Navigating Certifications for Greater Accountability

Early this year, World Policy Journal mapped illicit diamond market activities in all their complexity. A 3-month long investigation into the efficiency of the Kimberley Process—an international agreement that seeks to identify and certify non-conflict diamonds—showed that conflict diamonds can pass through multiple subsidiaries in tax havens that are largely deemed “Kimberley Process-certified.” In this way, diamonds are erased of their true origins, making it harder to identify which are conflict and which aren’t.

At first glance, the problem seems to be the inefficacy of the Kimberley Process. Questionable jurisdictions that can erase diamonds of their true origins shouldn’t be certified. Simple as that.

But a closer look reveals a systemic issue that plagues all certifications and standards that are established with the best of intentions. As the World Policy Journal article states:

“The root cause of the problem does not lie in the ineffectiveness of the Kimberley Process as a monitoring mechanism for actual conflict diamonds. It lies in the Kimberley Process’s commendable goal of removing the stain or reputation of “conflict” from diamonds, through a process of certification.”

We live in a world full of certifications. From the grocery store to the airport to the elevator, stamps of approval show us products and experiences have been deemed safe and worthy of our support. Certifications are intended to assign a concept or practice to a class or category; to identify the good and bad, and alleviate concerns. And in doing so, certifications brand credibility and empower consumers and end users.

While certifications can identify what is working, they have an equal ability to disguise what isn’t.

But while certifications can identify what is working, the illicit diamond trade investigation above shows that they have an equal ability to disguise what isn’t. Putting trust in certifications—and turning a blind eye to the rest—dampens motivation to understand what’s hidden behind the stamp and hold others accountable.

This problem crops up in private and public sectors alike. Countries are signing up for the Open Government Partnership, gaining association with “open government” practices. But what does “open government” really mean when, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Obama Administration’s surveillance activities and fear of leaks deter officials from speaking freely and keep the press at arm’s length? Similarly, what does “corporate social responsibility (CSR)” mean when an Inner Mongolian steel company leaks pollution into a village behind the veil of its sustainability reporting and reputation for strong environmental protection CSR initiatives?

The same idea applies to “best practices” in international development. The implementation of anti-corruption efforts in Uganda since the 1980s has yielded the creation of anti-corruption bodies—the Inspectorate of Government and the Directorate of Ethics and Integrity—that had been proven effective in other countries. But over the years these power structures have been manipulated and undermined. According to a report released by the Institute of Development Studies, an increase in tax revenues initially indicated success in tax revenue authority, but this rate of growth has since flattened and is accompanied by corruption. Successful civil service reform was evidenced by initial bureaucracy downsizing, but this has since reversed. Some believe that international “best practice” anti-corruption efforts implemented in the Ugandan context have assuaged foreign donors instead of truly addressing the problems behind what is often called “corruption”.

While best practices work in certain contexts, the “best practice” label does not guarantee suitability or success. In fact, as UN knowledge management and monitoring and evaluation specialist Ian Thorpe describes in his critique of best practices, following guidelines can in fact deter practitioners from thinking outside the box to look for more appropriate interventions.

The above examples show that certifications, be they labels or standards, have a tendency to create a sense of trust that may evolve into complacency. So how can healthy skepticism make sure certifications reflect reality?

The first step is understanding the certification by breaking it down. This involves analyzing who administers the certification, what their interests are, what stakeholders of all sides and sizes think of the certification, and what systemic factors are outside the certification’s realm. In the case of Kimberley Process certification, the World Diamond Council plays an important role to determine process implementation. Members of the Council include a variety of vested interests from De Beers and other diamond manufacturers worldwide. Groups like Amnesty International and One Sky have found that the process still remains open to abuse.

Next, standards and practice need to more accurately reflect one another. The goal should be outcomes—outcomes that meet standards, and even strive to exceed them. Outcomes should be embedded in practice and operations rather than reported certifications with questionable basis. As my colleague Panthea Lee has written before, “open government” needs to be more than releasing thousands of datasets on an open data portal; efforts need to prioritize solid outcomes around social accountability and constructive citizen-government interaction. In that same vein, “CSR” and even “B Corp” need to more accurately reflect sustainable business practices to a company’s core, as Dane Roth explains in his analysis of alignment for more sustainable CSR.

Finally, outcome-oriented practices can stretch and innovate on certifications to make them more relevant and effective moving forward.

Achieving certification should be more than an end goal, a trophy on a shelf. It should be a step along the way to striving for higher self-accountability, sustainability, and safety beyond certification itself.

“Best practices” may work in certain times and places, but that shouldn’t stand in the way of finding even better, more appropriate practices.

Looking beyond certifications to understand the incentives and situations behind them can motivate understanding of the full story and further improvement. This way, certifications will not cloud the wisdom, creativity, and empathy needed to build lasting public and private sector accountability.

Futher reading.