From transactional to transformational: thinking about the future of Social Accountability. Twaweza guest post.

October 17, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

Varja mug shotVarja Lipovsek & Ben Taylor of Twaweza, one of my favourite accountability NGOs, read the tea leaves on the future of their fieldBen Taylor profile photo

In the private rooms of the Royal Society in London, under the stern gaze of Isaac Newton, the World Bank, DFID, ODI and a handful of others gathered recently to discuss an evaluation of the Bank’s Governance Partnership Facility (GPF) and the future of social accountability work within the Bank and beyond.

Social accountability, defined by the Bank, consists of the mechanisms that citizens can use to hold the state to account – such as citizen report cards and participatory budgeting – as well as the opportunities and processes within the state to respond to these mechanisms. For instance, when citizens gather information through a report card on the state of their health centre and formulate a set of requests for improvement, where within the health sector do these requests go? How citizens and governments can better work together is a hot topic right now, from the third anniversary of the Open Government Partnership to how governance should feature in the “post 2015” agenda.

The GPF, a joint project with the governments of the UK, Netherlands, Australia and Norway, was established “to help the World Bank deliver on its commitment to scale up engagement in governance and anti-corruption work in developing countries.”

The short answer provided by the evaluation was devastating: no impact. Nada. Zilch. A number of the Bank’s projects have taken up the governance and social accountability language and frameworks, and engaged in political economy analysis… but there was no difference in effectiveness between GPF-supported and non-supported projects. Ouch.

But does no measurable impact mean no change? The evaluation noted changes within some of the Bank’s programmes – but results had not been seen further down the Pakistan accountabilityline. Perhaps we just have to wait a little longer? This is a defensible argument, so long as there is a reasonable expectation that more of the same will, eventually, lead to substantive change. On this, one critical voice termed the work of the GPF “transactional, not transformational,” articulating two main reasons why no impact has been seen, and why we should be cautious about the future:

  • The bank’s incentives to spend money were (and remain) too strong, and overwhelmed the GPF agenda.
  • Leadership structures in the World Bank and DFID were not (and still are not) in place to carry forward the GPF agenda.

The two are related. The core business of the Bank are still its lending operations, and both within the Bank and outside it, there is a sense that it has a pervasive “loan approval culture” that rewards big-ticket projects. Social accountability measures become a secondary consideration. It is this culture that facilitated the transactions within the GPF-informed projects ($22 billion across 125 projects), but precluded any serious changes according to GPF standards. In order to bring about such a significant change, top leadership of the Bank would have to embrace and promote this – in other words, it would have to transform the core business of the Bank.

Moving on to social accountability work more generally, the discussions raised three key challenges.

First, what does success in social accountability look like, and can we measure it? Evidence has been a hot issue in social accountability circles (e.g. here), though it was skirted at the conference. When asked point-blank whether social accountability works, answers ranged from the enthusiastic yes to much greater caution, but with no real discussion of evidence. A relevant question inspired by this debate is around the different levels of success (see here); that is, are social accountability initiatives successful only if they re-align the balance between citizens and state, or can more moderate, perhaps mechanistic, steps also be considered success? And is there necessarily an order to these steps?

Accountability - notMuch was said about integrating social accountability inside ‘sector work’ on health, education, infrastructure etc. After all, accountability is usually about something; often, it’s about basic services. Social accountability ought not to be an add-on, but a way of doing core business. On the other hand, it also makes it difficult to know what to track and measure, and how to attribute – if a water programme with social accountability components improves access to water, how do we know whether the social accountability aspect played any role in that success? Perhaps two sets of interlinked indicators are needed – one to measure social accountability, the other on service delivery outcomes.

Second, how best to take account of context, power and politics?

Successfully implementing social accountability / governance reforms is incredibly context-specific, requiring a deep understanding of politics, culture, relationships and power structures. Often this is done informally and depends on the political savvy of individual staff; when formalized, it takes the form of Political Economy Analysis (PEA). The Bank, DFID and ODI (twice; this second one is particularly insightful) have documented a good deal of PEA work, which forms a useful set of informative case studies.

In such a complex field, it might be useful to have guiding frameworks, to help navigate the intricacies of each particular context. The World Bank has developed a framework for mapping contextual drivers of social accountability effectiveness. For the moment it’s somewhat abstract, but it has practical potential; a particularly interesting question becomes how to track any changes in the drivers.

Third, isn’t social accountability primarily about the relationship between a government and its citizens?

Many of the conversations framed social accountability as part of the relationship between the Bank and a government, somehow forgetting citizens. Conceptually, the “supply-demand” dichotomy was rejected as polarizing, but several voices were heard arguing that those working on the supply-side of social accountability (i.e. the Bank) can’t be effective in the absence of an articulated demand (i.e. civil society).

There is something muddled and contradictory in this. In recent years the Bank has been at the forefront of articulating why governance matters. At the same time, Bank-funded operations and projects exhibit little or no progress in implementing social accountability. Cynics (though not us of course!) might say that the Bank keeps social accountability spotlightits conscience clean by talking the social accountability talk, but has no desire, incentive or serious intention of changing its core business model.

So what can / should the Bank do? In our opinion, three things:

  • Use its convening power to establish social accountability as a critical norm in its lending and operations. Set explicit targets by country for the proportion of projects that will incorporate social accountability perspectives.
  • Promote Right to Information legislation, including concrete details that make any legislation powerful and useful – standards for this have already been developed (see here and here).
  • Insist on open data on budgets, expenditures and services throughout its work, according to recognised standards of quality data – see here and here.

If we are lucky, such steps could reset incentives and create conditions that will turn the merely “transactional,” into something more “transformational”.


October 17, 2014
Duncan Green