How to build local government accountability in South Africa? A conversation with partners

March 18, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

This is what a good day visiting an Oxfam programme looks like. I skim the interwebs (and this blog) to put together some thoughts on a given issue from our experience or what others are writing (‘the literature’). Then sit down with local Oxfamistas and partner organizations (who are usually closer to the grassroots than we are) to compare these bullet points with their reality. Last Friday it was ‘how can NGOs build the accountability of local government.’ My ten minutes covered:

  • Supply (training officials) v demand (strengthening civil society) v building collective trust in fragmented societies
  • The importance of identifying and working with insider champions within the state – no good shouting at the gates if no-one inside is willing to listen and work with you
  • It can be risky – make sure staff and partners have support if the state officials lash out
  • Often need to pursue deeper culture change on officials’ attitudes to excluded groups
  • Need to choose between focussing on the broader ‘enabling environment’ of access to information, respect for the law, exposing corruption etc or more specific campaigns for housing, electricity, schools etc
  • Some interesting examples of text-based complaints mechanisms (India) and name-and-shame league tables (Vietnam)

A lot of this resonated with the South African experience. Some thought-provoking additional points included:

The SA implementation gap between ‘first world norms and standards’ and an underfunded and often chaotic/corrupt corrupt administrative reality is so wide it may even be counterproductive (no point in acting because however hard you try, you can never comply). Local government is hobbled by lack of cash, capacity, and officials’ inability to understand ‘perfect’ guidelines and standards drawn up by distant consultants.

The political incentives are all wrong. Patronage is as big a problem as corruption – party hacks get parachuted into senior administrative jobs, lacking the capacity or interest to perform them properly. ‘People in positions feel very powerful’, and their power springs from playing the political game within the ANC, fighting the internal turf wars rather than doing right by the people.

Despite this, there are officials and politicians willing to do the right thing, either because they are politically progressive and committed (this is the ANC, after all), or because more self-interested political incentives are temporarily/accidentally aligned with those of the popular movement. A huge element of civil society advocacy is built around identifying and building relationships with such individuals. Finding backing for local insider champions (eg from higher tiers of government and politics, or international bodies) can make a real difference in strengthening the hand of the good guys within the state.

But that can be very exhausting: ‘you look at the giant that is Government and it’s so difficult to navigate. You never quite know where to push, (and nor do the officials!). You invest hugely in building intimate relationships only to find they’ve moved department and you have to start all over again.’

Civil society (including Oxfam) don’t always do themselves any favours: ‘CSOs go with the attitude ‘you’re paid to do this, and you drive a 4×4. Why should I congratulate you when you actually do your job?’ So they get nowhere.’

Options include:

  • Judicial activism, but there is little cash to support it, and it is very slow.
  • Changing norms: At present ‘there’s no corruption, no shame’ among officials. CSOs could go for broad public awareness raising and pressure along the lines of, ‘they work for us’ websites on the performance of politicians or civil servants, ‘slowest response of the year’ competitions etc. But those in the room thought this would be very risky indeed, given the ANC’s hostility to public criticism.
  • Broaden alliances beyond networks of CSOs (which seems to be the default model), not least because civil society currently has access to political leaders (they were often in the anti-apartheid movement together), but little real traction. Partners thought the private sector offered more promise than faith-based organizations or traditional leaders.

We finished by asking everyone to suggest something new to try. Here’s what they came up with:

  • Invest much more in ‘positive reinforcement’. Find champions, publicly support them. Build relationships.
  • Do more long term awareness-raising  with communities about what the government ought to be doing for them
  • Think about a South African
  • Budget tracking/ ‘follow the money’ watchdogs to ensure that money allocated arrives intact and is then actually spent (a scandalous amount of health and education money has to be returned to central government because local officials fail to spend it on time).

But in the end, several partners thought that only an increase in political competition, with the ANC facing a genuine chance of being voted out of municipal governments, would shift the behaviours of most officials. Given the state of the opposition, that doesn’t look likely, but I’ll speculate on that in a future post.

And if you happen to be in Cape Town today, why not come along to the Sustainability Institute at 12 to discuss ‘Creating a Just Food System through Active Citizenship‘? Some good panelists (and me).