By Michael Hammer.on 13 November 2014

Most civil society organisations make direct or indirect claims that they are providing benefits to society or specific groups within it. On these, many organisations build further claims for recognition of special status and for financial and regulatory support. Yet without the public’s recognition of the social value of its causes and ways of working, organisations cannot claim legitimacy. This is why a formal status of legitimacy is prized and the benefits are often very tangible: credibility with funders, different regulatory demands, improved access to key target audiences, etc. In short, legitimacy gives you access to many assets that contribute to the sustainability of your organisation. Diagram linking concepts of accountability and legitimacy

Yet there are many challenges. First, legitimacy can only be given to you by those around you, but your own organisational set up and behaviour is critical. Claims to benefit particular groups in society should be backed up with accountability mechanisms, including transparency, participation, learning and for the handling of complaints and problems in ways that enable you to demonstrate not only how you relate to those who support you and control you, but importantly also those who you claim to support.[1]

This is a harder nut to crack than it may appear at first sight. A focus on inner-organisational democracy and representation by many international NGOs may actually entrench existing power differentials as members and claimed beneficiaries are largely not the same groups. Although some international NGOs emphasise localism as part of campaigning strategies, this does not address the issue of accountability to claimed beneficiaries.[2] Further, Bernstein and Coleman’s work shows that representativeness arguments employed by international NGOs border on legitimisation strategies used by the state, which generates further tensions.[3]

Second, what makes you legitimate in the eyes of one society, or parts of society, may not do so in another, or with powerful actors that make decisions about your status. It may even potentially harm you. A good example of this is in the wave of ‘foreign agents’ legislation rolled out in Russia[4] and Central Asia,[5] as well as in the limitations of action placed on NGOs in India[6] and Israel.[7] In other cases, such as in Brazil, the declining space for civil society action is the result of local political actors taking over typical civil society organisation (CSO) advocacy territory such as on poverty and rights.[8] While resistance and discourse against the limitation of CSO space is very active, the pressure on CSOs exercised by governments involved is real.[9]

Third, in many countries the status of legitimacy as a charity is increasingly tied to your ability to demonstrate that you know how your funds are being used deep into the chain of transfer. This is partly driven by concerns about the funding of terrorism.[10] In other cases the results-based management approach promoted by major funders often generates counter-productive dependency of civil society organisations on donors. It also tends to result only in short-term social capital credentials, with limited longer-term prospects for self-sustainability.[11]

These concerns are reinforced by serious questions about some donors’ capabilities to learn institutionally from the results they are pushing for, including making revisions to their ways of working.[12] How important it is to make these revisions is shown in a study of the contracting model employed by the UK Department for International Development, which concludes the model is unproductive in achieving development outcomes.[13] Also, INTRAC’s own experiences in programmes to strengthen civil society show that donor accountability and disbursement requirements often act as perverse incentives with regards to capacity building.

Organisations thus face a plethora of challenges on the topic of legitimacy. Exactly what it takes to establish legitimacy in society is very context-specific. Yet if legitimacy were just a matter of local acceptance, civil society would quickly lose its edge in terms of being a challenger of social norms and majority opinion. Some of the communities that organisations may be rooted in and which provide legitimacy to their work may not be in the mainstream of public opinion. In fact, they may be decisively and positively antagonistic to majority views about social norms in a particular context.

Legitimacy is therefore not an argument to be deployed parochially. Many organisational relationships beyond the local context matter. They need to be examined and worked through in terms of their implications for the legitimacy basis of the organisation. Organisations need to be able to identify the communities on whose behalf they speak and work, and towards which their efforts of building their basis of legitimacy has to be directed. To develop synergies between different sources of legitimacy for their work, civil society organisations need to make very conscious efforts on accountability and relationship building. Organisations also require structures around them that are supportive of such comple