innovate.

Researchers are still working to identify when the scales tip from positive to negative, but nevertheless, accountability mechanisms serve useful purposes both from a systems and a human perspective. In the next section, we provide some suggestions for those working with accountability mechanisms in international organizations on what they can do to get the best out of those mechanisms. (Aleksova et al. 2019)

Practical considerations for those engaged with accountability mechanisms in international organizations

While they may not always be perfect, existing accountability mechanisms in international organizations can be, and are being, leveraged to improve the work and impact of those international organizations. As an example, take a look at the the very practical and informative guide on "Dynamic Accountability: Changing Approaches to CSO Accountability" by Accountable Now. While aimed at the INGO community, it provides useful considerations also for those working in and with intergovernmental organizations.

Every day across the world, people inside and outside intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations are engaging with accountability mechanisms. We have compiled the following practical considerations to make the most of these engagements.

  1. Whether you are being audited or reporting to a board, or are a board member or other actor in an accountability process, it is important to understand the purpose of that process and frame your engagement accordingly. Is the focus on prevention of abuses or organizational learning? Is it to assess how delegated authority has been used? Can you answer those fundamental questions who is accountable to whom and for what?

  2. For those reporting to an accountability mechanism in the information phase, ensure the information provided addresses the purpose of that mechanism and what that mechanism is seeking to understand. Reviewing past outcome reports is one way to figure this out. For instance, in the UN example, the Fifth Committee of the General Assembly and the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions consistently want to understand a) how the policy direction set by member states is being implemented and b) how past improvements (reforms, audit recommendations etc.) are being implemented, especially if an office wants to present new change initiatives. (See for instance the para. 12 of the ACABQ’s report A/71/557 or para. 13 of A/77/7, or para. 16 of the Fifth Committee resolution A/RES/76/245).

  3. One of the most consistent and potentially effective forms of accountability is the vertical accountability of staff to their management. Therefore, the active engagement of that leadership in accountability fora with external stakeholders can be a phenomenally useful tool in demonstrating organizational accountability. Sadly this is often overlooked and undervalued. For those leaders engaging with the budgetary accountability mechanisms in our UN example, we suggest reading a particularly useful chapter from the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation’s recent publication “The Art of Leadership in the United Nations” entitled “Unloved and unappreciated: The General Assembly’s Budget Committees and UN leadership.”

  4. For those serving on accountability mechanisms, consider the risks of accountability overload and accountability gaps. Has the office being reviewed been given enough time to implement previous recommendations? If there are multiple accountability mechanisms, do they coordinate to avoid duplication of efforts? Are there accountability gaps that can and should be addressed?

  5. Sign up for our mailing list and we will notify you of upcoming meetings of accountability mechanisms and key issues on their agenda.


References and further reading

Aleksovska, M., Schillemans, T., & Grimmelikhuijsen, S. “Lessons from five decades of experimental and behavioral research on accountability: A systematic literature review.” Journal of Behavioral Public Administration, 2 no. 2 (2019). DOI: 10.30636/jbpa.22.66

Arroyo, Diana Manilla (2014) “Blurred lines: accountability and responsibility in post-earthquake Haiti.” Medicine, Conflict and Survival, 30 no. 2 (2014), pp. 110-132, DOI: 10.1080/13623699.2014.904642

Baranda, Erika & Isabelle Buechner. "Dynamic Accountability: Changing Approaches to CSO Accountability." Accountable Now, UK 2019

Bovens, Mark & Schillemans, Thomas & Hart, Paul. “Does Public Accountability Work? An Assessment Tool.” Public Administration. 86 (2008), pp. 225 - 242.

Davies, Hannah, “Unloved and unappreciated: The General Assembly’s Budget Committees and UN leadership.” in “The Art of Leadership in the United Nations”, Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, Uppsala 2022

First Report on the Proposed Programme Budget for 2023 of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly (Supplement no. 7), A/77/7, 18 August 2022

Pallis, Mark, "The Operation of UNHCR's Accountability Mechanisms," New York University Journal of International Law and Politics 37, no. 4 (Summer 2005) pp. 869-918

Report of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions on Human Resources Management, 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly, A/71/557, 21 October 2016

Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 24 December 2021, 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly, A/RES/76/245, 6 January 2022

Schillemans, T., Overman, S., Flinders, M., Laegreid, P., Maggetti, M., Papadopoulos, Y., & Wood, M. (2022). “Public sector accountability styles in Europe: Comparing accountability and control of agencies in the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland and the UK.” Public Policy and Administration, 0 no. 0. DOI: 10.1177/09520767221098292

Taylor, K. “Shifting Demands in International Institutional Law: Securing the United Nations’ Accountability for the Haitian Cholera Outbreak.” Netherlands Yearbook of International Law, 45, (2014) pp. 157-195. DOI: 10.1007/978-94-6265-060-2_7

Willems, Tom & Wouter Van Dooren (2012) “Coming to Terms with Accountability.” Public Management Review, 14 no. 7 (2012) pp. 1011-1036, DOI: 10.1080/14719037.2012.662446


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