Citizen action for accountability in challenging contexts: What have we learned?

April 17, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

The Action for Empowerment and Accountability research consortium, led by IDS and with quite a lot of involvement from Oxfam (including me) is now winding up with the customary emission of academic papers (think puffballs reaching maturity).

One of these is a whole issue of Development Policy Review (now Open Access – yay!) on ‘Citizen Action for Accountability in Challenging Contexts’, which summarizes several years of research into ‘how accountability dynamics work in ‘more challenging contexts’ — those more democratically weak, politically fragile, and affected by legacies of violence and conflict. The countries studied were Mozambique, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan and Egypt.

Couple of edited down extracts that caught my eye (on the impact of citizen action in these places, and implications for donors/outsiders) from the introduction/overview by John Gaventa, Anuradha Joshi and Colin Anderson:

Good news on the Open Access, now how about the design?

First on outcomes and consequences of efforts to achieve improved accountability in messy places

‘While our work thus points to important lessons about possibilities and strategies for citizen action even in challenging settings, what impacts does such action have? The articles in this special issue point to at least four types of outcome.

First, in settings where certain issues and voices have long been suppressed, gaining visibility itself becomes an important win, bringing new issues and voices to the public agenda.  For instance, an A4EA-supported study of political song in Mozambique points to how this was used to build public awareness of corruption, and to “publicise and amplify a collective sentiment”. Women’s protests in Mozambique and Pakistan brought concrete local issues to the public arena, exacting at least recognition of them by government authorities, thus disrupting gendered norms of silence.

Second, in settings with a long history of fear and repression, citizen action can create a sense of agency, an awareness of rights, and skills, and capacities for public engagement that may have previously been suppressed.

Third, such increased capacity and actions in turn contribute to gaining a response from authorities. In response to women’s protests over road safety in Mozambique, for instance, the President of Mozambique came to the community and undertook to improve infrastructure. Bring Back Our Girls secured practical responses from the Nigerian government on issues of security, and arguably the release of some of the abductees.

Finally, the A4EA studies also point to examples of progressive norm change. These include increased expectations of transparency, changes in a sense of rights as well as obligations and responsibilities, and changes in norms regarding inclusion. Long-standing CSO efforts supported by a donor programme in Nigeria made routine the expectation that citizens should have oversight of  public  works  funded  by  government.  Elsewhere, donor-support programmes on concrete opportunities provided to citizens to question authorities, ask difficult questions, and have oversight of public finances, potentially indicated increased acceptance of public oversight on the part of authorities.

While creating visibility, building political capabilities, exacting responses from authorities, and norm change are all important, several of the articles question whether these constitute fundamental shifts in power or contributed to larger systemic change. Gains were often fleeting and sometimes reversed…. Instances of political empowerment and women’s greater ability to navigate gendered governance norms do not necessarily add up—at least in the short term—to changes in these norms, but did increase abilities to navigate them.

What is striking about the A4EA findings, compared to the literature on measuring the outcomes of accountability interventions in more stable settings, is that they focus less on the “tangible” results like service delivery, but more on  the  impacts  on  governance  processes  and  the  intermediate  gains  that  may  be  necessary  to  create  longer-term  change. Despite the odds faced in settings with long histories of authoritarian rule, small gains can be found which in turn have the potential to become significant building blocks for more systemic change by nurturing a culture of accountability between citizens and sources of authority.’

Second some thoughts on the ‘so whats’ for donors and other outsiders trying to support the accountability agenda:

‘The agenda for strengthening citizen-led accountability—long an important plank in governance reform and democratic assistance—is at a crossroads. On the one hand, in a context of rising authoritarianism and democratic backsliding, the need for ways through which citizens can scrutinize authorities and hold them to account is more critical than ever. But at the same time, the very trend of weakening democratic norms and institutions, along with closing spaces for engagement, makes this harder, posing fundamental challenges for theories of change that focus on citizen-led action as a pathway to improving public accountability.

The view among some is that in this new context the accountability agenda has lost its usefulness. On the contrary, rather than abandon this important agenda, we suggest that a new set of strategies and approaches is needed for it to be effective in the light of diminishing democratic space.

How we go about identifying these spaces for action, as well as the issues to be acted upon, is very important. While traditional political economy analysis often gives us strong institutional insights, new approaches that capture the citizen-eye view are needed to understand and navigate the complex terrain of governance in these settings. In particular, the “governance diaries” method focused on “everyday governance as it is experienced from the perspective of the governed in places with fragmented public authorities.” [along with] The “civil society observatories” used to study changing civic space under COVID-19 and in-depth, contextually based approaches, work to improve understanding of grievances and triggers of protest.

Such bottom-up analysis helps us understand not only the spaces for action, but also which issues are most salient and likely to provoke accountability demands. The issues we found that galvanized citizen action were not those normally approached in the social accountability agenda, which often has as its starting point government-delivered public services such as health and education.

The governance diaries approach found that issues of neighbourhood and village self-governance were most important (such as informal social protection schemes, pooling of resources, and local rules). In other studies, community safety and security, protection from sexual harassment, and access to affordable energy were all flash points for collective voice. Understanding which issues are most salient has important implications for donors and other development actors. 


  1. Interesting and perhaps worth noting additional insights from Cheesman’s new paper about role of citizen action in influencing parliamentarians around legislation and the role that international actors can play from behind:
    “We find that traditional structural explanations – most notably the degree of international linkage and leverage and the quality of democracy – play an important role in creating greater opportunities for domestic actors, but are not determinative. CSOs also need to take advantage of the more conducive environment to defend democracy. Doing so is more likely when campaigns: are pre-emptive and sustained, frame the issue in a manner that resonates with the electoral incentives facing parliamentarians, coordinate with influential international actors, and engage pragmatically with both the informal political rules that shape legislators’ behaviour and the formal procedural ‘mechanics’ of legislatures. The article therefore demonstrates the significance of both political structure and agency, and of international actors using their influence to create space for domestic groups, ‘leading from behind’.

  2. Working in the complex and fragile regions that constitute Pakistan’s western borders with Afganistan for over 20 years I am surprised by some of the conclusions. There is marked absence of services in the region. Innovatively offering services builds trust with the communities, breaks down social hierarchies by involving both traditional elders and the communities in the benefits and gives you the credibility to help them address difficult issues. A second issue i find is that in all acountability issues between communities and authorities there are two sides of the equation. On one side are the communities whose voice one builds while on the other side are the authorities who must show the willingness to be flexible and adaptive. Unless there is even a grain of responsiveness in the Authorities voice makes a little difference. Thirdly, the best way to make policy mskers change is to demonstrate the difference tangible activities have made in communities life. If policy makers have the willingness to go and see this change the much needed change in policy sill come. If not no amount of voice will make a diiffererence.

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  3. “The communities voice builds while on the other side are the authorities who must show the willingness to be flexible and adaptive. Unless there is even a grain of responsiveness in the Authorities voice makes a little difference” Masood Ul Mulk
    All our efforts have gone in vain!
    How can you have a position in the service of the community and be completely indifferent and not feel that you are bringing a change no matter how small.
    What misery!

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