WikiLeaks and NGO Legitimacy

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?

1Ian Atack, “Four Criteria of Development NGO Legitimacy,” World Development, 27:5 (1999) 855-864.

12 comments so far

  1. Jayaraman Rajah Iyer on

    Legitimacy arises out of Moral Authority, Moral Authority arises out of ownership. If I don’t own the idea or concept I cross the copyright of another. I must have the copyright permission to use the quote. Same applies to a property. Knowing pretty well it is a stolen property it is illegal to buy the property. In case of Wikileaks it is a stolen property ab initio and declared as such by Assange. The websites by acquiescing to publish the material is doing an illegal act and can be sued by the owner of the property and take them to the court. I am not a legal person but I enjoyed reading the analysis of acquiring the legitimacy.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Thanks for that. But moral authority cannot arise ONLY out of ownership. There are lots of kinds of moral authority.


      • Jayaraman Rajah Iyer on

        Ownership, I meant, arises out of subscribing to the lots of kinds of moral values.

  2. […] December 20, 2010 Wikileaks and NGO Legitimacy […]

  3. Dan Wheeler on

    I’m really interested in this story. The concept of the “press” has changed a lot in the last few decades. Now anyone with a laptop can start a blog and conduct legitimate journalism.

    Very interesting.

  4. jilly on

    I am somewhat confused by your rather unilateral decision to consider Wikileaks an NGO. Furthermore, you have chosen to define it as a particular type of NGO—one that purports to be representative, effective and empowering, or to “embody and promote” any values beyond those of open access to information. In short, the designation of Wikileaks as an NGO places it in the position of failing to meet criteria that are simply inapplicable. It seems to me that it is much closer to a news organization; in fact, the parallel to the position of the New York Times, the Washington Post and other newspapers in the Ellsberg case seems pretty close.

    I see Wikileaks as an organization that has enabled whistleblowers within various government and other organizations to make public items that are important for electorates, consumers and, in general, a well-informed public to know. A legitimate concern is that, by failing to redact certain of the documents dealing with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Wikileaks may have made it possible to identify civilians working with the US army in those countries, thus putting them at risk (see

    Wikileaks has been widely accepted as a media organization in the past, winning awards under that designation.

    The attempt to define Wikileaks as something other than a news organization is not a neutral one, since its status as “press” constitutes its defense against charges under the Espionage Act of 1917 (see

    So what is going on here?


    • Chris MacDonald on


      I haven’t defined WikiLeaks as any particular kind of NGO — the framework I’ve presented is intended to be a general one, applicable to NGOs of all sorts (though that’s an extrapolation, on my part, from Atack’s focus on development NGOs. I’m certainly open to hearing about other valid sources of legitimacy. The point is (as stated above) that you don’t get to speak for X just by claiming to speak for X. Your legitimacy has to come from somewhere. So the framework here provides a lens through which to look at WikiLeaks (or any other NGO).

      If they’re not an NGO, then the framework above doesn’t apply. But WikiLeaks is clearly cause-oriented in a way that is much more typical of an NGO than of a news agency. I just don’t see them as being at all like, say, the NY Times, except in the very thin sense that both are conduits for information. And even if they’re not an NGO, we still need some account of the source of whatever legitimacy they have. I’d be very interested in seeing an analysis that looked at WikiLeaks from the point of view of journalistic legitimacy and journalistic ethics, if you know of one.


  5. Chris MacDonald on


    Here’s a useful page about the legal status of Wikileaks, from MSNBC:

    About half-way down, there’s a section called “Is Assange a journalist?”

  6. jilly on

    Hi Chris,

    Who does Wikileaks claim to speak for, and how do they make that claim? Once again, it is my view that the NGO designation is potentially misleading; however, that is, clearly, your choice.

    However, the question about whether Wikileaks constitutes journalism is a good one. Perhaps the best we can say is that the blogosphere as a whole poses some questions about the ethics of information that are yet to be addressed. In regard to the question of journalistic ethics, comments that predate November 28, 2010, are likely to be most interesting, as they have a greater chance of dealing with the issues in a balanced manner. Regrettably, I have not been able to find anything substantive as yet, although I have hopes from the proceedings that will eventually be published for the conference described in the site below (notably the first session).

    While I question whether it is fair to impose criteria of judgment based on choosing to critique (rather than defining?) Wikileaks as an NGO, I do think there are legitimate concerns to be raised. I mentioned one very serious one in the post above. Another is that the sheer volume of information being leaked may make it difficult to find the parts that are significant, and may make it easier for, in this instance, the US government to direct attention away from what is significant. Another obvious one is the question of to what extent fear of publication will hinder government employees from conveying important information to one another. [On the plus side here, surely it is possible to convey virtually anything in a reasonably respectful manner, and perhaps this leak will help that happen. I cannot help but wonder whether the habit of contempt suggested by the tone of the messages filters into “diplomatic” actions as well as speech.] Yet another is whether the fear of publication will result in other changes to government practice; for example, the routine destruction of potentially important historical documents, or substantial changes to hiring criteria for government employees. We should also ask what the implications of these actions for Net neutrality and regulation. And again, we should ask whether the controversy itself contributes to inaction on the part of the public, whether because of a reflex defensiveness on behalf of the federal government, or because of sheer despair and paralysing shame over the number of “intolerable” acts that that government is perpetrating, and people are tolerating, every day.

    And as the final question for this post, I wonder why we are apparently so much more concerned by confidentiality in the public sector than by privacy in the “private” sector. The following quote from Assange is a very interesting one:

    “I give you private information on corporations for free and I’m a villain. Mark Zuckerberg gives your private information to corporations for money and he’s ‘Man of the Year.'”

    Cheers, and thanks for the link!

  7. Chris MacDonald on


    “Speak for” is my term, not theirs. As far as I know, Wikileaks doesn’t claim to “speak for” anyone in particular. But they certainly are promoting goals, in particular their own vision of justice. And I’m not saying they’re wrong: I’m inquiring into what it is (if anything) that makes them worthy of respect.


  8. […] but rather self-appointed defenders of what they see as the public good. (I’ve written about how to assess NGO legitimacy […]

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