Thinking Politically about Social Accountability

There has been some great new work out on social accountability (SA), an increasingly significant area of development funding for governance work.  Many of these new reflections begin to look at SA through a political lens, and indicate what politically informed SA work might look like.

Fletcher Tembo at ODI recently presented some lessons from the Mwananchi SA program in Africa.  The Mwananchi program, a 5-year DFID project in 6 African countries, revealed much about the complexity and political nature of SA.  Fletcher highlighted several key lessons from the initiative:

  • There is a need to understand the complex, and potentially conflicting, incentives that influence citizens and government representatives
  • There is also a need to analyze which actors can affect change, and the incentives that bear on them doing so or not
  • There is a need to navigate complex contextual dynamics, and create flexible and adaptable theories of how change can happen that are informed by political analysis (Mwananchi innovated in this area)

The principal lesson from the Mwananchi experience is that SA is about actors and relationships.  It is not simply a matter of citizens holding public representatives to account, but rather a more complex set of interlinkages between diverse actors in which mutual trust is key to facilitating shared expectations and collective action.  Thus, the local interlocutors, often CSOs, most appropriate to engage in this kind of work are best understood not as ‘project implementers’, but as political entrepreneurs.

Other panelists at the presentation highlighted the broader implications of these findings for SA work more generally.

The first implication was to turn SA grant making on its head.  The most appropriate grantees to work on SA issues are not those that have the technical capacity to manage a project or implement a tool, but rather those that have the credibility, political acumen and networking skills to engage diverse actors, build mutual trust, and analyze and navigate complex political dynamics. (case studies from the work of CSOs supported by the International Budget Partnership demonstrate the need for political capacities as well)

Second, this puts another nail in the coffin of ‘tool-based’ approaches to SA (citizens report cards, etc.).  The Mwananchi case demonstrates that applying a best practice or tool substitutes for the more challenging work of analyzing local political context and seeking to build the relationships of mutual trust necessary to realize effective accountability.

Third, SA needs to go beyond the ‘point of delivery’.  SA interventions often focus on the delivery of a service or good.  While this is important, as it has a direct impact on people’s lives, SA must go deeper.  Beyond resolving the provision of a service or good, SA must tackle the perverse incentives that underlie deficient delivery.  Deeper still, accountability work must tackle the rule-of-the-game, the governance structures that allow perverse incentives to block or divert service provision.  Citizens cannot (or should not) be expected to monitor the delivery of every service ad infinitum, but eventually more formal accountability structures must be developed as effective instruments (informed by new insights about supporting institutional change).

The discussion highlighted the argument made over a decade ago by John Gaventa, that governance work must address both sides of the citizen-state equation.  Exclusively ‘demand side’ approaches to SA don’t appreciate the incentives and political dynamics at play in citizens’ relationships with state actors.  The Mwananchi experience also reinforces World Bank research on the role of context in SA interventions (and citizen engagement more generally) that has found that contextual factors, much more than any tool or best practice, dictate the success or failure of SA.  The WB evidence again suggests that political capacities and relationships are the keys to CSO success in promoting accountability reforms, and that political analysis of the ‘political settlement’ among elites, the social contract between state and society, structures of socio-political exclusion, and higher (national and global) level drivers of accountability failures, among other factors. Thus, external actors that would promote SA must think politically about such interventions and facilitate and support local political entrepreneurship, rather than instituting a tool or best practice.

These lessons run counter to much of the work on SA, which is indeed tool-based, and increasingly ICT-based, and often framed as a short-term project (often of an apolitical nature) with dubious assumptions about the role of citizens.  There is growing evidence about the political nature of poverty and exclusion, and thus that development needs to engage politics.  Efforts to ‘think politically’ through political economy analysis and other tools has advanced, but ‘working politically’ has lagged behind.  We are at a critical juncture in addressing governance issues more broadly, but unless the political nature of governance challenges are understood and reflected in our approaches, the moment will pass without sustained advances, just like the myriad of development fads that have passed before.

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