Do we need to rethink Social Accountability? Thoughts from Myanmar

September 27, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

The main reason for my recent visit to Myanmar (apart from general nosiness) was to take part in a discussion on the role of social accountability (SA) in the rapidly opening, shifting politics of a country in transition from military rule. It got pretty interesting.

The World Bank defines SA as ‘the extent and capability of citizens to hold the state accountable and make it responsive to their needs’. What became clear over the course of the conversation was that in many countries and many people’s minds SA has been reduced to a set of activities/ tools (citizens’ scorecards, public hearings). According to Oxfam’s Jane Lonsdale ‘in Myanmar it is being used in its broadest sense as an entry point to begin working on getting people to talk to each other. In Myanmar even ‘citizens’ and ‘state’ cannot be used, as both are contested, so Oxfam uses ‘people and power holders’ or ‘communities and local administrations’ to take account of the multiple social contracts’. We need to try and think through what actually builds social accountability in any given context, not just assume we can chuck particular activities at everything and hope that they will do some good.

Whose accountability?

One way to escape from the cul de sac is to start in a different place, with the social contract – the bonds of duty and responsibility that bind together different actors (citizens, state, private sector etc). SA is best seen as a set of processes that build the density of the social contract.

For a start, we need to get beyond the typical social accountability binary, in which citizens interact with states, and CSOs are a perfect proxy for citizens. In the conflict areas of Myanmar, there are a series of ‘social contract lines’. Here’s what I came up with for Kachin:

Each of the five actors is in fact a cluster (eg ‘Union Government’ includes national, state and local government), so you could subdivide them endlessly or add in other players (eg private sector, academics, media, faith groups). But be warned, the number of social contract lines proliferates rapidly (for wonks, n(n-1)/2, where n is number of actors).  Keeping it simple/simplistic and looking at the 10 lines, it looks like five (marked in red) are already being dealt with through domestic politics, sometimes with the help of the international community:

1↔4: elections, democracy strengthening etc

2↔4: traditional social accountability

3↔4, 3↔5 and 4↔5: peace process

Two (marked in green) are very unlikely to happen given the current levels of fear and distrust: citizens or CSOs engaging with the military.

That leaves 3 (marked in blue) that have largely slipped below the radar:

1↔2: internal accountability of CSOs (except through partner selection)

1↔3: accountability of ethnic administrations

2↔3: CSOs acting as independent checks and balances of ethnic administrations

So one place to start is to think through whether any of these neglected lines ought to enter our plans, and what kinds of approach could be relevant. These approaches may well not involve traditional SA ‘tools’.

What’s different about doing social accountability work in fragile contexts?

The conversations highlighted some important differences between promoting SA in fragile and non-fragile contexts. Number one is risk. It’s all very well talking about trying things out, innovating and ‘learning by failing’, but in fragile contexts, people may get shot if you get things wrong (say if your project stokes up ill feeling). ‘Do No Harm’ becomes an important over-riding consideration.

Local (rather than national) engagement may make more sense in fragile contexts. When we presented a range of Oxfam experience from other countries, it was striking that the example that really resonated with Myanmar CSOs came from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where we support ‘Community Protection Committees’, made up of six men and six women elected by their communities to identify the sources of insecurity and stress and tackle them – for example negotiating a reduction in the number of military checkpoints that demand endless bribes for passage.

There’s also a potential trade-off between building the social contract and promoting transparency. In places like Myanmar, strengthening the social contract is often best done through informal mechanisms – building relationships, having dinner together etc. That’s when people can get to know each other, but also negotiate and make concessions without losing face.

Even in a conflict-free bit of Myanmar, that affects how we promote SA. After monitoring local authority budgets and then organizing  public hearings that allowed the population to raise issues with state officials, CSO partners ended up doing two reports – a public one, and then a private one for local political bosses, where ‘tendering rules were not properly applied’ became specific allegations of corruption. It worked – officials were grateful for the tactful approach and took action, removing 5 officials. But it was hardly transparent.

So is there a danger of ‘premature transparency’? Should we concentrate first on widening the circles of inclusion and trust in relationships, then formalizing those interactions, and only then pursue some degree of public transparency? Or is that just a smokescreen for covering up wrong doing?

In his recent paper, World Bank economist Shanta Devarajan argued that outsiders should focus on promoting an ‘enabling environment’ for SA, and suggested that transparency and access to information were the best focus. Myanmar suggests that info and transparency may not be the best point of entry in building an enabling environment for accountability – other (more political/social, less geeky) areas make more sense.

In particular, the word that recurred throughput my time in Myanmar was ‘trust’ – seeing our SA work as an exercise in broader trust-building, bringing people together to build relationships and ‘bridging capital’ between groups may well be our biggest contribution, rather than rushing to wheel out the toolkits so beloved of SA adherents in many countries.