Which way does the compass point on accountability and transparency?

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COMPASS 2015 Research Session in the Philippines

The debate is raging (in some circles) about what should come after the MDGs in 2015 but amongst all this discussion the voices of those who really matter – those experiencing poverty or marginalisation – are not always present. To try and address this CAFOD has just finished an in-depth research project exploring people’s experiences of poverty and exclusion over the past 15 years, as part of the wider Participate initiative with the same aim. The COMPASS 2015 research project explored people’s experience of poverty and exclusion over the last 15 years involving 1,420 participants in Zimbabwe, Uganda, the Philippines and Bolivia. A central issue that emerged was how development projects and services are delivered and who benefits. Concerns about how governments and other actors involved, such as INGOs, were accountable and the transparency of the process were high on people’s agendas.

Poor governance structures which lead to political patronage, corruption or the disproportionate favouring of those in more privileged positions affect the poorest and marginalised the most. Those are the people who rely most on services or development programmes and  cannot afford to find alternatives

But how to reverse these trends and ensure greater accountability from those who are delivering services? Amongst many possible measures are feedback mechanisms, the participation of communities, freedom of information and protection for those who speak out are important steps to build a better system.

NGOs who are delivering project and services have a huge responsibility to ensure they are accountable for what they do. A number of important initiatives such as the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership are addressing this. CAFOD has also developed its own accountability framework that we are sharing with our partners, which covers concrete measures such as grievance policies and programme quality.

NGOs are only one part of the picture though. Governments play a huge role in many people’s lives so ensuring that they are transparent and accountable for the services they deliver is hugely important. Governments can put in measures to try and ensure they themselves are accountable but this will be most effective when combined with engagement from communities to ask questions and challenge corruption or poor delivery. Participants in the research recognised their own participation as crucial in improving services.

“The people whom I think are responsible for bringing about change are the very people who live in this community because we are the ones who know our own problems, so we should bring our heads together and share ideas that will bring change to our community.” Agnes, 43, F, Bugondo, Uganda

Supporting the engagement of communities in government processes is something CAFOD partners have done in a wide range of settings. In Sri Lanka, for example, our partners have supported citizens’ forums to engage with the local government. These forums have been able to put forward suggestions which have resulted in concrete actions from the local government such as the building of clinics or public playgrounds.

A key to communities being able to engage in this way is access to the relevant information on budgets and plans. CAFOD’s partners, who are supporting communities to do this, often find that this is the stumbling block. Information may be difficult to obtain and at times planning processes are inconsistent or overlapping. However farmers in Mozambique found that just having access to government plans was empowering as it gave them a concrete basis for discussion with local authorities.

Engagement is also a political process and the research clearly showed how elections and politics can affect the delivery of services. Politics is played out in the allocation of benefits or inclusion in programmes. Without a truly transparent system those in power can act with impunity and reward support. Being aware of what is planned and who is supposed to benefit can help people challenge inequitable distribution of resources and services.

Given the hugely political nature of calling for accountability, another crucial element needed to help people push for accountability is protection. Participants in the research reported fears that they would be attacked for challenging corruption and this sense of threat is something CAFOD knows is very real for our civil society partners. In Colombia someone defending human rights was attacked, on average, every day in the first half of 2013 and every 4 days someone was killed. Civil society organisations and the Church can offer some protection by highlighting cases of abuse but they can also be subject to threats or harassment themselves. National government and the international community have an important role to play in ensuring that those who are speaking out to hold governments accountable have the political space to do so. CAFOD is contributing to upcoming research which will learn from recent examples to suggest how this can be done.

Work on governance is sometimes seen as an ssue without the direct benefits that interventions such as building wells or handing out mosquito bed nets can have. However the COMPASS research strongly brings out the direct impact that transparency and accountability have on people’s lives. These issues can affect who benefits from other efforts to address poverty and so need to be a strong part of all agencies’ responses. As the international community looks towards the future beyond 2015 these are not issues that can be left out. Their inclusion may be difficult – these touch on politically sensitive issues where it may be hard to find the common ground – but if the post 2015 framework is to reflect the concerns of those facing the largest challenges of poverty they need to be in the mix.

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