Accountability in Non-Governmental Organizations: Theory and Practice

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The study of Non-Governmental Organisations’ (NGOs’) accountability has lagged
behind that in the private sector in the areas of empirical details and theoretical foundation. This thesis analyses the research question: How do NGOs practice accountability and what is the theoretical basis for this practice? To answer this question, the study develops a descriptive framework that classifies accountability practices along two broad dimensions: one based on the form of giving accounts (which could be process or performance) and the other based on the form of
holding to account (which could be contractual or communal). The resulting four possibilities were built into a framework around which a theory was developed and used to guide the empirical investigation in 6 NGOs, 3 in the UK and 3 in Africa. The study rejects the rigidly structured research approach of the rationalist school and the completely unstructured approach of the
phenomenological school. In regard to the exploratory nature of the research question, it adopts a ‘middle range thinking’ approach proceeding with a partly structured process and a prior theory in ‘skeletal’ form ‘fleshed out’ with the findings as the study progressed. The research finds that the bulk of the resources utilised by NGOs are derived from the global north while the bulk of the
needs for NGOs’ services are in the global south, and that this influences accountability practices across both sides of the hemisphere. Because of the nature of NGO’s objectives and activities, it is argued traditional accounting’s capability to provide a full account of NGOs’ performance is severely limited. This, coupled with the involvement of multiple stakeholders with varied needs,
has resulted in the use of multiple systems of accountability. In total eight practices were identified, spread across the four possible approaches in the theoretical framework with practices aimed at the needs of the statutory authorities and the Institutional donors dominating in the UK NGOs. Where southern NGOs have a large part of their income supplied by northern hemisphere Institutional donors only the accountability needs of these donors dominates as the local regulatory frameworks are weak. The insights from the thesis raise a range of policy issues about the form and regulation of accountability by NGOs and the role of the Institutional donors in it.
Date of Award1 Jun 2012
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorRichard Laughlin (Supervisor) & Aditi Gupta (Supervisor)

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