Seven challenges for accountability 2.0

28 September 2017

Over the summer, I participated in a lively workshop on “Unpicking Power and Politics for Transformative Change: Towards Accountability for Health Equity,” which triggered several thoughts about current challenges in work on community-led accountability.

Taken by Lord Jim (Flickr) CC BY 2.0

Here they are in no particular order:

1.    Merely thinking about “states” and “citizens” is too limiting

First, from the discussions it seems clear we are in a different type of situation today than we were twenty years ago. The citizen-state framework for thinking about accountability which was dominant in the late 1990s and early 2000s has limited use.

Now, there is a more nuanced understanding that multiple actors - both state and non-state, national and transnational - are heavily involved in the production of public goods, in all stages - from policy influencing to delivery. 

In particular, this means taking seriously the structures for accountability of market actors. The influence of corporate interests in the provision of public goods as well as the entry of a large number of unregulated providers poses a big threat to both accountability and inclusion.

One of the key issues includes the ways in which donor enthusiasm for tech solutions combined with tech interests maybe skewing tech choices for accountability work, as highlighted by the work of the Making All Voices Count (MAVC) programme (PDF).

As Jonathan Fox points out, strategies for accountability in such situations need to work at multiple sites and levels simultaneously. This implies a shift from the very local, which has been the focus of accountability work in the past decade to include other levels and arenas, including the use of law and litigation for advancing rights

This means that accountability efforts will be even more challenging than before, more like guerrilla warfare than a conventional war. 

We are already seeing this in the prevalence what my colleagues call "unruly politics", in which spontaneous and often ‘uncivic’ social action is the last resort of desperate populations. 

2.    We need to think more strategically about where public power (actually) lies

In this complex system, following the World Development Report of 2004, scholars and practitioners have focussed a lot on citizen action for direct accountability from providers, often termed social accountability. 

But in the broader accountability eco-system, we need to think more strategically on where power lies, and the interests and incentives behind public action. 

We need to ask questions like:

  • What are the interests and incentives public officials face?
  • How might they come around to a more reformist mind set?
  • Where do politicians electoral calculations align with the inclusion and accountability agenda?

3.    Current political ideologies and religion are increasingly fracturing shared moral norms

We need to take more seriously the rising role of ideology and religion in fracturing the shared moral norms that underpin the implicit social contract. At the heart of accountability claims are broadly collective understandings of a moral economy that cannot easily be breached

For example, the legal case against the government on the Right to Food in India argued that the Indian government could not allow starvation deaths when the state had a huge supply of grain in storage. 

Increasingly these norms are getting fractured along ideological or religious lines, but they are also shaping who gets to govern (for example, the rise of Trump in the USA, Modi in India and Dueterte in the Philippines), leading to even greater challenges for collective action by marginalised groups.

4.    Closing of civic spaces by governments afraid of citizen voice 

Monitoring and surveillance of citizens and organizations including on the Internet and the use of nationalistic arguments to censor and silence people is a real problem as accountability work is basically about social actors challenging governments.  

If civic groups cannot carry out their work unhindered then the outlook for citizen-led accountability is poor. 

The latest CIVICUS Monitor points out that almost ten percent of the world’s population lives in countries with closed civic space and over a third live in countries with repressed civic space. And in several countries, such repression is growing.

Simultaneously, governments are using increasingly sophisticated technology and social media to ‘manufacture consent, sabotage dissent’ and shape public attitude to democratic dissent

The challenge for the development community is what to do in the face of this growing tide of civic manipulation and repression. 

5.    The politics of (competing sources of) evidence

Information is a core part of any accountability efforts. And evidence-based policy-making has gained credibility within a range of development actors. 

Yet, with the prevalence of multiple sources of information and related credibility issues with many sources, accountability efforts can stall. 

Powerful actors can employ what an analyst calls the “4D strategy - deny, distort, distract and dismay”. The battle for accountability occurs increasingly in the media, including social and alternative media. We are part of this, in what we focus on in research and in practice.  

How in this post-truth world can we build a broad and credible evidence strategy that can be the basis of accountability claims?

6.    Parallel worlds of accountability?

Put crudely, there seem to be two sets of accountability worlds. 

On the one hand there are the BRICS and the MICS - countries with growing economies and rising influence in the world such as China, India, and Brazil, followed closely by Mexico, Indonesia and Turkey. These are useful laboratories for testing new models for how accountability might be institutionalised.  

On the other hand about half of the world’s poorest population will be living in states affected by fragility and conflict. In them, armed groups, religious factions, private actors co-exist with state institutions.  

The big challenge here, which we are attempting to address in the Action for Accountability and Empowerment (A4EA) led by IDS is to understand how action for accountability might work in these new settings, where informal institutions, multiple sources of authority and low state capacities prevail. 

How can processes of accountability building emerge and be sustained?

7.    How do we know whether accountability work has any impact (on poverty, inequality and sustainability)?

Finally, accountability work faces the challenge of impact: how will we assess whether any of our efforts have made a difference? 

And here we are not talking about RCT-type evaluations of impact that look at whether health or education outcomes improved. 

Rather in accountability work it is important to go beyond the improvements in services to track and value other important outcomes such as outcomes of empowerment, (increases in awareness, collective capacity to claim rights), as well as any changes in levels of trust, legitimacy and political commitment on the part of relevant institutions.  

Although accountability might be the key concept of the 21st century as Tom Carothers suggested in his influential keynote address to the Global Partners Forum of the GPSA last year, building accountability from below is going to be a slow and long term process in which addressing the challenges outlined above will be key to progress. 

Image credit: Lord Jim (Flickr)

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