few NGOs have well-defined procedures for accountability to anyone other than financial contributors and members – quite a small set of people. They can identify elements of what they consider to be “the public interest,” but what constitutes the public interest is contested. Unlike in domestic politics, there is no general electoral process, involving the public that adjudicates between different conceptions of the public interest.
Even NGOs whose members may see themselves as pure-spirited guardians of the public interest can abuse their power – which for NGOs is usually limited to their ability to provide information and mold public opinion. Greenpeace, for instance, demanded in 1995 that Shell not dispose of its Brent Spar drilling rig in the North Sea, alleging that it contained 5000 tons of oil, vastly more than Shell estimated. After a huge media campaign, very costly to Shell’s reputation, Greenpeace had to admit that it had greatly overestimated the oil on board. Eventually, an independent marine certification body broadly confirmed Shell’s original estimates (BBC 1998).
NGOs are fiscally accountable to their major contributors, who can demand reports, and they operate in a “market for donors,” so are in that sense subject to market accountability. In this context, peer accountability and reputational accountability are very significant for them. The judgment of the independent marine certification body is a good example of peer accountability. Too many false alarms lead such NGOs to be ignored or scorned by other NGOs with which they compete, by the press, and by individuals in various societies, on which they depend for contributions and political support. In general, the weakness of NGOs – their dependence on reputation and funding and their lack of coercive force or huge material resources – makes the lack of formal accountability mechanisms for them less significant. However, as NGOs become