Learning about Strategic Accountability

The Global Partnership for Social Accountability (GPSA) recently published a series of notes looking back on its two rounds of calls for proposals and the over 600 applications it received by civil society organizations proposing social accountability interventions.  The notes seek to provide insights into how the GPSA applications demonstrate elements of ‘strategic’ social accountability, and what this might imply for the social accountability field more broadly.

By strategic, the notes are focusing on whether applications demonstrate a politically-informed approach to both analysis of context and the proposed intervention.  This focus on strategic social accountability follows the work of Jonathan Fox and others to re-examine some of the key evidence and derive some broader lessons for work in this area.

Before reflecting on some of the ideas discussed in these notes, as well as some broader questions that this effort raises, it’s worth stating what an interesting and commendable effort this is by the GPSA to learn about itself as a funding mechanism and whether some of the core assumptions in the GPSA theory of change, such as the existence of CSO capacity to adequately analyze political context, actually hold.  Using the GPSA’s 600+ applications as a data set and seeing what insights can be gained from analyzing a sub-set of these is an interesting exercise in itself.  It seems like more funding organizations could pair with researchers (PhD dissertation topic w/funding maybe?) to carry out similar work.

At the risk of grossly oversimplifying these notes, they basically demonstrate that while many of the elements the authors identify as ‘strategic’ are present in proposals, overall the data imply that most CSOs do not have the capacity ‘to propose strategic social accountability projects’.  In other words, the applications analyzed as part of this effort do not fully exhibit analysis of political context and politically-informed tactics to achieve their aims, despite the GPSA having instituted a proposal format that seeks to elicit exactly that.

This conclusion, while not necessarily surprising, does raise some relevant questions and issues.

Proposals and thinking politically  

This series is based on in-depth analysis of 40 of the over 600 application received in two rounds of calls for proposals from the GPSA.   Yet as the notes acknowledge, it’s not easy to interpret the data from these applications and what they reveal about the organizations, their capacities, and their thinking of how to promote change.  The organizations are likely framing their proposals in ways that they think will be more likely to be funded.  For example, 80% of analyzed proposals included a focus on accessing/generating and disseminating information and 70% included a significant role for ICTs.  Does this mean that these organizations believe these are fundamental elements of addressing service delivery challenges?  Or do they believe these are elements funders are interested in supporting?

If the applications do accurately depict how CSOs conceive of social accountability, what does that tell us?  Have CSOs been ‘taught’ to propose these approaches by previous funding, either received by those organizations or approaches they have seen funded by others?  Potentially even more problematic, have CSOs been convinced that these are indeed the most effective approaches to addressing issues of service provision more broadly?  This points to even greater need to engage critically with the available evidence and think about how that evidence has been deployed and the assumptions that have gone largely unchallenged, such as about the role of information and technology.  Technology-enabled information provision is still seen to be necessary, if not sufficient, to drive improved accountability.  But is it?

Relatedly, it should be acknowledged that grant writing and funding more generally does imply costs of time and resources by grant-seeking organizations.  Each funding opportunity entails its own cost-benefit analysis by organizations.  As the GPSA moves towards applications that require much more in-depth analysis and careful framing, this implies higher investment by applicants.  Given that only 22 of over 600 applications have been funded, CSOs must evaluate how much effort to dedicate to this process, and the quality of the analysis of context and framing of the intervention may reflect, to some extent, the time and resources invested in crafting the proposal according to each organizations’ assessment of the cost-benefit of that investment.  Others have made this point regarding prize competitions for non-profit organizations.

This raises a broader point about funding mechanisms such as the GPSA and how they solicit proposals and evaluate them.  Should funders instead release a request for qualifications and find those organizations with capacity to carry out strategic social accountability approaches, then provide funding and support for the development of more specific proposals to address a concrete problem?  There are examples of this elsewhere, for example in funding research.  Of course, what capacities are needed is another question entirely.

How strategic is ‘strategic’?

This series of notes brought me to reflect on social accountability more broadly, and the prospect of ‘strategic’ social accountability.  I do agree with all of the ‘strategic’ elements identified by the notes’ authors.  But I was also struck by the apparent emphasis on politically-informed tactics and tools.  We are clearly moving beyond tool-based approaches, so shouldn’t that apply to politically savvy tools as well?  What if a politically-informed approach has less to do with tools and tactics and more to do with building relationships, credibility and trust?  Efforts such as the Mwananchi program make this very point, as well as suggesting that many funders should stop looking for grantees that are effective ‘project implementers’ and instead those who can be effective ‘political entrepreneurs’ (addressing the capacities question above).

The GPSA’s evolving approach does indeed explicitly seek to support those organizations with political capacities, but I wonder if the continued focus on funding ‘projects’ is somewhat at odds with this.  Indeed, Jonathan Fox, in arguing for strategic approaches has explicitly called for moving away from ‘projects ‘ and ‘interventions’ towards broader and more sustained ‘campaigns’.  Thus, the question may be, can you have a strategic social accountability ‘project’, or is there an inherent tension in this?  What about alternative funding modalities, such as flexible core support to these organizations to build their capacity, develop broad coalitions, and sustain reform campaigns over the long term to address deeper changes?

And finally, it would be interesting, in the context of GPSA’s learning agenda, to raise the question about the current emphasis on the role of social accountability.  Maybe this means engaging with the evidence that suggests other, radically different, approaches to securing improved services?  Research by Stephen Kosack on Ghana, Tawain and Brazil demonstrates that the key factor in broad, progressive investment in education was the political mobilization of the poor, and thus their importance to governing elites interested in maintaining power.  Now, it may well be that the World Bank at its GPSA partners do not see political organization within their remit, but perhaps working to support enabling environments for such collective action would be?  In any case, alternative approaches should be acknowledged and a conversation should be had about how change really happens and how different organizations can best contribute to that change.

An opportunity for further learning

This exercise by the GPSA has shed light on important opportunities and challenges, and has raised further questions.  Yet, one important element that was not explored in the GPSA notes series was the reaction of GPSA grantees (and would-be grantees) to this analysis.  I hope there have been (or will be) opportunities for frank conversations about the issues raised in these notes, addressing civil society capacity, approaches to social accountability, and the role of GPSA in supporting these.  The GPSA is making an effort to learn about what is working and what isn’t, so including the voices and perspectives of its grantees will be critical to that end.

The TALEARN community of practice exists to open spaces for these kinds of dialogues and issues.  Currently, through TALEARN, we are carrying out a study on funder-grantee relationships and how they incentivize learning (or potentially limit opportunities for learning).  Staff and grantees of the GPSA are participating in this study, and will surely draw on lessons learned from the recent notes series and the questions that were raised.  Stay tuned for new insights from this study and further conversation on these important themes.

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