Social accountability or social transformation? Working ‘with’ and ‘against’ the grain
06 March 2015
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 Uganda resonate 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 Walton provide 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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 a rethinking 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.