With raw people power on world-wide display, the Global Partnership for Social Accountability Partners’ Forum 2019 gathered last month at the World Bank in Washington DC for a potentially well-timed discussion of ‘The Challenge of Inclusion’.
The GPSA works with 300 partners in 30 countries to close the ‘accountability gap – between what citizens want and what the governments actually do’. But after three days of aid industry social accountability talk, I wondered if we were missing the real story, sitting in our orderly sessions while a social accountability revolution unfolded elsewhere.
As we tucked into our quinoa salad in the blindingly sunlit World Bank atrium, our phones buzzed with news of mass uprisings and colourful unruly expressions of discontent. We sat in plenary, having our own participation digitally managed through live-texting (no shouting please), while thousands of Iranians joined their millennial equivalents in Colombia, Haiti, Lebanon, Iraq, Ecuador, Chile and Hong Kong on the streets, voicing loud demands to be heard and answered to. As we toyed with our community scorecards in the post-lunch snooze session, people in the streets were broadcasting social accountability live onto our personal screens.
At this year’s GPSA Forum I never felt more like I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, that more important conversations about accountability were happening elsewhere.
But are protests really a form of social accountability? Should the GPSA have been talking about mass protest movements as well as polite metrics and insider advocacy? I think so, but it is hard to be sure while events are still unfolding.
There has at least been good international coverage listening to what protestors are saying (which makes a change). Commentary has been sensible both of the great differences between protest contexts and of their common threads. Branko Milanovic gives a great short take on how subway fares and extradition laws triggered bigger protests amid a shared ‘feeling of being forgotten, left aside, not really participating in the social and political life’. This excellent Lawfare podcast analysed the Lebanese and Iraq protests as demands for accountability that cut across the usual ethno-political lines, voicing deep and widespread discontent about political unaccountability for everyday economic conditions. In South America, the politics of inequality are further complicated by the resurgence of the far right.
But back at the Bank, I heard a lingering resistance to viewing such protests as properly political acts of ordinary citizens holding public authorities to account. Part of this, most notable in the World Bank and the IMF and their intellectual hinterlands, comes from bad political sociology that frames protestors suspiciously as ‘non-poor’ vested interests – young, urban and educated, demanding wasteful subsidies that distort the economy and punish the poor.
Recent protests should have killed that notion. Spending cuts have galvanized cross-class nation-wide alliances in so many countries precisely because they are widely-shared concerns among the masses of the ‘non-rich’. On their own, as every GPSA participant knows, the poorest find it hardest to organize and face the greatest risks in protesting, even if their needs are most pressing.
We don’t have to believe that these protests are authentic expressions of the majority to recognize that they are highly dangerous – for the participants. For the last 18 months, I have been following protests triggered by fuel price rises, in which hundreds of people have died.
From a social accountability perspective, that raises a pressing and difficult question – why do citizens feel driven to take actions that attract disproportionate and violent responses from governments? Why have the institutionalized mechanisms failed so thoroughly to enable more peaceful dialogue between states and citizens? When people take such drastic actions, on such vast scales, we must ask: why is this the only way people can voice their concerns so that ruling elites can hear?
Social accountability questions don’t stop there. People may find their voice and innovate with ways of being heard. They may even do so without violence and repression. But to what effect? The horizontal and decentralized nature of recent protest movements presents a puzzle to the aid industry’s project mindset: who is in charge? What are their aims? What are their indicators of success? (Yes, someone actually asked me this at the GPSA).
These are valid questions in their way. Protest movements are typically an example of ‘voice without teeth’, in which people must make a noise in order to have any chance of having an effect; but being heard is no guarantee of policy or political change without a real transfer of power. Duncan Green asks: ‘after protest, what?’, noting the often fleeting nature of protest energies. New analysis from Carnegie answers this question, addressing ‘what happens when the energy evaporates’. The answer will be no surprise to GPSA participants – progressive alliances need to sustain themselves through the painstaking work of movement-building.
Does that mean the GPSA or the wider aid community should fund or otherwise support protest movements? Clearly not. Foreign intervention in domestic politics is problematic enough. The aid industry has had limited success in supporting social movements, which by definition need to be independent of powerful interests. It does mean that the aid community needs to at least stick to a principle of ‘do no harm’. It needs to be able to read these protests better, which means being able to listen to what people are saying, and to reflect on what it means for the policies they propose.
I am not in the business of interpreting protests so as to help the IMF or the World Bank design or push through their adjustment programmes. But I do see basic failures of accountability when such powerful organizations propose or insist on subsidy cuts by borrowing governments in the knowledge that mass popular resistance might kick off, and if it does, that it will be met with the full force of state repression. Social accountability should be about creating channels for communication and spaces where grievances can be aired and addressed. Each new protest is a sign of institutional failure.
Sitting in the transparent belly of the anti-politics machine itself, surrounded by proponents of polite versions of citizen power, I wondered about all this. When my grandchildren ask me what I was doing in that Autumn of Nations in 2019, a half century after the youthquake of 1968, I will have to confess that I never knew the words to Bella Ciao or Baby Shark. Accountability struggles were happening elsewhere while I sat in the World Bank wondering what it would take for the sounds of real demands for real accountability to penetrate its thick glass walls.