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Delivering basic services in low-accountability environments

Shanta Devarajan's picture

In the midst of the very serious resumption of violence in Democratic Republic of Congo, an interesting debate has broken out between Paul Collier and Adekeye Adebajo on the question of who should deliver basic services in post-conflict societies. Paul suggests these services be provided by non-state actors, such as NGOs and church groups. Dr. Adebajo counters that this would weaken the state even more. He goes on to observe that these NGOs, unlike the government, are not accountable to the people.

This debate reflects a classic dilemma in choosing institutional arrangements for service delivery. Services fail because of weak accountability in the service delivery chain. Specifically, governments are not sufficiently accountable to their citizens to ensure that poor citizens especially receive the quality and quantity of services they deserve. In this situation, you can either try to strengthen citizens’ ability to hold governments accountable—what Paul calls “building an effective state”—or you can go around government and have other actors, such as NGOs or church groups, deliver these services. While these other groups may not be accountable to the citizenry, they also have intrinsic motivation to deliver these services effectively. But every time we take this route, we are slowing progress towards building an effective state. Sometimes the price may be worth it, especially in post-conflict environments where we need to get social services delivered quickly, but it is always there.

François Bourguignon and I once visited a primary school in the slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh run by BRAC, an NGO. When François introduced himself by saying, “Hi, I’m François and I’m from France,” one of the first-graders asked, “How many BRAC schools are there in France?” This kid’s question captures the ultimate dilemma: How can we transition from a country like Bangladesh (where, because of weak accountability, NGOs deliver large portions of the social services) to France, where the state delivers everything?


Submitted by Nneoma Nwogu on
Dear Shanta: I do not think that Collier's and Adebajo's positions are irreconcilable if we understand that service delivery by NGO's is an effective way of showcasing to citizens the sort of services they should expect from their government. Citizens, due to a lack of knowledge of their basic rights, their relationship to the state and the state's role in society, are unaware of their entitlements as citizens. As such, creating a non state based service delivery route creates an understanding of what citizens deserve as human beings. However, such service delivery ought to be coupled with the education that the NGO is a temporary substitute. In so doing, citizens are then made aware of what they should hold the state accountable for thus contributing to the strenghtening of the state. Holding governments accountable for your rights cannot be effectively taught by theory alone. People need to live those rights to understand it. Thanks. Nneoma V. Nwogu

Submitted by Kwabia Boateng on
I agree with Nneoma's suggestion that the positions of Prof Collier and Dr. Adebajo can be reconciled, especially when one thinks in terms of the short-run (immediate post-conflict era where NGO's have a great scope, as in the Congo) and the long-run (post conflict national institutional re-building era where the state has a better scope as in Liberia). Education serves national, cultural needs, and its long term development in terms of school buildings, curricula, capable teachers, etc. require the massive involvement of the state- the custodian of national values,ceteris paribus. Hence, whilst we could rely on NGO's to fill the gap (as the state is absent in post-conflict situations) and just impart "literacy", we need the state for the long term growth and development of the national human resources. This is not to say that NGOs dont have a role in the long run. They still do in even the UK, France, US or Canada.

Submitted by Anonymous on
While no one has argued against giving NGOs more responsibilities for service delivery, the role of the government in any country is still undeniably indispensable. NGO's cannot provide justice for the victims of wars, they cannot raise taxes, or provide security to everyone, so it is clear that while accountability may be the issue, issues like security, hospital construction, and infrastructure development cannot be left to NGOs to deal with alone. The societal costs will be disastrous. As we can see in Central African Republic, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, or Somalia, where the state cannot protect civilians nor provide basic necessities, NGOs cannot take over either. Therefore, diminishing the importance of the state because they appear ineffective only increases the risk of anarchy, despotism, and cruelty in countries where there are weak or failed states. Thanks, Marc Pandi

Submitted by marja on
I think the best thing is the cooperation of NGOs and state support. At first it is necessary to entrust this task to NGOs, so as not to waste time and deliver the service as quickly as possible. At this moment the most important thing is not to relax and put all efforts to "strengthen citizens’ ability to hold governments accountable" in order to move towards “building an effective state”.

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