There are signs that public services can improve in big cities when the urban poor hold providers directly accountable – what we now call social accountability.
We do not know, however, to what extent the urban poor, through their civil society groups, engage in forms of social accountability nor what strategies they use. We do not know what factors lead the poor to choose accountability as a way to secure access to essential services, rather than clientelism, electing representatives to public office or simply self-provisioning. We need to answer these questions in order to develop programmes that support accountability initiatives and understand the potential social accountability has to improve the basic public services.
We designed a unique comparative study to take a step in this direction. The study compares activism by the urban poor to improve two essential types of services in the cities of Delhi and São Paulo, primary healthcare and social assistance. The unusual comparison between a South Asian and Latin American city, and across two very different types of services, gives us greater capacity to sort through different possible causes of accountability activism by the urban poor and explanations for the different types of strategies people use.
In the two cities, we find, a substantial share of civil society groups attempt to improve health and welfare services by holding providers accountable. They seek to establish greater accountability as one of several types of engagement strategies with the state – that is, accountability is a part of a larger repertoire of activism. There is large variation, however, in the level of activity and type of strategies in the two cities, and across the two services. Surprisingly, accountability activism is most robust in health in São Paulo and welfare (Public Distribution System, PDS) in Delhi; and least in welfare (Family Minimum Income Guarantee) in São Paulo and health in Delhi.
Understanding the sources of this variation is one of the challenges of our paper. We look at whether the type of organisation and sources of funding influence accountability activity, and whether it matters whether civil society groups are local or translocal, or active in several areas of the city. We look at whether the type of service, or how services are provided, shapes activism. And we explore whether institutional factors, such as the right to information legislation in India and participatory governance councils in Brazil, which create different kinds of incentives or opportunities for civil society actors, impact levels of activity and what strategies are adopted.