Working Paper

Power, Mutual Accountability and Responsibility in the Practice of International Aid: A Relational Approach

Published on 20 May 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.


Rosalind Eyben

Emeritus Fellow

Publication details

published by
Eyben, R.
IDS Working Paper, issue 305
978 1 85864 697 9


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