Social accountability or social transformation? Working ‘with’ and ‘against’ the grain

By Sophie King

Social accountability has become an important ‘buzzword’ among development actors seeking to understand the forms of state-society relations that may be supportive of better public services. Malena and McNeil (2010: 1) define it as: ‘the broad range of actions and mechanisms beyond voting that citizens can use to hold the state to account’. The trouble is that the focus has become the mechanisms, rather than the inequality and social and political relationships shaping public goods expenditure and quality.

Some findings from my own research into NGO-led social accountability initiatives in rural Ugandaresonate with those recently published by Care International and ODI about community score card initiatives in Malawi, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania. However, our interpretations of what these findings tell us may differ. Drawing on my Uganda study, but also a systematic review of how context shapes outcomes from social accountability initiatives, here are some questions which those seeking to intervene within agrarian, neopatrimonial and semi-authoritarian contexts like Uganda’s could consider:

  1. What is the history of state-society relations and popular mobilisation in this context?

The Rwenzori sub-region, where this fieldwork took place, had a long history of ethnic and religious conflict, leading to the exclusion of particular groups from social services and economic opportunities, and a legacy of resentment, which continues to shape both political and civil society relations. Civil servants are often not socially embedded within the community, being subject to frequent transfers – meaning they are not subject to informal accountability pressures on the basis of kinship or longer-term relationships. Decades of conflict and authoritarianism and state monopoly over cooperative production, followed by the collapse of the cooperative sector, has left a legacy of deference to authority and mistrust of collective action. 

  1. What is the socio-economic status of the breadth of people using the public service in question, and what relationships do they have with other social groups?

In this particular region, some of the poorest families did not send their children to school, wealthier households made use of private provision, and the socio-economic spectrum of small-scale farmers, labourers, and traders in between used state services. Few would be educated beyond primary level. In Uganda as a whole, only approximately 12 percent of school-aged children complete secondary education.  Mechanisms for social accountability require parents and service users to report problems to a community management committee, head teachers, or their village council chairperson. The village chair also presides over land transactions and the village court, while those educated enough to work as head teachers, nurses, or to occupy leadership positions, are often friends. There is also a strongly entrenched culture of conflict avoidance, which was partly linked to concerns about the use of witchcraft in response to perceived slights. This is an unpromising context for monitoring, reporting or complaint.

  1. What are the formal and informal institutional incentive structures throughout the service delivery system?

In Uganda, a system of ‘inflationary patronage’ – where ever-increasing amounts of resources are required to keep different power bases in society happy – depletes resources for public goods. Levy and Waltonprovide a helpful framework for analysing the web of relationships that shape incentive systems within particular sectoral machineries. In rural western Uganda, teachers and health workers are on low salaries and experience frequent delays in receipt of salary, with few prospects for professional development. In cases of wrong-doing, District officials simply transfer workers elsewhere, rather than enforce sanctions. MPs and councillors are focused on votes garnered through favour and the cultivation of connections to extensive kinship networks, and are not usually interested in rocking boats.

  1. Over which public goods has a strong social contract emerged among citizens? How have the terms of delivery of particular services been framed?

Universal Primary Education has been framed in Uganda as a gift from the President. Where once parents kept schools running during Amin’s reign of terror, in rural western Uganda, few parents are now prepared to contribute anything to the running of the school and have interpreted the policy – framed in populist terms in advance of successive elections – as meaning that everything about school attendance is free. Children go to school without lunch, falling asleep in lessons after eating nothing all day; buildings and premises are not maintained; children lack books and pencils to work with; and PTAs – in this area at least – were all but defunct.

  1. What forms of autonomous collective agency exist among low-income groups in this context, and are there any examples of effective collective organising specific to this context?

In such a context, where social stratification, unequal power relations and adverse incentive structures work so strongly against inclusive development expenditure and downwards accountability, those interested in changing things for the benefit of lower-income groups cannot think about service accountability in a vacuum. While shifts within the wider political settlement and wider structural transformation are of course critical to substantive change, there is still much that can be done at the grassroots to build democracy from below.

With the landholdings of middle- and low- income groups shrinking in Uganda while those of the higher socio-economic groups increase, and the great African land-grab continuing seemingly unabated, it seems to me that smallholder farmers can only accumulate the socio-economic and associated political power to advance their interests in social provisioning terms by acting collectively. Bukonzo Joint Cooperative Union is an inspirational example of what can be achieved when farmers adopt a social justice and savings-based approach to social, economic and political change.  Smallholders here are transforming relations between men and women; between farmers and the state; and between farmers, traders and buyers. Ben Jones also describes a range of associational forms that are alive and well in Uganda, including clan structures, Pentecostal churches, and burial societies. Other forms of self-help group are increasingly present in rural villages and a gradual revival of the cooperative sector is taking place… can smallholders be supported to exploit these opportunities in progressive and inclusive ways, or will such opportunities be lost to competition and clientelism?

  1. What is the history of external intervention in this context and what opportunities exist for accountable alliances to be built between professionals and low-income groups?

That donor-driven development interventions have frequently undermined rather than catalysed and strengthened grassroots agency and autonomy is surely no longer in question. So the question now becomes what forms of intervention can offer marginalised and low-income groups support and solidarity without creating dependency or reinforcing clientelist relations?

One Ugandan research and development institute I worked with had moved away from channelling donor aid and towards information provision, knowledge generation, networking and relationship building, convening alternative spaces for multi-stakeholder dialogue, and attempting to convene channels through which context-specific grassroots experiences could reach senior decision-makers. This was only possible with the partnership of a Northern co-financing agency with the room for manoeuvre to create space for experimentation over the long term. This agency’s financing has been seriously cut, in response to negative public attitudes to aid.

Bukonzo Joint Cooperative Union have had guidance from an activist-consultant for over a decade, who has supported them to develop their own home-grown gender justice methodology without becoming directive. The BJCU Coordinator has been adept at managing relationships with external actors – taking loans not grants, or only accepting donor aid in support of those in extreme poverty, or for international learning exchange. Mitlin and Satterthwaite offer another case study of how IIED have worked with Shack/Slum Dwellers International and donor agencies to break down the hierarchy of donor aid. There are many good examples out there.

In summary, perhaps as well as ‘working with the grain’ and working through elites, we need to think about how to integrate such strategies, with a focus on strong, value-driven local associations that also have tangible economic benefits for their members. Associations that can federate, that can ally with professionals while remaining autonomous, and that can have the kinds of ripple effects that, as an increasing number of studies are beginning to show, can contribute towards building democracy from below. This requires arethinking of the role of external actors in such contexts, and new modalities of aid and development finance, but it also, critically, requires a change in public attitudes internationally.

What have academics to offer to the challenge of equity, justice and inclusion?


By Diana Mitlin

After three-and-a-half days of sitting in central Cape Town, what have I learnt about a core underpinning assumption of ESID, i.e. that academics can contribute to inclusive development?

It is relatively easy to understand what academics have to offer to “effective states”. Strategies to achieve economic growth, ways of improving bureaucratic performance, reviews of the benefits and burdens of regulation, new ways of collecting information about consumer experiences, analyses of ineffective programmes…  All of these are themes on which academic research studies may offer insights and advice that governments are likely to welcome.

But policy and programming objectives related to inclusive development are a different ballgame. Inclusive development is going to require large-scale redistribution, especially in countries in which significant proportions of the population remain in acute poverty. Inclusive development requires a shift from interventions to address the needs of a selective (and generally small) part of the population to more universal considerations and larger-scale programming. Inclusive development also requires engaging with the very groups that tend to be excluded, and excluded in numbers, at least some of whom will be seen as the “un-deserving poor”.

Moreover, as is evident from programmes such as the housing subsidy scheme in South Africa, when implemented, such large-scale schemes offer substantive opportunities for largesse (by virtue of their size). This is a resource to strengthen clientelist relations and then exclude, as they create their own “trades” with associated allocation specificities. Clientelism works through partiality – some in and some out. Hence scale may create its own momentum against reform – suggesting that even effectiveness studies may offer little here.

Inclusion requires political pressure

It is fairly self-evident to academics that work on inclusion requires an alignment with other groups pressing for change. While departments responsible for hungry children, people with disabilities and the elderly may be grateful for advice about how to ensure that these specific parts of the population benefit from already allocated resources, more widespread programmes that reach 30 or 40 percent of the population require political pressure to secure the required resources and associated reforms. This has been seen to be true, even if it is for selective goods and services such as drinking water (rather than more integrated, comprehensive, and therefore costly, development programmes).

Our discussions touched on these issues, with recognition among some participants that they had not sufficiently considered such challenges. Among those researchers already conscious of the immensity of their task, there were reflective considerations. Some talked about the importance of receiving support from international colleagues (both North and South) in engaging their governments about such issues. International guests help to place research findings among politicians who are committed to social justice issues, but just too busy to keep up to speed with research. Internationally renowned specialists may be able to bring contentious issues into the open.

However, careful alignment with local determined strategies is required if such interventions are to open a discourse in which issues of equity and justice can be explored positively. Past experiences show that there is a real danger that ill-informed interventions are counterproductive, through provoking a defensive response from government. Some spoke about the need to attract public attention through collaboration with well-placed journalists and media superstars. Politicians who are too busy to read policy briefs suddenly find the time where there is a critical opinion piece in a leading newspaper or radio interview. But, once more, careful and informed drafting is required to catalyse an engagement and exploration, rather than a withdrawal due to honest but politically naïve criticism.

Other researchers spoke about the need for more structured collaboration between social movements and academics. Such relations cannot easily be built up in the time of a DFID-funded research centre (six years) but, in this case, the Centre has supported long-standing relationships to reflect on the ways in which inclusive development might be achieved in particular countries and sectors. In this way the research programme has benefited from existing relations between social movements and interested politicians and officials to generate knowledge about effective interventions that address the needs and interests of movement members.

Research can generate knowledge for action

Academic involvement makes three contributions.  First, it is sharpening and deepening the learning process, adding to the skill sets of local professionals and bringing new insights into the ways in which government policies are realised through programmes and associated practices. Secondacademic involvement attracts interest from a broader group of academics, public intellectuals, media specialists, government officials and civil society agencies at the national level. Third, through such relations and associated collaboration, academics contribute to the building of a critical mass committed to more inclusionary development policies.

ESID communications specialists are seeking to add value to these strategies of political engagement by facilitating the sharing of experiences and communication skills. Briefing papers, working papers, journal articles, even Twitter, contribute to influence through reaching out to new, previously uninformed individuals and agencies. Once engaged, more detailed documentation provides opportunities to deepen relationships through shared reflections on the research findings and what should now be done.

At the centre of these knowledge processes is a reflective practice about what works. This involves some core challenges which the ESID researchers are considering. What are the critical relationships that need to be established and strengthened for research to contribute to the achievement of social justice? And how can the production and use of different kinds of knowledge best be aligned to realise social justice?  These questions are, of course, fundamental to processes of transformative social change, not just to ESID. Do we believe in a “knowledge to change process” that draws on the brilliance of individuals who are able to persuade reluctant and sceptical politicians and officials to invest in redistribution and enact investment programmes that offer new options and more inclusive practices to low-income groups?  Or do we believe that such gains will only be secured by associations of the subaltern, to the point where they are such a threat that they win concessions (redistribution and reform) from an elite who recognise that such organisations have redefined the political options that are open to them?  And if the the latter is the case, what is the relevance of academics in contexts in which low-income and otherwise disadvantaged groups are unorganised and unable to exert such political pressure? It is to support “islands of excellence”, which may illustrate an alternative but are, by definition, exclusive and which risk reinforcing a sense among others that development is “not for them”.

Commitment to inclusion: Top-down or bottom-up?

With such an understanding, it appears that academics have most to contribute in circumstances in which an expanding political commitment has been secured from political elites who are willing to reform their own exclusionary practices and invest in processes of greater equity.  Once governments make such a commitment, is this the point when academic knowledge comes into its own, identifying more effective and/or equitable practices to achieve new political goals?

But even here the role of academics has to be considered. In at least one of the knowledge to change processes supported by ESID – research into the JNNURM programme in India with the Indian Alliance of Shack Dwellers International – this is not believed to be the case. Alliance partners, NSDF and Mahila Milan (two grassroots organisations), believe that the solutions have to emerge from the organised urban poor if they are to be both lasting and relevant. However, the Indian Alliance are participating in the research because they believe that working with academics will strengthen their understanding of the ways in which government action can be made more effective, and add credibility to the findings. They recognise the convening power of academics, who have the social status to engage with senior government staff and offer a platform to organised communities.

Such questions lie at the heart of ESID’s ambition to make a substantive contribution to social justice.

Follow Diana on Twitter: @DianaMitlin.


This post was originally published at: on 13 May 2014