The Code of Conduct of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA) [now the Australian Council for International Development] was a positive development which came in the otherwise negative wake of media allegations against a prominent Australian NGO in 1995. The Australian government, anxious to rectify problems of accountability, decided to increase regulation of the NGO aid sector but was persuaded by ACFOA to allow the industry to self-regulate its behaviour and standards. The Code of Conduct came into effect in 1997 and has made some impressive achievements over the past two years, particularly in raising the awareness of standards and behaviour to which all aid organisations should adhere.
The Code of Conduct and the monitoring of NGO compliance is overseen by a committee which consists of six elected NGO representatives, one independent chairperson, and a nominee of the Australian Consumers Association. One of the committees main areas of focus in 1998 was to ensure that the annual reports of NGOs met the six minimum requirements necessary to fulfil the stipulations of the code, and that agencies were individually informed of areas in which they were not in compliance. NGOs have been given until 30 June 1999 to rectify problem areas, and training workshops have been organised to assist agencies in meeting the reporting requirements.
Meeting the standardised annual reporting requirements of the code is also a new criterion for accreditation with the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID). Formerly agencies were only required to be signatories of the code, but now agencies must also submit an approved annual report and be cleared of any serious complaint which may have been made to the Code of Conduct Committee. To date one formal and two informal complaints have been referred to the committee, of which one minor breach of the code was identified.
Steady progress has thus been made by ACFOA and the Code of Conduct Committee in informing NGOs of their obligations under the code and in offering the tools to agencies to facilitate compliance. But while the regulations stipulated in the code serve a vital function in the Australian aid community, there are several areas of concern yet to be addressed by the industry.
The first limitation of the code is its primary focus on the rights of donors. In fact Code of Conduct is somewhat of a misnomer since the code only addresses this aspect of an organisations activities; no mention is made of the rights of beneficiaries to receive appropriate and ethical aid. Six very general operational principles are mentioned in the preamble to the code, but these are vague aims rather than enforceable regulations. The Sphere Project which sets minimum standards in the technical provision of aid complements the current code in operational guidelines, as does the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief. But these international initiatives have a limited application in the Australian aid community, and do not obviate the need for the Australian code to address ethical issues in the provision of humanitarian and development aid.
The ACFOA code is also limited in its ability to sanction NGOs which breach aspects of the code. It is ironic that although the existence of the code confers public trust to the NGO sector, to publicise the wrongdoings of an NGO may compromise that trust in the entire aid industry. One would hope that public confidence would be boosted by transparent and public self-regulation, but such an outcome is far from certain. The caution with which members of the aid community treat any discussion of the need for guidelines is illustrated by the running sheet for the launch of the Sphere Project in Australia on 29 January 1999. It stipulates that global cooperation should be emphasised to ensure that the media does not focus on the need for minimum standards. That the industry is in need of set standards, the running sheet asserts, is far from the case. 
The third constraint of the code in regulating the behaviour of Australian NGOs is that compliance is complaints-driven. For example, the NGO response to the tsunami in Papua New Guinea in late 1998 raises many questions about adherence to fundraising stipulations in the code, yet in the absence of a formal complaint no inquiry has been undertaken by ACFOA or the Code of Conduct Committee. This is particularly surprising since ACFOA was the reference point for the tsunami appeal, the response to which was so lucrative that ACFOA was compelled to issue a statement saying that enough funding had been pledged. Many NGOs did react to the tsunami, but most withdrew once the emergency needs to the limited affected population were met. It is difficult to believe that all the funds donated in response to the tsunami were used to this effect. Did the agencies involved specify in the fine print of their appeal that any excess funds would be spent on longer term projects elsewhere? After all, a high-profile emergency to which the public responds warrants a public explanation as to how unused funds are spent.
Thus despite the commendable progress made towards enhancing compliance to the principles set forth in the ACFOA Code of Conduct, more attention is required to the broader aspects of NGO integrity and accountability. Analysing the strengths and weaknesses of the code is a positive base from which to start the debate in the Australian aid community.
Full copies of the ACFOA code are available from ACFOA. Write to:
The Chair, ACFOA Code of Conduct Committee
Private Bag 3
Deakin, ACT 2600
Fax: (+61) 2 6285 1720