IDS working papers;305

Power, mutual accountability and responsibility in the practice of international aid : a relational approach

Published on 1 January 2008

Drawing on both theory and experience, this paper takes a fresh look at current
efforts to strengthen mutual accountability in international aid relations. What
additional possibilities become available when we conceptualise aid as a field of
interdependent and dynamic relations that are played out in the absence of
pre-established consensus or shared vision concerning desired changes?
The tendency is to understand mutual accountability as holding each other to
account for performance against pre-established objectives. It reflects a
perception of aid as a contract and exemplifies the dominant ‘philosophical
plumbing’ of donor organisations, one that views the world as a collection of
entities. From this substantialist perspective, mutual accountability is about
strengthening mechanisms for regulating behaviour between autonomous parties.
But such efforts are constrained by the global political economic structures that
sustain the very inequities in aid relations that make mutual accountability so
difficult. Can a complementary perspective help?
Relationalism understands entities as mutable, shaped by their position in relation
to others. Relational notions, married to ideas of process and complexity
illuminate the messy and contradictory quality of aid relations that substantialism
finds difficult to cope with. Yet, arguably much of what proves with hindsight to be
effective aid may well be an outcome of relational approaches, although such
approaches are rarely valued or reported.
Associated with these perspectives are different concepts of power. Whereas
mutual accountability requires identifying specific power holders, diffuse or
relational power links to ideas of mutual responsibility and the effect we have
upon each other and the wider system. In that respect the paper concludes with
some practical steps that aid agencies could immediately start to take to
encourage mutual responsibility. In so doing they might also make more effective
the mutual accountability mechanisms that until now have been the sole focus of attention.

Keywords: substantialism, power, complexity, aid, accountability, results.

Publication details

published by
Eyben, Rosalind


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