Written by Prisca Kowa from Policy Forum on the 23rd of July 2020. The original article can be accessed here
To reach those who are furthest behind in society, it is important to institute a system of just and fair social economic development. This is key especially during these tough times of the COVID-19 pandemic where global health and economic systems have been significantly disrupted. Through the years that I have been working with communities, I have observed how important it is to have groups of people who are empowered and have a voice and the capacity of being active players in raising concerns that affects their wellbeing. In this regard therefore, while pursuing a ‘leaving no one behind’ agenda it is paramount to ensure that community members who are most vulnerable are empowered.
The year 2020 marks a decade of action towards attaining the 17 global goals for Sustainable Development. World leaders have been called to deliver the SDGs by 2030 and to announce actions they are taking to advance the agenda. The implementation of SDGs commenced in January 2016 with a view of accelerating global actions to end poverty, create prosperity and protect the planet. As opposed to MDGs, SDGs are shaped with a unique character of being holistic and universality, bringing onboard people, prosperity, planet, peace and partnerships. The United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres asserted that “The 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals are our collective response to building a fair globalization”. This implies that, the national, regional and global collective actions must be well coordinated to ensure SDGs are attained and the promise of having a fair globalization where no one is left behind is achieved by 2030.
Thus, as the pledge to “leaving no one behind” connotes the commitment made by the world leaders, it is an undoubted that people who are the most marginalized cannot be passive and must be empowered and engaged in the monitoring, review and implementation of SDGs so that the realisation of these global goals reach first those who are furthest behind. To advance this, citizen engagement approaches must then be employed, one of the approaches that has been widely used by different development practitioners is Social Accountability.
Social Accountability (SA) encourages citizens to proactively demand for accountability on the use of public resources. It emphasizes the inclusion and participation of citizen particularly those who are marginalized, those who are more vulnerable with social stress and high chances of missing the benefits of services provided by the government. The World Bank (2004) defines Social accountability as actions initiated by citizen groups to hold public officials, politicians, and public service providers to account for their conduct and performance in terms of delivering services, improving people’s welfare and protecting people’s rights.
The common tools used to deploy social accountability include public expenditure tracking, participatory policymaking and budgeting, citizen monitoring and evaluation of services that promote transparency and accountability in budgeting and service delivery. For a successful social accountability intervention, there must be an enabling environment guided by four pillars elucidated in detail below. In light of those pillars the nexus between the social accountability and aspiration of SDGs to leaving no one behind will be established.
The first pillar of social accountability demands having organized and capable citizens groups and a government that is engaging. It is a truism that unorganized citizens can neither exercise their rights nor be able to participate in governance processes including holding duty bearers to account on the use of public resources allocated for service delivery or to ensure progressive and constructive relationships.
Thus, communities must know what SDGs are and what they aim to achieve and hence contribute to it. For example, at the very grass root level, citizens can participate through attending village meetings and it is through such platforms they would know what the government aspires to achieve locally, nationally and globally. However, if the existing structures limit this, it would be difficult for the voices of vulnerable communities to be heard.
The opposite is also true. In my experience through conducting social accountability interventions in Tanzania, I have witnessed that in areas where people were not part of the planning process, delays in development projects and sometimes reluctance by communities to support development projects is commonly experienced. This is no different when it comes to SDGs, communities must be empowered so that they clearly understand what they will offer and hence contributing to their realisation and by doing so the aspiration of inclusiveness will be attained.
The second pillar is responsive government, this is vital to enable social accountability and so is to the implementation of SDGs. Given that the government is the primary actor responsible to deliver SDGs by 2030, it ought to be responsive and ensure that it creates democratic spaces for its people and avail information related to the implementation of the SDGs of which citizen will use to monitor its realisation.
Last year I got the opportunity to participate in the CSO taskforce which was responsible for the country SDGs implementation report writeup (Voluntary National Review report). One of the major gaps observed included the understanding of the SDGs by the communities and mostly the vulnerable groups. This posed challenges into measuring the extent to which the implementation of the SDGs in the country has achieved towards elevating the marginalized groups. Considering that 2030 is just ten years away, it is vital that the information related to SDGs is trickled down to the very grassroot communities so that they own the goals and hence take an active role towards contributing in their review, monitoring and implementation.
The third pillar encourages access to information, the importance of accessing reliable and credible information to exert social accountability cannot be overstated. Governments are obliged to avail information which would enable citizens and other civic actors to constructively engage in the course of participating in the development agenda including SDGs. In light of the experience shared above, CSO actors encountered a challenge of getting latest, credible and reliable information during the process of developing the report on VNR for SDGs, such information would gauge the status of SDGs implementation in the country, as a result we were required to rely on outdated information. Although this was not the case in all goals, goal 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institution) posed a huge challenge regarding information on implementation progress — this challenge was as well acknowledged by the government in their SDGs VNR report.
The fourth pillar acknowledges the role of culture and context within which SA is practiced. Social accountability requires cultural relevance, it must be understood and framed according to the unique values, language, and practice of the people within which the initiative is taking place. This is the best way through which the practices of social accountability can be initiated, mainstreamed, accepted and sustained in each context. Given that Tanzania is a Swahili speaking nation, deliberate actions must be taken by the government to translate the SDGs to be popularized and to fit our context. This will not only increase understanding of the goals by the communities but also enhances the participation and ownership.
To wrap up on the pillars and the nexus between social accountability and SDGs, it is important to note that, the four pillars of Social Accountability are interrelated, thus, for the social accountability ecosystem and as one of the approaches to empowering marginalized communities, each pillar prerequisite conditions must be observed to consent a systemic operation of the social accountability.
In line with this, Civil Society Organizations which have traditionally been working to empower communities must couple the efforts by the government. Their interventions, therefore, must demonstrate community empowerment to ensure attaining of milestones at the local level where most marginalized communities reside.
Community empowerment, therefore, should be more than the involvement, participation or engagement of communities. It should demonstrate community ownership and action that explicitly aims at social and political change. It should denote the ability of re-negotiating power in order to gain more control, and thus if some people are going to be empowered, then others will be sharing their existing power and giving some of it up (Baum, 2008). It is imperative to note that in empowering communities, power shift must be concentrated into complementing marginalized capacities to be able to organize themselves so as to take more control in making important decisions that affect their lives. This will include deciding on how resources can be distributed and allocated to serve their interest which in turn will uplift their welfare.
Once communities feel empowered, they will be able to organize into capable groups which will be at the forefront of demanding for accountability, this will include the ability to gather information relating to SDGs and use such information to directly engage with duty bearers and demand that the programmes or projects implemented serves community interests in order to leave no one behind. For instance, SDG 3 on good health and wellbeing — encourages communities to be in a position of linking what targets are set and how budgets have been allocated and distributed to ensure the realization of the same.
I therefore conclude by insisting that achievement of inclusive and people centered development, a kind of development that considers those who are furthest behind, communities must be empowered. As highlighted above, application of community empowerment tools must deliberately continue to be employed by all actors in the development ecosystem. This would not only bring about fairness in the development but also reducing inequality gap. Thus, I call upon all actors involved in the monitoring, review and implementation of the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development to accelerate efforts through putting in place a well-coordinated mechanism while ensuring creation of community spaces for marginalized to engage is maintained so that no one is left behind.