Chicago Journal of International Law


This symposium addresses the legitimacy of nongovernmental organizations ("NGOs"). Over the past few decades, the number of NGOs operating in world politics has skyrocketed. The financial and territorial reach and capability of these organizations has grown so much that states, international governmental organizations ("IGOs"), multinational corporations ("MNCs"), and other actors must take them seriously. Many NGOs consider themselves to be monitors of world affairs, holding states, IGOs, MNCs, and others accountable to widespread public sentiment. NGOs place pressure on various actors, and offer themselves as partners in governance, all in an effort to bring the aspirations of ordinary people to the international agenda. Scholars and practitioners have praised NGOs for years, but now critics are asking penetrating questions about them. What exactly is this public sentiment that NGOs claim to represent. How do NGOs become the trustees of it? Whose interests do NGOs represent and how accountable are NGOs to such constituents. Behind these questions is a concern for accountability. On what basis can they claim to act in the public interest? How justifiable is their operation as public authorities in world politics? In short, to whom and how are they accountable I address these questions by critically examining the concept and practice of accountability in the international system. I do so by posing the question of accountability not simply to NGOs but to states as well. We often assume that states (and markets) enjoy high levels of accountability because they are constituted to be sensitive to the will of the people. NGOs, in contrast, are seemingly accountable to no one, or to only a small group of interests that lacks ecumenical support from a broad-based constituency. This essay questions that premise. It demonstrates that critical questions deserve to be asked about how responsive states themselves are to their citizens and to the world's publics. Moreover, it articulates many ways that NGOs are accountable to broad-based publics-ways that are obscure to those looking through the narrow lenses of constitutional understandings of representation and accountability.