This paper provides an overview of the political uses and applications of the term accountability in contemporary discourses and practices of development. The first part reflects on the historical origins of competing narratives of accountability and what it means for actors, and the processes in which they are embedded, to be accountable.
The second section looks at tools, strategies and processes of accountability in formal and informal arenas, assessing the role of law, protest and a variety of managerial approaches in the creation of mechanisms of accountability. The third section looks at how the narratives of accountability, manifested in these diverse practices of accountability, apply to key development actors, traditionally the nation-state, but increasingly also public authority at supra and sub-state levels and the private and non-governmental sectors.
The argument developed here is, firstly, that the right to demand and the capacity and willingness to respond to calls for accountability assumes relations of power. Indeed the very function of accountability is to ensure that those that wield power on behalf of others are answerable for their conduct. Secondly, these power relations are in a state of flux, reflecting the contested basis of relations between the state, civil society and market actors. These relations both create and restrict the possibilities of new forms of accountability by generating material change and shifts in the organisation of political authority.
Beyond the material and political, at a discursive level we find that patterns of power are reinforced by prevailing notions of accountability and the entitlements it presumes. These narratives, which are a product of a particular set of historical and material circumstances, validate some forms of power and de-legitimise others. The interaction between political action, material change and discursive practices is what helps us to understand the different expressions of accountability politics in diverse settings, issue-arenas and as they are applied to a range of actors in development. These interactions also provide the basis for understanding the place of accountability in broader constructions of citizenship and discourses around rights, who gets to define these and the implications of this for the poor.