Do we need to rethink Social Accountability? Thoughts from Myanmar

The main reason for my recent visit to Myanmar (apart from general nosiness) was to take part in a discussion on the

Curse or cure?
Curse or cure?

role of social accountability (SA) in the rapidly opening, shifting politics of a country in transition from military rule. It got pretty interesting.

The World Bank defines SA as ‘the extent and capability of citizens to hold the state accountable and make it responsive to their needs’. What became clear over the course of the conversation was that in many countries and many people’s minds SA has been reduced to a set of activities/ tools (citizens’ scorecards, public hearings). According to Oxfam’s Jane Lonsdale ‘in Myanmar it is being used in its broadest sense as an entry point to begin working on getting people to talk to each other. In Myanmar even ‘citizens’ and ‘state’ cannot be used, as both are contested, so Oxfam uses ‘people and power holders’ or ‘communities and local administrations’ to take account of the multiple social contracts’. We need to try and think through what actually builds social accountability in any given context, not just assume we can chuck particular activities at everything and hope that they will do some good.

Whose accountability?

One way to escape from the cul de sac is to start in a different place, with the social contract – the bonds of duty and responsibility that bind together different actors (citizens, state, private sector etc). SA is best seen as a set of processes that build the density of the social contract.

For a start, we need to get beyond the typical social accountability binary, in which citizens interact with states, and CSOs are a perfect proxy for citizens. In the conflict areas of Myanmar, there are a series of ‘social contract lines’. Here’s what I came up with for Kachin:


Each of the five actors is in fact a cluster (eg ‘Union Government’ includes national, state and local government), so you could subdivide them endlessly or add in other players (eg private sector, academics, media, faith groups). But be warned, the number of social contract lines proliferates rapidly (for wonks, n(n-1)/2, where n is number of actors).  Keeping it simple/simplistic and looking at the 10 lines, it looks like five (marked in red) are already being dealt with through domestic politics, sometimes with the help of the international community:

1↔4: elections, democracy strengthening etc

2↔4: traditional social accountability

3↔4, 3↔5 and 4↔5: peace process

Two (marked in green) are very unlikely to happen given the current levels of fear and distrust: citizens or CSOs engaging with the military.

That leaves 3 (marked in blue) that have largely slipped below the radar:

1↔2: internal accountability of CSOs (except through partner selection)

1↔3: accountability of ethnic administrations

2↔3: CSOs acting as independent checks and balances of ethnic administrations

So one place to start is to think through whether any of these neglected lines ought to enter our plans, and what kinds of approach could be relevant. These approaches may well not involve traditional SA ‘tools’.

What’s different about doing social accountability work in fragile contexts?

The conversations highlighted some important differences between promoting SA in fragile and non-fragile Number one is risk. It’s all very well talking about trying things out, innovating and ‘learning by failing’, but in fragile contexts, people may get shot if you get things wrong (say if your project stokes up ill feeling). ‘Do No Harm’ becomes an important over-riding consideration.

Local (rather than national) engagement may make more sense in fragile contexts. When we presented a range of Oxfam experience from other countries, it was striking that the example that really resonated with Myanmar CSOs came from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where we support ‘Community Protection Committees’, made up of six men and six women elected by their communities to identify the sources of insecurity and stress and tackle them – for example negotiating a reduction in the number of military checkpoints that demand endless bribes for passage.

There’s also a potential trade-off between building the social contract and promoting transparency. In places like Myanmar, strengthening the social contract is often best done through informal mechanisms – building relationships, having dinner together etc. That’s when people can get to know each other, but also negotiate and make concessions without losing face.

Which bits are accountable?
Which bits are accountable?

Even in a conflict-free bit of Myanmar, that affects how we promote SA. After monitoring local authority budgets and then organizing  public hearings that allowed the population to raise issues with state officials, CSO partners ended up doing two reports – a public one, and then a private one for local political bosses, where ‘tendering rules were not properly applied’ became specific allegations of corruption. It worked – officials were grateful for the tactful approach and took action, removing 5 officials. But it was hardly transparent.

So is there a danger of ‘premature transparency’? Should we concentrate first on widening the circles of inclusion and trust in relationships, then formalizing those interactions, and only then pursue some degree of public transparency? Or is that just a smokescreen for covering up wrong doing?

In his recent paper, World Bank economist Shanta Devarajan argued that outsiders should focus on promoting an ‘enabling environment’ for SA, and suggested that transparency and access to information were the best focus. Myanmar suggests that info and transparency may not be the best point of entry in building an enabling environment for accountability – other (more political/social, less geeky) areas make more sense.

In particular, the word that recurred throughput my time in Myanmar was ‘trust’ – seeing our SA work as an exercise in broader trust-building, bringing people together to build relationships and ‘bridging capital’ between groups may well be our biggest contribution, rather than rushing to wheel out the toolkits so beloved of SA adherents in many countries.

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5 Responses to “Do we need to rethink Social Accountability? Thoughts from Myanmar”
  1. Javeria Afzal

    Thank you for this. Very relevant and excellent depiction of different social contracts. I guess it is also relevant to contexts where there are critical governance issues and creation of extra layers of formal state institutes and informal state back institutes.

  2. Sue Cant

    Really helpful analysis – World Vision are also seeing the importance of the trust building side of our social accountability work where communities have never felt able to speak the truth before..

  3. Ashleena Deike

    As a novice to social accountability, I’ve often struggled with the jargon around it. Thanks, Duncan, for stripping some of that back in how you talk about it. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I also feel you are trying to encourage a greater focus on the issues at hand in any given context over academic discussions on any particular methodology or approach to the field. So, more focus on part 2 of the definition quoted at the top – citizens’ needs- than on part 1 – state accountability, a term so broad that it could mean everything and nothing. I’d definitely agree that approaching problems with a fresh set of eyes each time, before then cross-checking initial thoughts against past experience and tools available, should lead to more appropriate and people centred solutions anyway.

  4. Pieternella Pieterse

    Really interesting post, it again highlights that using SA in fragile or conflict affected states is a whole different ballgame from using it in India, Malawi or Uganda, where SA has been tried many times over (with both successful and less successful outcomes I believe). I have just finished my PhD on SA interventions in the health sector in Sierra Leone. It too demonstrated that traditional SA methods were much less effective than innovative SA-style approaches that awarded prizes for ‘most improved clinics’. One such approach enticed health workers into providing better services without being antagonistic, while it demonstrated to the official (but neglectful) oversight entities that it IS possible to achieve better health services.

    Those who advocate for the use of SA write things like ‘the intervention needs to be ‘context specific” (Jonathan Fox, Fletcher Tembo). They need to be able to point to more examples, such as the Myanmar one above, to explain that they really mean this! Context specific is more than just changing the name of the country on your funding proposal – the Myanmar example is a great illustration of how prior research into ‘the environment where you might want to apply SA’ is invaluable.

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