Last week and this, the Institute for Democracy in Africa (IDASA) piloted the new World Bank Institute's (WBI) new Core Learning Program "Introduction to Social Accountability" near Johannesburg, South Africa. CommGAP was invited to present a module on "Communication and Strategies for Constructive Engagement" - introducing our core concepts and messages on mobilizing public opinion to create genuine demand for social accountability. Here's a comment from the evaluations of our module: "The mobilization of public opinion is vital for social accountability. I have to admit that I was not aware of the importance of public opinion for social accountability before this course!"
Our message on the centrality of public opinion for good governance hit home among the 20 or so participants from civil society organizations from all over Africa and East Asia. It was most gratifying when participants stood up in discussions on the days following our module, over and over emphasizing that yes, political will is crucial to realizing social accountability and yes, political will is built upon the will of the public.
The WBI course is focused on the public financial management cycle, starting with participatory budgeting and closing with performance monitoring. The modules are designed to give an introduction into central social accountability mechanisms that are available to civil society. With our module on the democratic public sphere, the role of public opinion, and how to mobilize the public argues that all social accountability mechanisms build on public demand for accountability. We argued that there will be no participatory budgeting if the government doesn't provide information on the budget - and public opinion can make them. Of course, as facilitator Carmen Malena from Civicus pointed out, outcomes of instruments such as participatory budgeting can also help building political will. But eventually, we believe, effective accountability efforts are always based on strong public will, on mobilized public opinion.
The CSO experts in the room confirmed this principle with their own experiences. Many battle with authorities to get the information they need to even start engaging in further social accountability initiatives. They agreed that it is important for civil society to learn more about the power of public opinion - even though that may be risky in some countries. As one participant from Egypt wrote in reply to the question what it would take to deliver the module on communication and social accountability in his country: "A lot of guts."
Photo: Group work at the WBI Core Course "Introduction to Social Accountability" near Johannesburg, South Africa