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Rethinking Social Accountability in Africa

Uwimana Basaninyenzi's picture

Mwanachi, a Swahili word that means ordinary citizen, is the name of a governance and transparency program that was funded by the UK’s Department for International Development for five years in six African countries: Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Sierra Leonne, Uganda, and Zambia. This program is the focus of a new report entitled Rethinking Social Accountability in Africa by Fletcher Tembo, who served as Director of the Mwanachi program since its launch in 2008. The report acknowledges the important role of several actors in in strengthening citizen demand for good governance, including civil society, media, elected representatives, and traditional leaders. At the same time, it challenges common notions of effective citizen-state relations that focus on a preoccupation with actors and actor categories. Instead, it argues that effective social accountability programs should focus on relationships and contextual realties that are driven by 'interlocution processes.' In other words, processes that address the complex web of incentives and actions through actors that are selected for their game changing abilities.

The report’s emphasis on the challenges faced by ordinary citizens seeking to hold their governments to account sheds light on important concepts surrounding identity, power, and marginalization. A very interesting quote from the report that aides our understanding of power relationships and the complexities that come with them states:

Those who regard themselves as marginalised, often in categories such as women, workers, youth, people with disabilities etc., struggle to shed their marginality to become part of the centre, rather than the “other”. This resistance to be regarded as “the other” is therefore central to understanding marginality because it is part of everyday life. On the other side are actors that consider themselves to be at the centre. They also struggle to include those that they consider the marginalised, or “the other”. This contestation between these arenas of actions tends to be political because it involves negotiations and struggle over decisionmaking processes and distribution of resources.’

Despite the difficulties that marginalized communities face, the report demonstrates how game-changing actors, or ‘interlocutors’ can create effective platforms for dialogue and change. For example, in one of the Mwanachi programs in Zambia, Radio Marantha, a credible local organization, was able to build a coalition of stakeholders invested in improving education for deaf children in the Kabwe district, Zambia. These groups included associations, local schools, community members, and agencies such as the Zambian Agency for Persons with Disabilities whose on air discussions increased the awareness among policymakers, government officers, and the private sector about challenges facing hearing impaired students in Kabwe. As a result, community enrollment of children with hearing impairment increased from 32 to 50. Additionally, district level government officials, who were highly involved in the discussions on the radio program, become more responsive to the educational needs of disabled children.
The report is rich with other lessons that emerge from a plethora of social accountability projects that inspired stories of change through community forums in Ghana, local media in Ethiopia, and promoting dialogue with different actors in Malawi, among many other stories. The three main lessons that emerge from the report are:

  • We need to improve our understanding and analysis of conflicting incentives
  • We should embrace and utilize contextual dynamics; and
  • It’s essential to use a framework that identifies and involves game-changing actors, or ‘interlocutors.
The findings are both refreshing and challenging. They are refreshing because they take us beyond technical processes that do not consider one of the most important transformative elements in social accountability projects: relationships. Because relationships are so complex, the findings are also challenging. But with an understanding of local dynamics and incentives, development practitioners can find and support the right interlocutors that can build these relationships and transform citizen-state relationships in favor of the poor.

Photo Credit: Mwanachi Program
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