Background: Recognition of the value of “social accountability” to improve health systems performance and to address health inequities, has increased over the last decades, with different schools of thought engaging in robust dialogue. This article explores the tensions between health policy and systems research and practice on the one hand, and health equity-focussed activism on the other, as distinct yet interacting processes that have both been impacted by the shock effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. This extended commentary brings multidisciplinary voices seeking to look back at health systems history and fundamental social-institutional systems’ behaviors in order to contextualize these current debates over how best to push social accountability efforts forward.
Analysis: There is a documented history of tension between long and short processes of international health cooperation and intervention. Social accountability approaches, as a more recent strategy to improve health systems performance, intersect with this overarching history of negotiation between differently situated actors both global and local on whether to pursue sustained, slow, often community-driven change or to focus on rapid, measurable, often top-down interventions. Covid-19, as a global public health emergency, resulted in calls for urgent action which have unsurprisingly displaced some of the energy and aspiration for systemic transformation processes. A combination of accountability approaches and mechanisms have their own legitimacy in fostering health systems change, demanding collaboration between those that move both fast and slow, top-down and bottom-up.
Conclusion: We argue that social accountability, much like all efforts to strengthen health systems, is “everybody’s business” and that we must understand better the historical processes that have shaped the field of practice over time to move forward. These differences of perspective, knowledge-base and positioning vis-a-vis interventions or longer-term political commitment should not drive a conflict of legitimacy but instead be named, subsequently enabling the development of a shared code of conduct that applies to the breadth of actors involved in social accountability work. If we are concerned about the state of/status of social accountability within the context of “building back better” we must approach collaboration with a willingness to create dialogue across distinct disciplinary, technical and politically-informed ways of working.