Discharging accountability in the field of Non-governmental Organisations in Samoa
The questioning of accountability for Samoa came to the forefront as a result of a publicised scandal involving funds donated in aid of the devastating effects of a tsunami in 2009. This scandal prompted an interest in examining the practice of accountability in Samoa and, thus, provided a platform on which this research begins. This research examines what constitutes accountability within the field of NGOs in Samoa. The accountability relationships that the NGOs maintain with their stakeholders within the researched field is examined alongside how these relationships influence the ways in which NGOs discharge accountability to their stakeholders.
This research employs Bourdieu’s theory of practice and his key concepts of field, capital and habitus to examine what constitutes accountability within the researched field. The interplay between Bourdieu’s key concepts, and how they function to elucidate accountability practice within the field of NGOs in Samoa, is examined. This research adopts a constructivist form of inquiry. It sources data from semi-structured interviews, encompassing talanoa techniques, and uses qualitative document analysis. A series of 49 semi-structured interviews/talanoa sessions were conducted in Samoa from 2012-2013 with 14 selected NGOs, funders, Government officials, and auditors. A range of documents were selected as they represent the forms in which NGOs discharge accountability, while others were selected to provide background information on the context of this research. These documents were analysed in conjunction with empirical data to construct responses to the three research questions.
This research identifies that the field of NGOs in Samoa is both a field of forces and a field of struggles. The analysis shows that the field is structured by donor agencies, and enforced by the Government of Samoa. In consequence, upward accountability by NGOs to funders and the Government of Samoa is prioritised, while downward and internal accountability are the weakest (field of forces). Reports comprising audited financial statements and performance-based information are identified as the dominant discharge mechanisms. The analysis identifies these reports to be instruments of symbolic domination that the upward stakeholders use to control the ways in which accountability is discharged, and the information that is discharged. As a result, individuals in NGOs are structured and organised through their habitus to recognise these reports as the appropriate way of discharging accountability (doxa).
This research also identifies the use of alternative, whilst rare, accountability discharge mechanisms. The use of meetings and site visits as ways that NGOs discharged oral accounts of their affairs, in conjunction with reports, is also identified. The analysis also shows that half of the selected 14 NGOs disseminate their reports and other information using websites and Facebook. As discharged mechanisms, websites and Facebook are identified to be used only by NGOs that are endowed with the requisite resources, knowledge and skills (cultural capital).
Overall, the practice of accountability within the field of NGOs in Samoa is constituted by the dominant influence of funders, and enforced by the Government, as the regulator. In this vein, this research makes a contribution to literature by identifying that whilst a few NGOs are seen to employ alternative discharge mechanisms, this was limited to the availability of accountability channels allowed by the funders and regulator. As such, reports comprising audited financial statements and narratives required by funders and regulator are the most dominant discharge mechanisms amongst the NGO representatives interviewed. This research also contributes to Bourdieusian accounting and accountability literature by highlighting the importance of using Bourdieu more broadly than some previous literature. As well, this research contributes to policy and practice relating to accounting and auditing in Samoa by illuminating the need to formulate reporting guidelines and standards that are more appropriate for NGOs in Samoa. With regards to policy and practice on NGO accountability in Samoa, this research makes a contribution by highlighting the need for a revised regulatory framework for incorporated societies, as well as the need for the structure of the field of NGOs in Samoa to recognise the legitimacy of alternative discharge mechanisms. These discharge mechanisms are stories or storytelling, site visits and face-to-face meetings designed to give oral accounts. NGO accountability within developing countries, can, and should be more than a practice focussed on discharging prescribed reports.