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Commentary on CCIC's Code of Ethics Programme

The following commentary was written for The United Nations University publication Codes of Conduct for Partnership in Governance: Texts and Commentaries. Edited by Tatsuro Kunugi and Martha Schweitz, 1999. The provisional version of that publication was issued to facilitate discussions at the World Civil Society Conference: Building Global Governance Partnerships (WOCSOC) held in Montreal in December 1999. The final version of the book, which will reflect the results of workshops held during WOCSOC and include several analytical chapters, will be available by end of summer 2000 (contact The book is an extensive study of codes of conduct from around the world and includes the abridged texts of the codes as well as accompanying commentaries written by persons involved in their drafting, adoption or implementation.

Canada: Code of Ethics of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC)

Commentary by Anne Buchanan*

The Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC) is a coalition of over 100 Canadian organizations, working on the frontlines of social justice, humanitarian aid, economic and democratic development—both in Canada and in the developing world. At CCIC’s Annual General Meeting in 1992, members expressed a desire to have a tool against which they could examine their organizational work methods. This scrutiny would help members know themselves better, improve their own practice and increase the credibility of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the eyes of the government, overseas partners and the Canadian public. After a great deal of membership collaboration and a Board of Directors-led process, the CCIC membership now has a three-pronged ethics program, designed to facilitate members’ abilities to meet a set of standards designed and agreed to by the membership.

The Ethics program

The Code of Ethics is the central pillar of our ethics program. It sets out the minimum ethical standards CCIC members must meet in conducting their affairs on governance, management and human resources, fundraising communications and financial management. Compliance is a requirement for CCIC membership. The requirements for compliance go beyond a sign-on of agreement with the principles. Organizations must have the appropriate policies and practices in place before they are recognized as being in full compliance.

A background "Guidance Document" that helps to interpret the Code serves as the second pillar. An Ethics Review Committee, a forum for reflection, serves as the third pillar. The committee is comprised of ethics experts (including one Board liaison) whose role it is to act as a sounding board for questions of an ethical nature from member organizations, including specific concerns raised about a member’s compliance. The spirit of the ethics program has always been one of a developmental and collegial process, rather than a policing, judgmental one. Because CCIC does not have the resources, nor the mandate to independently assess members’ ethical standards, the ethics program was developed based on a philosophy of peer accountability. The philosophy is that, as a responsible member of a community who has agreed to attain certain ethical standards, one will work hard to ensure that one legitimately reaches these standards. As we make the Code of Ethics a living document and make ethical decision-making an integral part of the life of an organization, the lessons learned by the sector will contribute to the continual improvement of our standards.

Why was it needed?

There were many factors propelling the Council to begin a process to design a Code of Ethics when it did. International co-operation had evolved into a complex business bringing with it organizational challenges unforeseen 30 years prior. Changes in development practice, organizational structures and partnerships all contributed to the need for self-regulation.

Development practice had moved from its earlier phases of single projects, service delivery and emergency relief, to consolidated programmes that integrate policy advocacy with community work to tackle the root causes of poverty and inequity. The complexity of the issues only added to the challenge of NGOs trying to explain the importance of their work to donors.

Initially, most organizational structures started with a couple of staff, lots of volunteers and a small office space, usually in a church basement. Some NGOs remained small, but were increasingly sitting side-by-side as members of CCIC with million-dollar budget organizations run by national Boards of Directors, unionized workforces and still lots of volunteers. Administrative challenges for all NGOs were increasing and there were growing calls for donor accountability. Organizational integrity was no longer a given just because an NGO was ‘doing the right thing’.

The relationships between northern and southern NGOs were also evolving. Southern NGOs began joining in the calls for greater accountability from northern partners. ‘Partners’ was not even a term used 30 years ago. Even today, the meaning and nature of partnership is the subject of ongoing dialogue and debate.

Partners here in Canada and overseas were increasingly identifying issues such as organizational integrity, sound financial management, accuracy of fundraising communications and openness to scrutiny by donors as important factors in their consideration for support. In the public’s eye, if one member is publicly accused (whether valid or not) of mismanagement or unethical behaviour, it stains the reputation of all NGOs in the sector. It had become quite evident to Canadian NGOs that the time had come to demonstrate to our partners and the general public that we too take these issues very seriously. Therefore, governance, organizational integrity, finances, communications to the public and management practices were the issues that became the foundation on which the CCIC Code of Ethics was written. As Betty Plewes, President-CEO of CCIC said when the Code was overwhelmingly approved by the members, "NGOs find themselves having to account to a jaded public about a complex subject, with rusty tools. A new Code of Ethics gives us the beginning of a solution".

Designing new tools

The process to draft the Code took three years and involved the participation of a committee of Board and external members who met regularly, and the wider membership that was consulted throughout the year. Drafts were presented for additional feedback and decisions during the Annual General Meetings in both 1993 and 1994. At the May 25-27, 1995 AGM the new Code of Ethics was resoundingly approved by the membership. Once approval was given, the implementation process began. Given the learning nature of the process, a guidance document was developed to assist members in their understanding of each of the items of the Code. This was completed in 1996 and in 1997 the Ethics Review Committee was established.

The Code and Partnerships

Partnership building is a constant thread winding its way throughout our Code of Ethics. At its core is the partnership that exists between NGOs as members of the Council. Our Code was written with the belief that together as a sector, we can ensure our own accountability. Designed as a peer process, the ethics program serves as tools to strengthen our organizations through self-reflection and sharing of experiences. Throughout the implementation period, organizations have shared their policies and procedures with one another in order to improve and develop their organizational structures.

A secondary, but no less important, component is partnership building external to the CCIC membership. The work of most Canadian NGOs has always revolved around partnerships overseas, but increasingly partnerships are being formed here in Canada with individuals and organizations from the domestic voluntary sector, the business sector, and ethnic and aboriginal communities. Our Code includes the belief that: "the strengthening of people’s organizations, voluntary agencies and other socially beneficial institutions is integral to the practice of development" (2.1.4).

There are a number of areas within the Code that address the expectation for members to promote diversity in their organizations. There is a non-discrimination policy requirement (3.1.5), as well as a requirement for organization’s Boards of Director’s to have policies that "work towards gender equity and participation of minorities" (3.1.6). In other words, our Code expects these latter policies to be pro-active by actually promoting participation. It is one thing not to prevent people from participating, it is another to encourage and facilitate that participation. Such equity and participation is encouraged not only in areas of governance but also in human resources (see 3.5.6). The alliances that these policies should engender will broaden existing partnerships to include actors and sectors not previously engaged by the international co-operation sector.

Finally, the Code enhances partnerships overseas through items such as the requirement for organizations to encourage the participation of their partners in the formulation of communications to the public. Incorporated into the Code is the principle that development is a global process that should link common interests and issues and build an international movement for change.

Our ethics program is only in its early stages, but its development has provided opportunities for the sector to clearly identify how we minimally expect one another to function as organizations. Ongoing dialogue will ensure that we reach these standards and continue to improve them. The primary value, and success, of our Code lies in setting common standards for conduct among CCIC members despite an extremely wide variety in organizational size, type and development activity. Through building these standards and being accountable to one another, members have collaborated to ensure that compliance requirements are met. This process has strengthened the partnership that exists within the Council and bodes well for future learning and continued co-operation.

*Anne Buchanan is a Programme Officer with the Organizational Development Team of CCIC. She is the contact person for the CCIC Ethics programme.
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