|Transparent notification of fees on the main door of a rural church-run hospital in Western Province, Papua New Guinea.|
From participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil  (pdf) to health clinic scorecards in Uganda  social accountability mechanisms are a familiar feature of the development landscape across most regions of the world…so why not in the South-West Pacific?
One reason service delivery is poor in many Pacific states is that the same challenges that make it difficult to deliver services also make it difficult for officials to go out and account for them - dispersed populations; high transport costs; and a limited number of trained officials to supervise. This lack of oversight by government officials contributes to shoddy or non-existent services.
Can social accountability make up for some of the shortcomings in government accountability? Social accountability is the fostering of direct linkages between citizens and service providers. It can be thought of as working both prior to the delivery of a service (for example, residents meet with local government officials to set budgets so that spending aligns with community needs) as well as after a service has - or has not - been delivered (such as a complaints mechanism for residents to report police who fail to respond to calls for help).
Innovations like these aren’t very popular in the Pacific. A limited number do exist but tend to be small, pursue human rights rather than service delivery ends, and are not well documented (hence the lack of links in this blog post!) - let alone evaluated to discern any developmental impact.
A few examples worth noting include:
- In Solomon Islands, citizens have been trained to develop indicators and track data for community-based monitoring of education delivery on the island of Malaita.
- In Papua New Guinea, the NGO Care is adapting its pioneering work in Malawi and using score cards to monitor the delivery of health services in Eastern Highlands Province.
- In Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres based in Transparency International offices help citizens channel grievances into state accountability systems.
Why aren’t efforts like these more widespread? Perhaps it’s because they haven’t been on the agenda of the major donors in this part of the world. Another argument might be that the underlying social and political conditions aren’t right. Let’s quickly look at these (across an admittedly diverse region) in three areas often held out as important for social accountability:
Before citizens can demand improved performance from the state, at least a sub-set of people must have some understanding of their rights - and the state's role in delivering upon them. In many Pacific countries, notions of state and citizenship are under-developed and general levels of education (and literacy) are very low. Furthermore, the failure of some states to deliver basic services for many years undermines citizens' expectations that they ever will - and thus there being any use in demanding them.
Open and responsive government
Even though the aim of social accountability is to encourage open and responsive governments, accountability measures are unlikely to be introduced unless the government is somewhat amenable (or at least not obstructive) to them in the first place. In this regard, many states in the Pacific, characterized in large part by fluid democratic systems, would seem conducive. Perhaps more cautiously, responsiveness also entails the ability of governments to respond to citizen-led demand. If raised citizen expectations are not also met by change, this may actually increase frustration and diminish citizen-state relations.
Active civil society
An active civil society, including a free media, is critical for implementing social accountability processes. National media can develop ideas of state and citizenship, as well as report on the shortcomings of government. Civil society can publicize citizen’s rights and help people access accountability processes. An independent and civic minded press exists in some countries, though low literacy constrains its impact. Strong domestic NGOs are rare, and their work is often confined to the major cities and towns – though extensive faith-based organizations may provide options.
The above presents a mixed-bag and plenty of reasons to be cautious. But given the ongoing challenges most countries face in relying on the state to deliver and account for development, it seems a complementary alternative is worth trying.
And the flourishing of mobile technology in the region may provide opportunities to connect citizens and the state which haven't previously existed. When education funds are transferred to facilities, parents could be texted the budget to keep school boards on their toes. If a local water supply project is left unfinished, residents could send officials images of unfinished work to spark an inspection.
I’d love to hear of effective social accountability efforts in the Pacific that I’ve missed…and also views on whether the region is more (or less) conducive to them than I suggest.