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October 17, 2014

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October 17, 2014

From transactional to transformational: thinking about the future of Social Accountability. Twaweza guest post.

October 17, 2014
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Varja mug shotVarja Lipovsek & Ben Taylor of Twaweza, one of my favourite accountability NGOs, read the tea leaves on the future of their fieldBen Taylor profile photo

In the private rooms of the Royal Society in London, under the stern gaze of Isaac Newton, the World Bank, DFID, ODI and a handful of others gathered recently to discuss an evaluation of the Bank’s Governance Partnership Facility (GPF) and the future of social accountability work within the Bank and beyond.

Social accountability, defined by the Bank, consists of the mechanisms that citizens can use to hold the state to account – such as citizen report cards and participatory budgeting – as well as the opportunities and processes within the state to respond to these mechanisms. For instance, when citizens gather information through a report card on the state of their health centre and formulate a set of requests for improvement, where within the health sector do these requests go? How citizens and governments can better work together is a hot topic right now, from the third anniversary of the Open Government Partnership to how governance should feature in the “post 2015” agenda.

The GPF, a joint project with the governments of the UK, Netherlands, Australia and Norway, was established “to help the World Bank deliver on its commitment to scale up engagement in governance and anti-corruption work in developing countries.”

The short answer provided by the evaluation was devastating: no impact. Nada. Zilch. A number of the Bank’s projects have taken up the governance and social accountability language and frameworks, and engaged in political economy analysis… but there was no difference in effectiveness between GPF-supported and non-supported projects. Ouch.

But does no measurable impact mean no change? The evaluation noted changes within some of the Bank’s programmes – but results had not been seen further down the Pakistan accountabilityline. Perhaps we just have to wait a little longer? This is a defensible argument, so long as there is a reasonable expectation that more of the same will, eventually, lead to substantive change. On this, one critical voice termed the work of the GPF “transactional, not transformational,” articulating two main reasons why no impact has been seen, and why we should be cautious about the future:

  • The bank’s incentives to spend money were (and remain) too strong, and overwhelmed the GPF agenda.
  • Leadership structures in the World Bank and DFID were not (and still are not) in place to carry forward the GPF agenda.

The two are related. The core business of the Bank are still its lending operations, and both within the Bank and outside it, there is a sense that it has a pervasive “loan approval culture” that rewards big-ticket projects. Social accountability measures become a secondary consideration. It is this culture that facilitated the transactions within the GPF-informed projects ($22 billion across 125 projects), but precluded any serious changes according to GPF standards. In order to bring about such a significant change, top leadership of the Bank would have to embrace and promote this – in other words, it would have to transform the core business of the Bank.

Moving on to social accountability work more generally, the discussions raised three key challenges.

First, what does success in social accountability look like, and can we measure it? Evidence has been a hot issue in social accountability circles (e.g. here), though it was skirted at the conference. When asked point-blank whether social accountability works, answers ranged from the enthusiastic yes to much greater caution, but with no real discussion of evidence. A relevant question inspired by this debate is around the different levels of success (see here); that is, are social accountability initiatives successful only if they re-align the balance between citizens and state, or can more moderate, perhaps mechanistic, steps also be considered success? And is there necessarily an order to these steps?

Accountability - notMuch was said about integrating social accountability inside ‘sector work’ on health, education, infrastructure etc. After all, accountability is usually about something; often, it’s about basic services. Social accountability ought not to be an add-on, but a way of doing core business. On the other hand, it also makes it difficult to know what to track and measure, and how to attribute – if a water programme with social accountability components improves access to water, how do we know whether the social accountability aspect played any role in that success? Perhaps two sets of interlinked indicators are needed – one to measure social accountability, the other on service delivery outcomes.

Second, how best to take account of context, power and politics?

Successfully implementing social accountability / governance reforms is incredibly context-specific, requiring a deep understanding of politics, culture, relationships and power structures. Often this is done informally and depends on the political savvy of individual staff; when formalized, it takes the form of Political Economy Analysis (PEA). The Bank, DFID and ODI (twice; this second one is particularly insightful) have documented a good deal of PEA work, which forms a useful set of informative case studies.

In such a complex field, it might be useful to have guiding frameworks, to help navigate the intricacies of each particular context. The World Bank has developed a framework for mapping contextual drivers of social accountability effectiveness. For the moment it’s somewhat abstract, but it has practical potential; a particularly interesting question becomes how to track any changes in the drivers.

Third, isn’t social accountability primarily about the relationship between a government and its citizens?

Many of the conversations framed social accountability as part of the relationship between the Bank and a government, somehow forgetting citizens. Conceptually, the “supply-demand” dichotomy was rejected as polarizing, but several voices were heard arguing that those working on the supply-side of social accountability (i.e. the Bank) can’t be effective in the absence of an articulated demand (i.e. civil society).

There is something muddled and contradictory in this. In recent years the Bank has been at the forefront of articulating why governance matters. At the same time, Bank-funded operations and projects exhibit little or no progress in implementing social accountability. Cynics (though not us of course!) might say that the Bank keeps social accountability spotlightits conscience clean by talking the social accountability talk, but has no desire, incentive or serious intention of changing its core business model.

So what can / should the Bank do? In our opinion, three things:

  • Use its convening power to establish social accountability as a critical norm in its lending and operations. Set explicit targets by country for the proportion of projects that will incorporate social accountability perspectives.
  • Promote Right to Information legislation, including concrete details that make any legislation powerful and useful – standards for this have already been developed (see here and here).
  • Insist on open data on budgets, expenditures and services throughout its work, according to recognised standards of quality data – see here and here.

If we are lucky, such steps could reset incentives and create conditions that will turn the merely “transactional,” into something more “transformational”.

 

11 comments

  1. We have the Ebola virus in West Africa; we have people dying while travelling across the oceans in rickety boats with the hope of a better future; we have deepening inequality; we have widespread poverty; we have the threat that climate change may wipe out large numbers of people; we have numerous ongoing wars; we have drones, chemical weapons and bombs killing people. In the face of these world crises, we are asked to think about social accountability by the very countries and organisations that act fail to act accountably. One starts to realise the futility of these well-intentioned talk-shops, theories and approaches.

  2. Social Accountability is – as you say – about changing citizen-state relations. These are complex and not altered over night. Social accountability approaches require working with longer term perspectives and in ways that help to address how people think and interact with government and elites; and whether they feel they actually can change power dynamics and structures. This exceeds what many projects can deliver in their life-span and with the staff capacity they have. We haven’t quite figured out yet how to set realistic social accountability objectives, what to measure and how to read evaluation results in the right way. Does that mean we should drop social accountability? No. There are powerful examples of their success (think about World’ Vision’s Citizen Voice Action work) or Plan’s youth participatory social accountability initiatives at community level. We just need to get better in the way we apply it.

  3. The World Bank has a nerve promoting social accountability when it is currently being widely accused of trying to water down its safeguard policies meant to protect people and the environment. Oxfam thinks the draft new safeguard roll back 30 years of work to strengthen protections for communities and their livelihoods. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3fCd7gwkza0 As you say Duncan, the Bank’s incentives to spend money and drive big-ticket projects remain too strong.

  4. Thanks to Twaweza for the fantastic post (and to Stef for the hat tip!). At World Vision we’ve also found that participation, when driven by government, is ineffective. For example, we ran RCTs on our Score Card approach in Uganda and found that when the score card was developed by government, it had no impact.

    But when we equipped communities to develop and execute the score card, test scores shot up by 9% and teacher and student absenteeism dropped by 10%. We also found that citizens and governments who used the participatory score card were 16% more likely to solve collective action problems. For us, these findings validate our program data that suggests that the *relationship* between citizens and government (not the transaction), is the real crux of transformational social accountability.

    So what can the Bank do for this relationship, if government-driven participation doesn’t work? We think that the Bank’s Global Partnership for Social Accountability offers some clues. The GPSA funds CSO-driven SA projects in countries that have affirmatively “opted in”. These operate independently of the loan portfolio in the country, but (ideally) are coordinated with supply-side initiatives. Moreover, the GPSA only supports “strategic” (or, in the blog authors’ terms, “transformational”) social accountability, as defined in Jon Fox’s recent paper, “What Does the Evidence Really Say?” which is definitely worth a read, if you’re an SA-skeptic. At the end of the month, Jon will join colleagues from WV, ODI, the Bank, MAVC, CARE and DFID to discuss how his research offers us some clues for the way forward.

  5. Stephanie says that “Social accountability approaches require working with longer term perspectives and in ways that help to address how people think and interact with government and elites>” Is an NGO really there to address how people think?

  6. Yes social accountability at its heart is the relationship between state and citizen. As people have stated this important step on the road for citizens into other areas of power relations is a vital one. Whilst the ‘enabling environment’ for this to happen can be encouraged by the Bank this mark should not be overstepped. For social accountability to be successful it must remain social. World Vision (an org I have worked for) approaches this in a structured way through facilitating their CVA approach within and connected to community programs but more importantly community priorities. This allows people to see real and tangible change to their lives as well as others within community providing a great source of hope and confidence. These drivers lead a myriad of other positive outcomes in individual and community life and must be owed by the social not by an organization or institution. The Bank should also encourage greater collaboration between social accountability initiatives and the continuing journey of challenging power relationships. This transition is often clunky in my experience but also a great opportunity as there is great potential complementarity of approaches out there.

  7. Curious to get the authors’ perspectives on how accountability supply and demand initiatives are working in Twaweza’s home location in Tanzania? DFID and the World Bank are supporting Open Government and Open data initiatives within government, in tandem to Twaweza’s citizen agency / accountability work; is it proving to be synergistic in this particular E. African context?

    1. Thanks Ian for your comment and question. Our experience is that demand-side efforts are strengthened when they have access to a better supply of data, and that the benefits of supply-side work are realised when there is an active community of demand-side actors around and ready to use newly available data. The DFID / World Bank Open Data Initiative in Tanzania (in which Twaweza is also a partner) is still in its early stages. It is focused directly and explicitly on open data, rather than on open data as part of a project on improving public services. It is therefore arguably less vulnerable to the risks we mentioned above – such as the “loan approval culture” and lower priority given to social accountability concerns. There has been significant progress in Tanzania in Open Gov/Open Data, at least partly due to the synergistic working of government and civil society: e.g., several important datasets in water accessibility and education test results have recently been made available. However, as Tanzania’s second Open Government Partnership action plan highlights, much more is still to be done: among the core commitments in OGP are to establish an Open Data system by 2016, as well as to enact a Freedom of Information Act by December 2104. So hardly time to rest on our laurels; more like striking the iron while it’s hot.

    2. Hi Ian, and thanks for your question.

      Our experience is that demand-side efforts are strengthened when they have access to a better supply of data, and that the benefits of supply-side work are realised when there is an active community of demand-side actors around and ready to use newly available data. The DFID / World Bank Open Data Initiative in Tanzania (in which Twaweza is also a partner) is still in its early stages. It is focused directly and explicitly on open data, rather than on open data as part of a project on improving public services. It is therefore arguably less vulnerable to the risks we mentioned above – such as the “loan approval culture” and lower priority given to social accountability concerns. There has been significant progress in Tanzania in Open Gov/Open Data, at least partly due to the synergistic working of government and civil society: e.g., several important datasets in water accessibility and education test results have recently been made available. However, as Tanzania’s second Open Government Partnership action plan highlights, much more is still to be done: among the core commitments in OGP are to establish an Open Data system by 2016, as well as to enact a Freedom of Information Act by December 2104. So hardly time to rest on our laurels; more like striking the iron while it’s hot.

  8. Our experience is that demand-side efforts are strengthened when they have access to a better supply of data, and that the benefits of supply-side work are realised when there is an active community of demand-side actors around and ready to use newly available data. The DFID / World Bank Open Data Initiative in Tanzania (in which Twaweza is also a partner) is still in its early stages. It is focused directly and explicitly on open data, rather than on open data as part of a project on improving public services. It is therefore arguably less vulnerable to the risks we mentioned above – such as the “loan approval culture” and lower priority given to social accountability concerns. There has been significant progress in Tanzania in Open Gov/Open Data, at least partly due to the synergistic working of government and civil society: e.g., several important datasets in water accessibility and education test results have recently been made available. However, as Tanzania’s second Open Government Partnership action plan highlights, much more is still to be done: among the core commitments in OGP are to establish an Open Data system by 2016, as well as to enact a Freedom of Information Act by December 2104. So hardly time to rest on our laurels; more like striking the iron while it’s hot.

  9. Thanks Twaweza, great post.

    On measuring SA – in the Ethiopia Social Accountability Program (http://esap2.org.et) we focus on monitoring behavior change of citizens and service providers, and actual service improvements. Attribution of SA to service improvements can really only be done through (expensive!) control studies, which the Bank has set up in this case, next to our own M&E system with baseline and what have you. However, results of control studies will be too late to make adjustments to a program like ESAP, so in the meantime we monitor through methodologies like Most Significant Change stories and participatory video, and direct field observation.

    On context, power and politics – there is a lot of regional diversity in Ethiopia, with extremes in terms of traditional leadership versus local government power, levels of civil society organisation, and accessibility of local government for citizens, to mention a few. So ability to work politically locally is key – and we have just started to explore this in more depth. (see http://beads-passionforfacilitation.ning.com/profiles/blogs/power-a-reminder-from-dublin) This has implication for nation wide transformation strategies.

    On SA as citizens and government relationship – indeed, the capacity for constructive dialogue between the two parties is in my view the best contribution the program can make in Ethiopia in the long run (although it must create real service improvements for vulnerable groups). In this case there are two sister programs operating: ESAP on the demand side, and Financial Transparency and Accountability (FTA) on the supply side – so that would be good practice? At least it is contributing to the enabling environment for SA.

    One tip on incentives – I was reading this paper from the Africa Power and Politics Program last week http://www.institutions-africa.org/filestream/20121024-appp-synthesis-report-development-as-a-collective-action-problem, and it still has me thinking about outdated demand-supply thinking, and the black box of government incentives. Maybe there is more transformation needed than what is suggested? A quote from the executive summary: “…governance challenges in Africa are not fundamentally about one set of people getting another set of people to behave better. They are fundamentally about both sets of people finding ways to act collectively in their own best interests.”

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