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Enthusiasm, Confusion and a Bit of Clarity: Where are We Going with Social Accountability?

Joe Wales's picture

The debate around social accountability is not short of energy, enthusiasm or ideas. It has gone through many phases over the last 20 years and has become increasingly sophisticated as its evidence base has grown, a trend reflected in discussions at the recent ODI-World Bank conference on “New directions in governance”. Despite this progress is being held back by a lack of clarity on some issues and a narrow focus on the demand side. This blog argues that we need to broaden our thinking beyond a focus on civil society and citizens alone to engage much more strongly and strategically with the state and its divisions, aims and capacity.

One basic issue that raises tensions is whether or not social accountability works – a question that can be endlessly misinterpreted. Often when we talk about social accountability not working what we are actually saying is that external projects to support social accountability have not delivered what we expected them to deliver. Without this caveat, debate on what works can raise hackles amongst activists and SA proponents as it is taken as an attack on the idea of social accountability itself. In fact there is broad agreement that social accountability is a good thing in principle and can produce results. However the need to assert this point of principle is should not hold back attempts to identify where evidence is still needed – particularly on whether external agents can contribute to SA, how they can do so and under what circumstances.

We also need to be clearer on what we expect social accountability to work for. Some see it as a problem solving mechanism – a way to make sure grievances are answered, to reduce corruption and to improve the delivery of public goods and services (what the forthcoming World Bank framework calls instrumental impacts). Others  are much more ambitious – seeing social accountability  as a way to create movements that can transform existing power structures and make them more open and democratic (institutional impacts in the WB schema). Current policy thinking often takes the view that these aims are not mutually exclusive and may, in fact, be mutually reinforcing. While this idea is appealing, it can blur the lines between these two aims and obscures the trade-offs that might lie between them. This brings me to what I call naïve social accountability, in that a strong strain of optimism can encourage confusion between one aim and the other. The recent crackdown on corruption in China provides an interesting example: Advocates for social accountability point to citizens’ protesting and publishing allegations of corruption online – and the investigations and convictions that follow – and argue this shows the power of ICTs and social accountability to empower citizens. Here we undoubtedly have a positive instrumental outcome – less corruption is certainly a good thing – but the reasons behind it have less to do with the power of citizens and more to do with the power and motivations of the ruling Communist Party. By selectively cracking down on officials who are out of favour with the hierarchy it can reduce corruption that creates economic inefficiencies and also improves the public image of the Party. This causal mechanism is not a problem if we are mainly interested in reducing corruption and improving immediate living conditions. However, we must recognise that, for the moment at least, this is not the same thing as changing the balance of power between state and citizens.

Another major issue that this example highlights is the way in which we tend to think about information, citizen demands and the state. There is a tendency to focus mainly on citizens – what information do they need, how can they access it, how can ICTs and mobile technology help, what do they need to organise and make noise? Little time or energy has been spent thinking about the other half of the social accountability question – the state that we expect to react. The key element of the Chinese example is not the citizens that gave information but the fact that there were divisions within the state that had the capacity and incentives to respond to the information. For every story of information acted upon there are many where officials simply ignore the noise of campaigners, or select scapegoats and continue to act with impunity.

To make progress we need to look at the state in a more nuanced way and understand more about how it links with society. The “accountability sandwich” approach advocated by Fox and others has clear merits here – a combination of citizens pressing up and the state pressing down as in the China case – but we need to understand better how to engage different actors in different contexts. Forthcoming work from ODI and CARE has found that in states that are strong and hierarchical, social accountability programmes must often work through the state and may be co-opted by it – producing improvements in service delivery but not transformative change. In contrast, for states that are weaker or less coherent, the most important aspects may be the ability of some social accountability tools to bring the supply and demand side together at a local level to improve understanding and solve problems collectively. This has implications for our tendency to assume that social accountability begins with civil society. In fact, in some contexts the state or local government may be best placed and in still others local chiefs or politicians. What this work and others suggest is that to move the social accountability agenda forward we must be realistic in our aims, broaden our thinking on means and be strategic in the alliances we seek. 

Photograph by Simone D. McCourtie via World Bank Photo Collection
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Submitted by Soren Davidsen on

Thanks Joe. We need to push ourselves because the "good governance" agenda is increasingly being questioned. But rather than just blandly accepting Mushtaq Khan, David Booth's etc. criticicm, it is more helpful to look at the social accountability initiatives that have actually worked.

In this context, I would like to refer to Jonathan Fox' recent paper (see “Social Accountability: What does the Evidence Really Say”). Fox makes an important distinction between what he defines as “tactical” and “strategic” social accountability interventions. The first type of interventions, which could also be called “naïve” interventions, are for instance those bounded in their approach (one tool-based) and those that assume that mere access to information (or data) is enough. This is of course problematic as documented by the Mansuri’s and Rao’s meta analysis of transparency initiatives a few years ago.

On the other hand, Fox suggests that strategic approaches aim to deploy multiple tools and articulate society-side efforts with governmental reforms that promote responsiveness. Fox’ distinction is important because, when examining the impact evaluation evidence, one finds that while the evidence is indeed mixed for tactical approaches, it is much more promising for strategic approaches. Strategic approaches involves some kind of engagement with the supply side institutions of good governance.

Submitted by Florencia Guerzovich on

Are we ready for strategic social accountability?

Hi Joe, thanks for posing timely and thought provoking questions. I wanted to flag a set of data that seems relevant to move forward:
In the Global Partnership for Social Accountability, we asked ourselves was: if international development partners created a space for the implementation of strategic social accountability, how would the field respond?
We analyzed how 600+ applications dealt with concrete questions that overlap with your concerns about state engagement and responsiveness.
To sum up our findings, too many CSOs are unable to convey strategic thinking and requisite capabilities in their social accountability project proposals.
You can find the questions we asked, the findings, and some ideas about the way forward here:
Lot's to do to actually put what we have learned about social accountability to work among and beyond usual suspects in the conversation!
Florencia Guerzovich

Submitted by Ellen Pieterse on

I am glad that Florencia has raised the issue of CSOs not always being ready for social accountability. I believe that a number of SA interventions fail because they are badly implemented. I am examining four accountability interventions in the health sector in Sierra Leone for my PhD research (field research completed in May this year) and in three out of the four cases, it is the lack of CSO capacity that has contributed to disappointing results. When the cash and ideas flow that to leads to the implementation of SA projects drips down from international donor to international NGOs, to CSOs, there is often little cash left to conduct sufficient training and carry out sufficient oversight to make sure the CSOs ‘get it’. That problem, coupled with frequent staff turn-over within CSOs and a tendency for CSOs to have a good writer and thinker drafting the tender documents and field reports, but have very meagrely educated and badly paid staff doing the actual work in the field, results in poor outcomes. If academics want to measure the potential of social accountability interventions, they may have to spend time in the field to make sure that ‘what should happen in theory’, actually happens on the ground… only then can the potential of these methodologies be tested properly.

Submitted by Jonathan Fox on

FYI, in the context of Joe's reference to a Chinese example of the convergence of very different state and citizen motivations in anti-corruption efforts - the original 'sandwich strategy' formulation emerged inductively to capture a related dynamic in rural Mexico in the early 80s, then under one-party authoritarian rule. Factional differences within the state created cracks in the system that allowed for some degree of scaled-up freedom of association - for the first time. An alliance between two pro-reform factions within the state made this possible - the dominant group considered citizen oversight (over one food program) to be instrumental, and the weaker state faction promoted freedom of association for its own sake (veterans of Mexico's 68 generation who pursued the 'long march through the institutions'). Both factions were key for creating an opening from above that later proved difficult to close even after the more pro-citizen reformers were purged. See last two chapters in The Politics of Food in Mexico: State Power and Social Mobilization (open source at Google Books)

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