Workshop explores creative ways citizens hold their governments accountable and how development assistance can contribute.
In political systems where citizens have little power to formally influence their governments, creative tools known as "social accountability mechanisms" have been developed, whereby people can directly hold their governments to task-in particular for the delivery of public services.
Among the mechanism to have gained widespread acceptance are the Citizen's Report Card, the Community Scorecard, the Social Audit, Participatory and Transparent Monitoring, and the Public Expenditure Tracking Survey (PETS).
CommGAP held a workshop on November 1-2, exploring how to increase the effectiveness of and demand for social accountability mechanisms. The event, held at the World Bank office in Paris, gathered around 25 representatives from academia, civil society, governments and development organizations from various countries.
The discussion covered a wide variety of topics, but returned repeatedly to the importance of: understanding and working within the realities of the given political system; treating access to information as a basic right; and strengthening and broadening the use of social accountability mechanisms without suppressing local creativity, which is already fueling such efforts worldwide.
"Any political system can be navigated," according to Chike Anyaegbunam, Associate Professor at the University of Kentucky. "But there is no silver bullet-we must look for solutions within the specific context."
Chris Kamlongera Director of the African Centre of Communication for Development in Malawi, added that those developing accountability mechanisms should not see government as the "enemy" but should rather engage them and demonstrate the usefulness of these tools for them as well. Another participant likened such exercises to "marriage counseling" between governments and their citizens.
Jorje Romero, Executive Director of Mexico's Fundar, Centre for Analysis and Research, stressed that, for citizens to begin to demand accountability, they must have access to information. However he said that freedom of information laws were not sufficient and that a "rights-based" approach was necessary. Many participants supported his statement, saying that access to information should be considered a basic right of the people, rather than just a legal obligation of the government.
Enrique Peruzzotti, Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science and International Studies of the Torcuato Di Tella University in Buenos Aires, went further, saying that social accountability starts by broadening the culture of rights-rather than just reacting to failures of the state.
A number of large-scale social accountability mechanisms have received support from donor agencies, however several participants stressed that, while it is important to formalize, and even institutionalizing the more successful programs to make them sustainable, it is as important to avoid stifling the creative mechanisms local citizens are continuing to develop.
Gopakumar Thampi, head of the Public Affairs Foundation in Bangalore, India, gave one humorous example of how painting messages on public toilets was an effective mechanism for commenting on government services in one area. On a more serious note, Dr. Anyaegbunam chastised those who would work from the bottom down, imposing their own versions of social accountability mechanisms-saying that calling someone "poor" was an insult and that people who some simply labeled "illiterate" should also be respected as "oral communicators."
Simply providing mechanisms for social accountability is not enough, according to Taeku Lee, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California at Berkeley, who said that citizens must be transformed and empowered enough to seek information and to be able to use it effectively, and stressed the importance of generating genuine demand where no public will currently existed.
Such discussion led to the question-much debated but never fully answered: "Do people (such as civil society leaders, donors, etc.) who are trying to encourage demand for social accountability mechanisms have to wait for significant problems to come to light and cause upset, or rather should they support and help develop a culture of demand for accountability so that the people themselves can unearth and understand the source of the problems?"
Some said that the tangible problems, with poor public service, for example, had to arise first, before people would demand accountability. Others said that, unless people first had enough basic information, were aware of their rights as citizens, and felt the environment was safe, they would not even begin to consider that they could demand accountability from anyone.
Workshop Summary Report (pdf, 39 pages)