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Frank Talk About Social Accountability

Sabina Panth's picture

An important book has just been released by the World Bank: Demanding Good Governance: Lessons from Social Accountability Initiatives in Africa (edited by Mary McNeil and Carmen Malena). The book is important because the content is provided by practitioners in the field, who share real life examples from their firsthand knowledge and experiences.  This is likely to further South to South learning, and, therefore, a departure from the standard literature in the field.  

The book describes and analyzes the work of seven countries in Sub-Saharan Africa: Benin, Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. The case studies were identified from multi-country social accountability stocktaking exercises commissioned by the World Bank Institute in view of representing a variety of approaches, strategies and objectives within a range of political, social, cultural and institutional context.  The analysis and descriptions of these seven initiatives are intended to serve as a resource for government and civil society representatives who are interested in exploring similar possibilities for their countries and for research communities and donors to promote and support enhanced social accountability and demand for good governance in Africa.  The following are some questions that the book attempts to answer:

• What is social accountability and why is it relevant to Africa?
• What  kind of social accountability initiatives are being pursued in Sub  Saharan Africa?
• What are these accountability initiatives achieving?
• What obstacles do these initiatives face?
• What factors are critical to the initiatives’ success?
• What can be done to promote social accountability in Africa?

Some of the tools and strategies discussed in the book are: civic participation in budgetary processes at the local level (Senegal and Tanzania); monitoring and tracking of resources from the central government to the district councils through participatory expenditure tracking and independent budget analysis (Ghana); civil society effort in budget analysis and demystification, public education, participatory monitoring and media advocacy (Malawi); civil society efforts to make national budget more responsive to the needs of women and children (Zimbabwe); efforts to enhance government revenue transparency through government-led and civil society-led  campaigns in extractive industries (Nigeria); network of more than 150 civil society organizations to monitor government implementation of Poverty Reduction Strategy and Millennium Development Goals (Benin).

The concluding chapter summarizes the key findings and lessons of the seven case studies and describes key challenges, factors of success and lessons learned toward creating an enabling environment for successful social accountability initiatives. Some highlights are as follows: 

  • Social accountability is strongly influenced by a range of underling political, legal, social, cultural and economic factors. 
  • The extent to which the external environment is enabling or disabling for social accountability varies greatly from country to country
  • Environmental factors also change over time.  This change can be gradual (evolving social norms) or sudden due to administration change.
  • Concerted citizen action can change the external environment (mobilizing, advocating legal or policy reform)
  • Actions aimed at creating enabling environment (legal reform, enhancing access to information or guaranteeing press freedom) can be critical to achieving effective social accountability outcomes.
  • It is possible to successfully undertake social accountability initiative even in the very difficult country context as in the Zimbabwe case.
  • Social accountability requires capacity to analyze, demystify and disseminate relevant information, to build public support, and to interact and negotiate with government and a sustained effort at that, which the civil society lacks.
  • Decentralization and devolution of power to local level authorities are important given that they represent the front line of citizen-state relations. However local government authorities usually lack the resources, autonomy, capacity, skills, and incentives that affect effective participation and engagement with citizens.
  • Citizens and communities rarely mobilize and organize spontaneously on their own without support or assistance from intermediary organizations.
  • Citizens’ rights can be protected by law but not respected in practice.  Social Accountability initiative should create opportunities and mechanisms for genuine citizen participation. 
  • Problems in accessing public data (financial transfers and expenditures) have been significant impediments to budget monitoring and expenditure tracking.


Each case study in the book describes strategies, techniques and methodologies used in initiating social accountability work that are followed by a frank discussion of the challenges and problems faced at different levels and stages of implementation.  However, the results and impacts of the initiatives are described in broader terms.  Given that these case studies are pioneer work in social accountability and newer and improved techniques such as evidence based data collection and third party monitoring of public works are being introduced, the results are likely to be more concrete in the near future. 

Photo Credit:  World Bank Publishing


Submitted by Narayan Pant on
I wonder of you have discovered any evidence of a relationship between good governance at a micro-social level and productivity increases at a macro-economic level? The dominant paradigm today hypothesizes that we can separate the two. I doubt that works, but have no evidence one way or the other.

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