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What in the World is 'Rude Accountability'?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

I have just read a fascinating paper published by the Institute of Development Studies in the UK and written by Naomi Hossain. It is titled 'Rude Accountability in the Unreformed State: Informal Pressures on Frontline Bureaucrats in Bangladesh' [IDS Working Paper Volume 2009 Number 319]. The paper describes and analyzes what happens when poor peasants in Bangladesh are being poorly served by frontline service providers like doctors and teachers in an environment where the institutional accountability mechanisms do not work. So, what do these poor peasants do? They get angry and they show it. They speak rudely to these doctors and teachers who normally expect deference. They embarrass them. They get local newspapers to name and shame them.They even engage in acts of violence like vandalism. And their reactions often produces results, particularly the media reports. This is what Hossain calls 'rude accountability'.

She concludes thus:

'The tools of accountability, in this account, are status and reputation; instead of Citizen Report Cards or participatory budgets, there is the weapon of embarrassment and the looming threat of the crowd. It is not obvious that these are factors that good governance policymakers would want to take into account....'More importantly, much can be learned about the power of "soft' social sanctions on public officials who fail in their duties. Accountability is a big word if it lacks enforcement. Given that the state seems unable to enforce administrative sanctions against failing officials, shame and embarrassment and the loss of political face may be reasonable stopgap measures.'[pages 28-29]

This is an important paper; for it captures an important reality about governance that is often missed. I have no quarrel with the paper except this: what she calls 'rude accountability' is really public opinion as social control, and there is a long and distinguished tradition of political thought on these matters. It is what John Locke calls the law of opinion and reputation. It is what Jeremy Bentham calls the popular or moral sanction imposed by the Public Opinion Tribunal in the face of misrule. It is what Hannah Arendt calls power as something people make as well as  'the reserve power of revolution'.

Public opinion has many tools - strikes, protests, demonstrations, riots, mass disobedience and so on -  but one of the most powerful is the power to shame and embarrass those guilty of what the relevant community considers wrongdoing, including public officials. And publicity is the supreme  instrument of public opinion. As Bentham says in his Securities against Misrule (page 28) 'It is by publicity that the Public Opinion Tribunal does whatever it does; any further than employment is given to this instrument, the workman cannot do anything.' Which is why on page 20 of Hossain's paper she reports that rural doctors fear being named and shamed by local newspapers.

The point is that transparency plus publicity plus public opinion all work together to provide direct pressure for accountability. This is not 'rude accountability'; it is the real deal. And that is the point of the tradition of political thought that includes the views, opinions and activities of the people in its account of governance. Any account that excludes these things is incomplete. Formal accountability measures are important...if they work. Social accountability mechanisms can help...again if they work. But you always have public opinion as a critical force in governance. Those who care about good governance should be supporting the power of public opinion by setting the conditions that help it: transparency (via regimes of open government) and publicity (via plural and independent media systems). These are not 'stop-gap' measures but at the very heart of how to provide securities against misrule.

Photo Credit: Simone D. McCourtie/World Bank


On June 26 2004 the heads of bank supervisory authorities in the Group of Ten (G10) met and endorsed the publication of Basel II: The International Convergence of Capital Measurement and Capital Standards: a Revised Framework. With it the bank regulators, in the case of loans and securities rated AAA by some human fallible credit rating agencies, authorized the banks to leverage their equity over a range that went from an insane 62.5 to 1 to a mind-boggling 178 to 1. Like all of you would understand this lowered the flag for the greatest race ever in pursuit of AAAs and which, in less than 3 years, led the world over the precipice of badly awarded mortgages to the subprime sector, and as a consequence to the current crisis that is now going to bring misery to hundreds of millions of human beings all over the world. And though the world has become much acquainted with names such as Bernard Madoff it has not even heard of the names of those responsible for this monumental example of naïve and gullible financial regulation. And so it looks like we all could learn from these poor peasants in Bangladesh since it really is high time we subject these financial regulators in Basel to an act of rude accountability… before they dig us even deeper in the hole were in.

Let's all whakapohane! I remember having read about how the Maori people of New Zealand protested when something bothered them. Their method consisted in lining up a group of Maori tribesmen, turning their backs towards the person or persons that are the target of the protest, dropping their trousers and showing them their naked backsides. This rite is named whakapohane. Without delving further into this tradition and in spite of the fact that it seems primitive and is most certainly an ugly spectacle, I think it could be also classified as a civilized and most efficient way to protest. Civilized because it does no damage to anyone or anything (except to those people with a well-developed sense of esthetics) and efficient because it manages to consolidate into one single act and gesture all the meaning that we could possibly assign to a real social sanction. There is no doubt that we are often frustrated at not being able to find a way to protest vehemently about the stupid, naive, and criminal behavior that negatively affects our country—and so the idea of putting together a group of citizens, family men, professionals and white-collar workers with briefcases and ties, heading out to the street to whakapohane shamelessly is appealing. Let me list some worthy causes to be whakapohaned: The International Monetary Fund (IMF)—because of its insistence that we should give our governments even more income through taxes, even though we Venezuelans hand over to them all our oil income, and especially even though it has been demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that our governments are totally inept at putting it to any good use. Those bank regulators who believe that the only mission of a bank is not to fail and who therefore continue to tighten the screws on its financial solvency without caring an iota about its real purpose. Those national authorities who know how much damage the sloshing of short-term capital flows can cause to a small country and still don’t bother to take the 48 hours required simply to copy quite functional legislation from Chile and enact it in Venezuela. Our Venezuela’s national oil company when, instead of investing scarce resources in increasing production capacity, it invests them in projects of utterly low significance such as expanding the capacity of their gasoline stations to sell snacks and in advertising so that Venezuelans buy Venezuelan oil. All those illustrious representatives of the private sector who applauded the privatization of CANTV (telephone company) without realizing that it was all an elaborate trick perpetrated by the government to collect taxes in advance, which we now have to cover through exaggerated service charges. All those die-hard defenders of free trade who simply do not understand that in a globalized world economy each country must, when the chips are down, still find a way to guarantee itself a minimum internal level of employment. Finally, the entire political and economic system that is based on centralized income and decentralized apparatchiks unable to come up with some real solutions to our real problems. Members of this system who have not been able to come up with a real solution to our problems should all be given the Mother of all Whakapohanes. We have heard that one of the people most clearly and widely questioned in our recent history is due to return to Venezuela after statutes of limitations have expired. Just imagine what a marvelous message a small delegation of our “notables” dispatched down to Maiquetía (Caracas’ airport) to receive that person with a mini-whakapohane would send. We should not discard lightly the possibility of introducing an ancestral aboriginal custom from New Zealand into the Venezuelan political scene. WHAKAPOHANERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE! The alternatives are much worse. Published in The Daily Journal, Caracas, July 2, 1998 Extract from Voice and Noise, 2006

Submitted by Samuel on
This just proves that our civilized world isn't as civilized as we want it to be. You'd expect doctors to follow the Hippocrates oath and help people in need because that's their job, that's what they opted for. Instead they make these poor people even more sad and angry then they already were. __________________ Samuel Stanislas, part of the Traduceri autorizate team.

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