By Amin Kef Sesay
The 1990s saw the emergence of poverty reduction and governance as key priorities in international development. With the failure of structural adjustments and other [classic] neo-liberal economic reform programs in reducing poverty, development theory and practice emphasized the role of a capable state for effective interaction with markets and citizens.
The economic crisis faced by our country since the late 1970s stress the overarching need for transparency and effective regulatory and legal frameworks for national governance.
Focus on public services and market-friendly growth strategies highlight the need for an effective State and citizen empowerment. As such, this commentary reviews the current literature on social accountability as a means to achieve good governance and increased public participation for improved public service delivery.
Social accountability leads to improvements in the performance of State agencies and actors in varying contexts across the developing countries. Increased donor-led efforts to converge good governance agendas and neo-liberal economics tend to overlook politics that is central to struggles for social accountability.
The complete faith of the neo-liberal development paradigm in market-friendliness, devolution, and working through NGOs often disregards politics within which such policies have to operate and on which they are ultimately dependent.
Notwithstanding the empirical challenges, strong evidence of links between country governance systems and development performance has been noted by the World Bank, 2006. Studies have, for instance, shown that the benefits of public health spending on child and infant mortality rates are greater in countries with better governance.
Similarly, public investments in primary education are more likely to lead to higher education attainment if governance improvements are carried out. ‘Unbundling’ of governance components such as rule of law, voice and accountability, corruption control and state capture, indicate that a greater focus on external accountability can lead to improved governance.
In this context, transparency mechanisms and monitoring tools, as well participatory voice and incentive driven corruption prevention approaches, must be emphasized by the government in increasing inclusivity.
For instance, the 2000/2001 World Development Report and World Bank’s empowerment framework recognizes accountability as an integral component of ‘empowerment’ and hence poverty reduction. With an increased emphasis on accountability, the concept has been defined in different ways from punishment or sanction to answer ability and enforcement.
A working definition of accountability describes it is a “proactive process by which public officials inform and justify their plans of action, their behavior, and results and are sanctioned accordingly”.
Social accountability has been defined as an approach towards building accountability that relies on civic engagement, i.e., in which it is ordinary citizens and/or civil society organizations who participate directly or indirectly in exacting accountability.
Examples of social accountability initiatives include ‘traditional’ forms, such as public demonstrations, advocacy campaigns, investigative journalism; and, the recent ones such as citizen report cards, participatory public policy making, public expenditure tracking, and efforts to improve the effectiveness of “internal” accountability mechanisms of the government, for example by involving citizens in public commissions and hearings and oversight committees.
Accountability mechanisms can broadly be classified as either ‘horizontal’ or ‘vertical.’ The former can occur internally (for example, an internal audit within a government agency) and can be among equals (for example, legislators holding each other accountable). Horizontal mechanisms occur externally and involve one party holding another accountable and therefore exercising ‘superior authority’ or greater power.
Among the various mechanisms of promoting accountability, we focus on social accountability, given its role in facilitating civic engagement aimed towards improving the living conditions of the poor.