Unpacking Donor Action in Enabling Social and Political Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA)

How is social and political action for empowerment and accountability enabled and supported by donors working in specific fragile, conflict- and violence-affected settings?

‘2013 World Bank / IMF Spring meeting’. Credit: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank

Many donor organisations aim in some way to empower people living in contexts of fragility, conflict and violence, and generate greater accountability in governance relationships. They seek to both increase people’s ability to hold various authorities to account, and support decision-makers to behave in more accountable ways. But our inception research into donor impacts upon empowerment and accountability suggests that such efforts are highly complex. Development practitioners and scholars are only now beginning to understand how these efforts to increase accountability play out at different levels and in different segments of society after several generations of governance-oriented and more politically-informed development programming.

In the first phase of A4EA work, researchers found promising evidence of substantial institutional commitments to promoting empowerment and accountability from both DFID and the World Bank. Yet there is little systematic evidence and learning about how external actors reach those goals in practice, or on how donors explicitly consider and support ongoing and new forms of social and political action.

Practitioners in these organisations are keen to learn more about what works, through what pathways, and with what trade-offs and complexities. These complexities also arose in other strands of research  in A4EA’s first phase of work. A4EA work on the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative [EITI] and the Bring Back Our Girls movement highlighted how international support can legitimate local accountability claims, but also risks exacerbating growing fears of international interference in domestic politics.

Scholarship on the politics of development cooperation tends to look at high-level institutional relations and incentives. At the same time a wealth of narrow case studies and individual project assessments of donor-funded action exist but are rarely synthesised. This workstream on donor action forms part of the A4AE programme and aims to fill in a ‘missing middle’ by looking at how comparable donor programmes and local social and political actors interact in specific conflict-affected places and moments. Taking a place-based approach, researchers have identified areas in Mozambique, Pakistan and Nigeria where they can study DFID-funded programmes with empowerment and accountability ambitions taking place simultaneously with actions of other donors – for example the World Bank or UN agencies.

Using approaches informed by institutional ethnography and analysing pairs of local-level initiatives, A4EA’s research into donor action aims to understand the designs and practices of, and interactions between, these external actors. Researchers will work with project designers and implementers to unearth underpinning social and political analysis and its influence on programme design and implementation, to identify and interview relevant social and political actors in these particular accountability ecosystems, and to observe how particular activities play out and interact.

This approach allows for two dimensions of comparisons; among DFID initiatives across the three focus settings, and between DFID and other donors operating in the same contexts (geographical and thematic). Alongside this, the project will chart how interactions between sets of donor actions combine in terms of their ‘net accountability effect’ to produce valuable, practical knowledge for future generations of development programmes.

Project details

start date
1 April 2019
end date
31 December 2020


About this project