If information can’t speak for itself…So what breadth is social accountability?

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Pop quiz. Which of these do you agree with?

  1. Information can empower the poor and enable citizen engagement in civic processes.
  2. Community oversight can address ‘government failure’.

This is a fixed mind-set that now exists in my past, overtaken by a newer thinking from a course on Fostering Social Accountability by the Global Partnership for Social Accountability; realising a paradigm shift. My thinking has registered on failures of information to speak as much ‘noise’ as would be needed to attract the governments’ attention. Will information really bring public integrity?  How audible is the ‘voice’ (community actions) without ‘teeth’ (state responsiveness)? Rhetoric they used to be to me and may be to you as well, and so I am excited to explore the breadth of social accountability I have learnt about on the course. My previous experience of walking in solidarity with disgruntled communities and partners over limited access to public information should mature. Instead I should speak of what kind of information will be useful for the purpose of realising the goal, what kind of community participation is likely to represent the socially excluded, and ultimately investigate the role of state’s responsiveness in the process. This broadened scope herein borrowed from strategic social accountability thinking changed my mindset in technical advisory services that I should be giving to partner CSOs implementing social accountability initiatives in the region. Have you always been wondering why democracy and human rights programmes have always been stagnant in hybrid[i] states?  Definitely one lesson that I am taking home (programme implementation) is focusing on processes as well as context; the enabling environment!

And what makes an enabling environment? Enabling Environment.png

Power is the key lens through which I find myself viewing the enabling environment for collective accountability as well as coordinating citizen actions. I am convinced the interaction of political and economic processes in a society are a product of the power dynamics and relations in that particular society, which in turn shape the ‘voice-teeth’ interactions. While strategic social accountability points to the combination of multiple tactics and more directly a reduced risk environment exhibited by voice plus teeth actions, critical and probably proximate determinants for the said is an analysis of:

  • How is power manifesting itself in the different sphere of the society; from the state to the communities?
  • In what spaces does this power operate and which forms are experienced?
  • How is this influencing the political and economic processes with the respective society?

What limits stakeholder engagement? Key actors being the state (policymakers and technocrats) and citizens, even though in principle they are expected to harmonise technical and political views to co-manage the ‘teeth’ role, in most cases that is not seen. Touching in my context of work is:

  • The existence of a rich policy and legislative framework however limited in its implementation.  Policy implementers are reluctant to do so; they see disincentives while technocrats have limited say over what practically happens. Thus CSO efforts in building an informed citizenry will not realise the goal, unless the existing power dynamics are dealt with.
  • Politicisation of governance processes that subjects the voice to fright, loss of confidence in the state and apathy while sustaining the state’s power over the citizens. Continued marginalisation becomes the manifestation of power dynamics widening the gap between the state and the citizens. Ultimately the extent to which citizens’ actions can influence change will be limited.
  • The poor or no definition of participation and state responsiveness in the context. This limits the extent to which either way the state or communities participate in social accountability initiatives.  At what level of engagement is citizen participation considered effective?

Towards the solution?  While other ingredients of multiple tactics, an enabling environment and citizen action is uncontested, effective government responsiveness remains the critical binding element of the recipe. Theories of change for social accountability interventions should ideally broaden scope from access and provision of information to willingness and capacity of governments to account! What of strategic social accountability in politically fragile states? [i] neither authoritarian nor democratic

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