Accountability is often treated as a magic bullet, an all-purpose solution to a very wide range of problems—from corrupt politicians and the quality of public services to systemic injustice and impunity. Yet accountability reforms struggle to deliver. Has the idea been stretched so far that the buzzword gets watered down into a fuzzword?
The words that we use to talk about accountability are malleable, ambiguous and contested. This not just an academic problem of discourse analysis – in practice, accountability claims often get hijacked by the corrupt. In the real world, accountability terms can have different meanings, to different actors, in different contexts – and in different languages. Paying attention to these diverse understandings can inform accountability initiatives that build better bridges – across sectors, cultures and political agendas.
Many have observed that it is difficult to translate the word “accountability” into other languages. Some English-speakers assume ‘linguistic determinism’ – that if exact translations don’t exist in other languages, then the ideas are missing. Yet the main obstacle to communicating ideas about accountability is their underlying ambiguity.
Consider the huge difference between upwards accountability (to the powers that be) vs. downwards accountability (by power-holders to people). Related terms even have contradictory meanings, such as ‘oversight’ – which refers both to accountability and to its absence. Enforcement actions that look like accountability to some can feel like persecution to others.
There is much to learn from the words that people already use. Popular cultures may already communicate their own ideas about transparency and accountability. Looking back, some accountability keywords in English took on their current meanings in the process of civic or political action – like ‘right to know,’ ‘whistleblower,’ ‘boycott,’ ‘advocacy,’ or ‘greenwashing.’
New efforts to communicate accountability ideas can draw from diverse experiences with the uptake of accountability keywords that have nothing to do with translations from English. Some are cultural legacies, while others were politically constructed in the past two or three decades. Examples includejan sunwai (public hearing) and jankari (right to actionable information) in Hindi, pardarshakta in Marathi (transparency), and shafaf (transparency) and jawabdahi (responsiveness) in Urdu. Latin America contraloría social, vigilantes ciudadanas, defensoras and veedurías (citizen oversight), as well as ouvidurias in Brazil (ombuds agencies). Ghanaian Hausa has fiilifiili (full transparency), chui shao ren has begun to be used in Chinese (whistleblower), the idea of ubuntu lifts up responsible leadership in Bantu languages and Gadaa governance includes accountability ideas in Oromo. Sudanese Arabic says ‘we want to know’ with waruna. The Philippines has pananagutan (accountability/responsibility), bibingka (pressures for accountability from above and below) – and their latest is in English: ‘accountability frontliners’– not to mention putting the term ‘people power’ on the global map.
Widely used accountability sayings also illustrate the enduring and diverse nature of accountability claims. Many may recognize ‘Who watches the watchmen?’ from pop culture fiction, but it dates all the way back to a Roman poet. Another classic saying reveals contradictions – ‘to hold their feet to the fire’ originally meant exactly that. Frederick Douglass’ 19th century anti-slavery slogan ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand’ captures what today would be called a theory of change for accountability. An early civil rights activist invented ‘speak truth to power,’ drawing on an ancient Islamic phrase. A 1976 movie popularized a saying that sums up Watergate’s investigative journalism strategy: ‘follow the money.’ More recently, the slogans Black Lives Matter and #MeToo went viral to challenge impunity.
These historical threads may make for interesting chit-chat, but why might they matter for real-world change agendas? Activists know that foreign-sounding terms or technocratic jargon may not resonate – and can leave them vulnerable to nationalist backlash. Here are two more real-world reasons:
Fuzzy ideas about accountability can either complicate or enable coalition-building. Accessible discourse that resonates with popular cultures can help to bridge the social and political distance between pro-reform technocrats and grassroot movements. Yet potential allies may express similar ideas in different ways – or they may use the same words to mean different things.
For example, policymakers use terms like ‘citizen engagement’ to refer to individual actions – like reporting service delivery problems with an app or a call. In contrast, for community organizers, voice involves collective action and building countervailing power.
At the same time, ambiguity also can have advantages, especially where explicit accountability demands risk backlash or where diverse coalition members decide to agree to disagree in order to find common ground.
Fuzzy ideas about accountability are vulnerable to getting used for cross-purposes. Anti-corruption agendas turn out to be easy to capture. We know this all too well in the US, where a corrupt president successfully wielded the anti-corruption slogan “drain the swamp” (which turns out to originate with Mussolini). Plus, top-down accountability institutions can pursue unjust prosecutions (‘nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition’) or can undermine democracy.
For example, in the name of accountability, Colombia’s previous Inspector General unseated hundreds of elected officials without recourse. Plus, researchers can confuse practitioners if they claim to find that governance reforms fail to deliver, when what they really measure shows a failure to deliver reforms in the first place.
Technocratic gestures in the name of accountability can also be used to deflect accountability claims – as with unreliable corporate responsibility certifications involving labor standards or palm oil – not to mention the many official grievance redress mechanisms that don’t actually redress grievances. The accountability field is replete with ‘isomorphic mimicry’ – a term adopted from biology to describe institutions that camouflage themselves to look like they are supposed to. Fake, biased or watered-down accountability reforms aren’t just inadequate – they can weaken the credibility of the real thing.
To sum up, the accountability field needs more creative ways to communicate in everyday languages, while being mindful of the pros and cons of fuzzy discourse, to broaden constituencies for change.