The ethical standards that apply to an organization depend in part on what kind of organization it is. Some standards are either universal or nearly so: lying, cheating, stealing are generally bad whoever you are. But lots of other rules, principles, and values will vary, at least in terms of the weight attached to them. It matters for lots of purposes whether you are a corporation, a government agency, a non-governmental organization (NGO), a social club, a church, or a newspaper.
What kind of organization is WikiLeaks? It is sometimes referred to as a news agency, though that designation is disputed. Let’s look at WikiLeaks as a straightforward cause-oriented NGO, for the sake of argument.
One key question we ought to ask with regard to any NGO has to do with its legitimacy. In other words, for any NGO, we need to ask, “does this group have the right to speak and act on behalf of the cause it claims to speak and act for?” In other words, anyone may claim (for example) to “represent the forces of Good” or to “stand for justice” or to “speak for the whales.” And anyone is free to say what they want in defence of goodness or justice or whales. But saying you speak for goodness or justice or whales doesn’t mean that you actually do, and it doesn’t mean that anyone should listen to you or consult you on important decisions. Being a legitimate spokesperson takes something else. But what?
One framework that I’ve found useful is the one provided by Iain Atack in his paper “Four Criteria of Development NGO Legitimacy.”1. Atack’s framework is intended to apply to development NGOs, but I think that the basic idea can be applied more broadly.
Atack suggests that an NGO may gain legitimacy from one or more of 4 sources:
•Representativeness (Does the organization, for example, have a large membership base for which it genuinely speaks?)
•Effectiveness (Does the organization have a proven track record of getting the job done?)
•Empowerment (Does the organization work not just to achieve its goals, but to make sure that those it helps are, in the long run, left better-able to achieve those goals themselves?)
•Values (Does the organization embody and promote the values that are essential to the sort of organization it is, whatever those may be?)
Each of these is a way in which an NGO might acquire legitimacy. Some NGOs might score well on several of those. Some on just one. Some on none — and those that score well on none of those criteria are, according to Atack’s framework, lacking in legitimacy. Stated negatively, we could put the point this way: if an organization doesn’t have a membership base, isn’t effective, doesn’t work to empower those it seeks to help, and doesn’t embody the relevant values, then just what makes it think it has the right to speak or act for anyone other than itself?
Of course, these are not all-or-nothing questions. An organization can be representative, effective, etc., to a greater or lesser degree, and hence be either more or less legitimate.
This framework isn’t the be-all and end-all of assessing NGO legitimacy, but it’s a starting point. So, consider an NGO like WikiLeaks. Where does its legitimacy come from? In other words, what is the source of whatever moral authority is has? Is it from one of the sources Atack suggests, or is it something else?