Last week T/AI hosted a short virtual case clinic featuring the Transparency and Accountability Program from Soros Foundation Kazakhstan. We had a really interesting conversation about the evolution of their work on transparency and accountability, and their strategy in this area. Albert van Zyl (IBP) and I wrote a brief summary of this discussion and highlighted some key issues (originally posted at http://www.transparency-initiative.org/news/promoting-transparency-and-accountability-in-kazakhstan-talearn-virtual-case-clinic):
This past week, the TALEARN community of practice hosted a virtual discussion with Anton Artemyev and Dinara Pogodina of the Soros Foundation Kazakhstan on their efforts to support work around transparency and accountability (T/A) issues in that country over the past decade. Anton and Dinara gave participants an overview of the evolution of the Foundation’s T/A programing, from an early focus on getting transparency (especially around natural resources extraction) into public dialogue, through efforts to work across the “Follow the Money” chain, to an emerging emphasis on engaging citizens in local government decision-making spaces and processes, especially budgeting. Below we will summarize and reflect upon some of the key ideas and themes that emerged from the discussion.
Anton and Dinara shared key features of the post-soviet context in Kazakhstan, including both the opacity of state institutions and processes and the lack of a culture and mechanisms for citizens to engage with authorities and demand more transparent and accountable governance. Equally important was how this context shaped civil society efforts on these issues, with an early focus on election transparency shifting to broader transparency claims and engagement around the emerging Extractives Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI) process in Kazakhstan.
The Soros Foundation played a key role in building a coalition of civil society organizations interested in public transparency and breaking the ‘taboo’ against addressing these issues through very careful evidenced-based and expert-led public discussions. Equally important, Soros Foundation purposefully stayed away from commenting on corruption scandals with a position of improving systems instead, in order to dampen government opposition to the new transparency proposals. Throughout this early process, the Soros Foundation made sure that the civil society coalition was taking the lead, while the Foundation played a background supporting role, by convening key actors and building up the capacity of civil society organizations. Civil society actors had developed key capacities through roles in think tanks and engagement with the government around electoral transparency, and were careful to frame transparency proposals as a product of international trends and best practices.
The Soros Foundation and the civil society organizations that it supports have had significant success over the past decade in promoting public transparency. However, the next frontier is leveraging these gains to achieve greater government responsiveness and accountability. The Foundation will pursue this along two fronts. The first is to continue to strengthen donor and civil society coordination on T/A issues, particularly growing a small Follow the Money ‘club’ into a broader network – an hopefully, a strong movement. The second focus will be on promoting a culture of accountability in Kazakhstan. The Foundation has found it hard to get citizens excited about national issues that can appear remote. For this reason it is shifting some of its focus and attention to the local level, where service provision and decisions have a more visible and immediate impact on citizens, with a hope that successes and advances can be picked up by other localities or even as national standards and regulations. While national government supports this orientation, the many local sites that would need to be supported may pose scale and replicability challenges.
The challenge of shifting focus from transparency to accountability, or leveraging transparency to ensure accountability, remains the central test of the T/A community more broadly. Part of the Soros Foundation strategy is driven by taking advantage of local level engagement, but part is driven by an inability to effectively engage citizens around national level accountability issues – connecting the (in)famous transparency – participation – accountability chain. This frustration led to a search for alternative routes to promoting accountability.
Anton and Dinara said that sharing of information, experiences, and resources from other contexts would be extremely useful in helping them advance their new strategy on T/A, and specifically requested examples – either from individual CSOs or broader country systems – in which transparency has been effectively leveraged to ensure accountability.