Democratic accountability can be further impaired when domestic NGOs line up support from international NGOs, which are usually less well-informed about local trade-offs but are financially and organizationally much stronger. There have been some cases where democratically elected local governments have been thwarted from constructing dams that would have provided irrigation for many small farmers. The activist opponents of the dams, taking up the cause of the displaced, mobilized their international anti-dam fraternity to protest at World Bank headquarters and with US Congressmen, compelling the World Bank president to cancel the previously promised large loans for dam construction without allowing for adequate hearing from the small farmers who might have benefited. Whether the dams should have been constructed is not the point. The issue is one of democratic accountability.
From a fascinating piece by Pranab Bardhan on the limits of NGOs in fostering global development. It is certainly true that there's a tendency by some people to treat Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) as a panacea for development. The answer to every problem appears to be "we need more CSO participartion". The truth is that whilst on average CSOs have been force for positive social and economic change, they have sometimes been instruments of state oppression and corrupt plunder. Indeed the problem we face in Zambia is how to distinguish a genuine CSO from an artificial one. Many corrupt governments have realized that where CSOs are against their political objectives, the logical approach is simply to create another CSO that is more favourable to its position (usually with grand and contradictory names e.g Forum for Leadership Search). How often does one read of a so-called NGO backing a clearly foolish proposal ? So, not only do highly reputable NGOs suffer from weaknesses, but we find that many of CSOs are pseudo organisations purposely created to widen the democratic deficit in society. Unfortunately, in an effort to hold legitimate organisations to account we face a problem of identification.