What is civil society for? Reflection from one of Tanzania’s leading CSO thinkers

A recent civil society and government jamboree in Tanzania prompted some interesting reflections from Aidan Eyakuze, Executive Director of Twaweza.

 

This article was originally published on the ‘From Poverty to Power’ blog.

 

Who needs civil society organizations (CSOs)? If government does its job well, responding to citizens’ needs, delivering good quality services, safe communities and a booming economy, then what is the purpose of the diverse range of NGOs, trade unions, religious groups, community groups and others that make up civil society?

I was one of more than 600 people at CSO Week 2018 in Dodoma (Tanzania’s capital). We were there to both celebrate and debate the role of civil society in Tanzania. Lots of speakers from within and outside government spoke with almost universal praise for the role civil society plays. But not far below the collegial surface lurked a significant divergence of views.

The most important was conflicting views on the primary purpose of civil society. Government officials acknowledged the positive role of CSOs, but with a strong whiff of ambiguity about their value and scepticism about their integrity.

Government ministers and senior officials revealed a clear preference for CSOs focused on uncontroversial service delivery activities (providing healthcare or education or clean water), over those working on raising citizen voices and advocating for better policies. They said that CSOs that focus on service delivery are supporting the government as the people’s legitimately elected representative. They are giving people the help they need, and can attract additional aid dollars into the country for development. However, those CSOs that monitor and critique government, advocate for civic space and promote human rights, may in fact be pursuing foreign agendas or wasting resources by working in areas that do not resonate with citizens’ needs, such as public services and livelihoods.

I also heard many CSOs worrying that limiting their activities to providing services makes them little more than handmaids to government and reduces citizens to mere subjects. Championing the causes of social justice, equality, shared responsibility and rewards has them working to ensure people are free citizens.

But this is a simplistic, though long-standing distinction, and I think it misses the point. For the ‘uncontroversial’ services to be delivered well to those needing them most, civic space must, crucially and contentiously, be open.

Without freedom of information and expression, people will not know what they are entitled to. Nor will they be able to voice their opinion on the quality of services or bring other problems to the attention of decision makers. Without freedom of assembly and association, the gap between a distant and powerful government and an atomised population becomes almost unbridgeable. Without citizen participation, services rarely meet citizen needs and citizens feel increasingly powerless and disconnected. Without inclusion, marginalised people are left even further behind. Without human rights and the rule of law, citizens have little protection from corrupt or bullying officials. Those who no longer trust that the game is fair stop trying to play and withdraw to the fringes.

CSOs that work to protect and promote open civic space are also working to strengthen public services and improve people’s lives. We may be doing so indirectly, but our contribution is just as valuable and necessary.

I would go further to argue that even delivering services is a political undertaking. When people are healthier, better educated and have access to water, shelter and can make a decent living, they are more likely to ask for more and expect better. And delivering services has an impact on local power relations. A new well, for example, increases the availability of water for some, changes time allocation, especially for women, and alters patterns of ownership, income and social interaction in a village. Choices are inherently political.

So the question is not ‘are we for services or for social justice?’ The two are inseparable.

Bishop Stephen Munga, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania (ELCT) and Chancellor at Sebastian Kolowa Memorial University expressed this point powerfully last week when he argued that “civil society gives rise to government itself.” “It is civil society that legitimately says whether government is good or bad, laws are good or bad. It is not for government or those in power to assess itself!”

His assertions were both attractive, and unsettling. Who assesses us CSOs? I confess to leaving Dodoma with a nagging feeling that, as CSOs, we did not engage in some important self-reflection. Are we well-placed to deliver a vision of a healthy, wealthy, wise and just Tanzania? Are we trusted by those who we claim to represent and speak for? Are we legitimate in their eyes? How much are citizens engaged in our work, in shaping our priorities and activities, or are we distant, disconnected and self-righteous? And how much are we really contributing to improving social justice overall? Could we do more?

These questions warrant really good answers. Such deep self-reflection can only be healthy for the sector, and for the wider community which we serve. We should not shy away from it.

It should come as no surprise that government and civil society have different views on what the sector should look like, or on the relationship between services and rights. It is only proper that a combination of tension and collaboration should exist, as one party seeks to maintain social order and the other to promote social justice. A society without such tension would slide into decline and decay.

So what is civil society for? It is to improve public services and people’s livelihoods. It is also to raise citizen voices and protect civic space. And it is even, on occasion, for disagreeing with government. I am sure that doing these things makes us all stronger. We will all be better off as a result.

This article was originally published here

Reclaiming civic space: global challenges, local responses

To reclaim civic space, there are three key drivers that organizations must focus on, and three critical issues affecting local responses.

This article was originally published in this form on the OpenGlobalRights website, written by: Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah & Mandeep Tiwana

From attacks on human rights defenders to limits on civil society’s work, we are facing an emergency on civic space. As evidence from the CIVICUS Monitor suggests, threats to civic freedoms are no longer just happening in fragile states and autocracies, but also in more mature democracies. While there has been growing attention on how to respond to this phenomenon, we believe there needs to be more attention on underlying drivers and on supporting local responses. Civic space can’t be “saved” from the outside.

Many of the current restrictions on civil society are knee-jerk responses, sometimes pre-emptive, to popular mobilizations, a sad and unexpected result of the initial hope of the so-called Arab Spring. Of course, this pattern is not the only cause of growing constraints on civic freedoms. Repurposing of the global security discourse to curb dissent, restrictions on international funding for advocacy groups by nationalist leaders, and retreat from the international human rights framework using flimsy arguments of state sovereignty are all ways by which the rights discourse is being undone. While there are several drivers of civic space restrictions, three in particular are worth paying attention to, due to their cross-cutting nature and deep impacts.

1. The business of civil society repression

The impact of of mega-corporations and market fundamentalism in undermining civic freedoms cannot be overemphasised. Private sector influences are particularly clear in the area of natural resource exploitation by extractive industries and big agri-businesses when local, often indigenous, environmental defenders face retaliation for protecting natural resources from grabs by corrupt business and political interests. The assassination of award winning Honduran activist Berta Caceres and restrictions on the right to peaceful protest for those opposed to the Dakota Oil pipeline in the United States are examples of how of these challenges transcend global North-South boundaries.

2. A toxic mix of extremist ideologies

Civil society is also being increasingly targeted by extremists aiming to divide societies around narrow interpretations of ethnicity or religion. Civil society emphasis on diversity and social cohesion is derided  as antithetical to nationalist cultural values and in some cases those speaking out against such projects are branded as operating at the behest of outside interests. In Europe, for example, civil society groups working on the rights of refugee and migrant populations are facing a backlash. In many parts of West Asia, women’s rights defenders have been attacked by armed groups seeking to impose puritanical religious doctrines on populations by arguing that gender equality is a Western construct. In South Asia, bloggers and journalists have been persecuted online and offline for opposing dominant cultural mores, while in Africa religious evangelists have linked up with like-minded groups on other continents to spur extreme forms of homophobia and attack defenders of LGBTI rights.

3. Retreat from democracy and multilateralism

We’re also facing a crisis of moral leadership on the international stage which has led to a retreat from universal human rights values and is negatively impacting civil society. Degradation of civic freedoms and the emergence of “neo-fascist” politics in Europe and the United States have emboldened despotic regimes in countries such as Bahrain, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and more, to attack dissenters and consolidate their power by manipulating electoral processes and state institutions. From the Philippines to Russia, Turkey and Venezuela, efforts are underway to silence dissent whereby repression against those who speak the language of human rights is becoming the norm rather than the exception.

Despite these challenges, placing local responses at the heart of efforts to reclaim civic space is critical.  Based on conversations with civil society stakeholders on their present challenges, we have  identified three under-researched but critical issues:

a. Resourcing resilience, close to the ground

In an era of growing linkages between rights oriented civil society organizations and the donor/philanthropic community, financial resources have become a key area of contestation. Only a tiny proportion of development assistance actually goes directly to civil society in the global South. Fickle donor priorities and excessive deference to whims of governments that restrict international funding have caused several smaller organizations to fold up. At the same time, bigger ones, which are more adept at marketing and meeting sophisticated accounting requirements of donors, are expanding. The organized civil society firmament has already started to resemble the market with big franchises edging out locally owned and rooted businesses. For example, an organization run by Syrian refugees in Turkey says they have experienced difficulties accessing international funding despite having much more relevant local knowledge than the international organizations that attract global donors. International donors should be mindful of how their red tape excludes community organizations that possess local expertise and have significantly lower overheads.

b. Beyond accounts-ability

Across the world, the legitimacy of organized civil society is being challenged on several fronts, from politicians demonizing them as disconnected special interest groups to social movements that see traditional CSOs as arcane at best and co-opted at worst. The usual ways in which CSOs demonstrate their accountability—through compliance with regulatory requirements and donor reporting are proving insufficient to convince skeptical politicians or publics. We thus need to move beyond just “accounts-ability” to enhanced transparency and dialogue with communities, not for the sake of checking a box but because they are key to making meaningful change. This shift could include things like people-centred decision-making, real-time adaptation to stakeholder needs, and nurturing the next generation of social change-makers. This form of accountability is not only about financial reporting and transparency to donors but about meaningful dialogue with affected communities and stakeholders, and keeping an eye on big picture outcomes to drive organizational decision-making process.

c. Standing together

Lastly, an energetic, civil society-led, global response is needed to counter attacks on civic freedoms. Many of us have done a good job of ensuring that the reality of closing civic space is on the international community’s radar, but efforts to push back against restrictions are often duplicative and uncoordinated. We must make clear that the enabling of civil society rights is an essential part of the defense of democracy. To do this, we need to form and work in progressive alliances, bringing together substantial masses of citizens and connecting classic CSOs, protest movements, journalists, trade unions, youth groups, social enterprises, artistic platforms and many other parts of the civil society universe.

A robust civic space can only exist within a functioning democracy, and thus safeguarding civil society also involves re-imagining more participatory models of democracy, with citizens at their heart. Seen in this way, the over-arching challenge is not a technical, short-term one of pushing back on attacks on civic space, but a longer-term political one of re-imagining a more participatory landscape where substantive democracy thrives.

***This article is an extract of an essay published in the 26th edition of the Sur Journal of Human Rights.

 

Making Budgets work for Gender Equality in Ethiopia

This article was originally published on the GPSA Knowledge Platform by Lucia Nass

Despite strong legal frameworks for gender equality, Ethiopian women still have a lot of catching up to do. They occupy a low status in society and their developmental outcomes are still well below those of men. Ethiopia has started to support Gender Responsive Budging (GRB), but is this creating the desired effect on gender equality?

The Ethiopia Social Accountability Program phase 2 (ESAP2) introduced GRB tool in almost a quarter of Ethiopia’s 1000 districts across five public services: education, health, water, agriculture, and rural roads. We guided over 110 local organizations to help communities assess the standards and budgets of basic services they received, prioritize necessary improvement, engage in dialogue with service providers and local government, and realize the agreed reforms.

Initially, very few CSOs chose to work with the GRB tool because it provided limited implementation guidelines and also gender expertise was not well developed among the CSOs. The ESAP team invited an Ethiopian gender consultant and engaged with CSOs, communities, and government gender experts in an action research process to make a new GRB tool that would work for social accountability at local government level.

CSOs start with identifying and mobilizing local gender and budget expertise, which can support the social accountability process. In Ethiopia, this usually involves the Women, Children and Youth Affairs Office; the Financial Transparency and Accountability expert; and experts from the sector offices. They also timed social accountability activities to the budget cycle, so that citizens can influence budget decisions and review. Before conducting gender analysis, awareness is raised among service providers on the government’s gender policies for service delivery. Then gender analysis of service access and benefits is facilitated where community members are involved in comparing the impact of basic services on women to that of men. Citizens and service providers are then brought together to discuss local budgets and set priorities for gender equitable spending on public services. This leads to prioritization of spending on improvements that promote gender equality. Citizens subsequently monitor that service improvements indeed benefit women and men as agreed during the budget discussions.

Interestingly, the CSOs had already completed a full cycle of the SA process before the new GRB tool was introduced. Focusing on the same services, the communities’ priorities changed. All six pilots show that new issues were prioritised. In Debre Markos town, GRB highlighted sexual harassment of school girls. The community had already identified the need of a fence to protect students from residents who could wander into the school yard at any time. The gender analysis highlighted the negative impact of drinking houses in terms of the harassment of school girls by their customers. The issue was raised during the interface meeting, and local authorities subsequently moved the drinking houses to the other end of town.

Pilots encountered secondary schools with no separate toilets for boys and girls, and agricultural extension services that focus solely on crops grown by men. Ethiopia’s basic services may on paper appear gender neutral, but in practice they are not. Gender analysis can demonstrate how service delivery that is seemingly “gender neutral” does in fact perpetuate gender bias. We learned how to integrate gender analysis with each step of a social accountability process at local government level. Our GRB tool brings abstract gender policies to life for men and women, service providers and district officials.

We hope that our work will inspire SA practitioners to develop GRB for local government budgets. This publication explains how we developed the tool and gives more detail to the results achieved for gender equality in basic service access and benefits.

Engaging government differently: social audits and service delivery

This video tells us about a success story of the first Collaborative Social Audit in South Africa in 3 informal settlements in Wattville, Ekurhuleni Gauteng, South Africa.

 

In 2016, Albert Van Zyl of the International Budget Partnership (IBP) wrote the following blog on social audits in South Africa:

Are Social Audits Soft on Government?

In contrast to campaigns that are more inherently confrontational, social audits invest heavily in unpacking and decoding government budget policy and processes. They often start by examining official documents to understand what service delivery commitments the government has made and what viable counter proposals might look like. This is not to say that social audits can’t form part of larger campaigns that use a variety of tactics to get the government to respond. But this engagement is firmly rooted in the facts and figures that the government itself releases in official documents.

None of this makes social audits “soft” on government, it is simply a different style of getting and holding the attention of government so as to engage on an issue of importance. Most participants felt that social audits embody a style of advocacy worth preserving. They pointed out the power of social audit fundamentals, such as community ownership as well as using evidence and official commitments to engage with government. Given that this advocacy approach is based on a deep understanding of budgets and policies, social audits can in some cases actually be harder on government — and should certainly be harder to ignore.

Does Credibility Matter?

Despite being firmly rooted in evidence, not everyone gives social audits the respect they are due. Parts of the South African government have chosen to question the validity of audit findings and quibble about the rigor of the data collection and analysis. Civil society organizations have sometimes responded by tightening up these aspects of their social audits. In other cases, such as with Equal Education’s school sanitation audit, CSOs have appointed highly regarded independent observers to vouch for the rigor of the process.

Yet, as one participant pointed out, “legitimacy does not guarantee accountability.” Ultimately these challenges by government are motivated less by a concern for scientific rigor, and are more about wriggling out of the tough questions asked about how well officials are doing their jobs. Independent observers and solid methods may make it harder for the government to dismiss the findings of social audits, but they do not guarantee accountability. For that CSOs need to use other tactics, like generating media coverage and mobilizing popular support.

Who Sets the Agenda for a Social Audit?

The questions of who decides which issue to focus on is a crucial one because community ownership is such essential part of a social audit. At the same time, social audits are so information and knowledge intensive that focusing on a single issue often makes them more effective. In the first few social audits conducted in South Africa, membership based organizations, like the SJC and Equal Education, used social audits as part of ongoing campaigns where the agenda had already been set. This made it easy to decide on the issue and get the relevant communities’ commitment.

More recent social audits, like that conducted by Ndifuna Ukwazi in Wolwerivier, brought in an external organization to assist the community with the social audit. This made the agenda question a lot more difficult to deal with. Facilitating organizations know focusing on a single issue increases the impact of a social audit, but communities are faced with such a myriad of service delivery problems and interest groups that it can be hard to agree on a single issue.

This poses some interesting questions about how social audits can be replicated across South Africa. The situation where external organizations help communities to conduct social audits seems almost necessary for them to become more widespread.  But can effective social audits only be conducted as part of campaigns with well-developed agendas? Or can they be adapted to help new campaigns refine their agendas?

“How do we bring about a social audit revolution?”

One participant in the workshop posed this very question. The excitement over social audits has spread rapidly among South African civil society, and also in government and the donor community. This has resulted in numerous requests for social audit training. But, as many participants warned, social audits are not a silver bullet for solving all of South Africa’s service delivery issues and they don’t lend themselves to a one-size-fits-all approach. Where a service delivery problem is caused by insufficient budget rather than poor implementation, for example, a social audit may not be the best way to proceed.

The SJC, NU, Planact, and Equal Education have done an admirable job of promoting the practice in South Africa, choosing slow steady growth in the number of audits and organizations conducting them over letting a thousand flowers bloom. They have also created a social audit guide and formed a Social Audit Network to support such new initiatives. This network is now planning to coordinate the growing body of experienced social audit practitioners to ensure that new auditors have access to old hands.

Social audits are a powerful tool. But knowing how and when to use them, and understanding their underlying principles, are key to their effectiveness. While they may not always be the quickest way to prompt the government to respond, the kind of changes they stand to deliver could well be revolutionary.

This blog post was originally published on the IBP website

Concerns in the Eastern Cape education budget

PSAM education researcher, Siyabulela Fobosi, has released his budget analysis for the Eastern Cape Education department 2018. Here he outlines some of the key concerns in the province’s budget for education.

What is of concern is that the planning and budgeting of R57 billion for fee-free higher education comes with the baseline reduction to the basic education budget. For example, Programme 6 (Infrastructure Development) of the ECDoE decreased by 10%, in nominal terms, from R1.7 billion in 2017/18 to R1.5 billion in 2018/19. In real terms, the allocation to this Programme decreased by 13% to R1.4 billion.  The reason for this decline is due to the reduction in the funding for two conditional grants, namely Education Infrastructure Grant and Maths Science and Technology Grant. This reduction will delay the completion of currently existing infrastructure projects such as hostels, special schools and Early Childhood Development (ECD) Centres.

The reduction in budget for infrastructure is concerning, considering the interdependence of the basic and higher education sectors. One would expect government to ensure massive investment in basic education, so that learners progress well to the higher education. The high fees in universities are not the only reason why many of the learners from the poor schools cannot access higher education. It is also due to the inequalities in the early years of schooling. It remains a challenge for most learners in South Africa, to pass matric well and obtain a qualification in higher education, especially in the context where learners are repeating Grade 3 and 4.

The lack of adequate appropriate infrastructure in schools does adversely impacts on progress towards ensuring equitable access to education and resources. It is particularly disconcerting to note the reductions to important programmes such as the Infrastructure Development which will undoubtedly result in the delay of school infrastructure projects in a province already showing high rates of under-delivery. This reduction is unfavorable for the progressive realisation of the rights of learners to quality basic education. In order to ensure that the budget allocated for infrastructure delivery, the Department must improve the management and monitoring of expenditure. It is high time that the ECDoE, assisted by the Eastern Cape Provincial Legislature, addresses failures in school infrastructure provisioning.  Given the funding constraint and overriding economic context – it is imperative for the ECDoE to ensure the efficient, prudent utilisation of limited resources to ensure optimal delivery of a range of education services.

Given the funding constraint and overriding economic context – it is imperative for the ECDoE to ensure the efficient, prudent utilisation of limited resources to ensure optimal delivery of a range of education services.

Confronting Partisanship and Divisions in Kenya

Written by Kimani Njogu, originally published as part of a series of essays: Examining Civil Society Legitimacy

Kenya is often lauded for promulgating one of the world’s most liberal constitutions. Passed on August 27, 2010, it radically devolves power to county governments, ensures the separation of powers, and entrenches a progressive bill of rights. This would have been impossible without the work of robust, courageous, and independent civil society organizations (CSOs). Civic actors first laid down their recommendations for constitutional reform in the document “Kenya Tuitakayo” (The Kenya We Want), which became a crucial resource for the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission. After former president Daniel Arap Moi asked at a public rally what “Wanjiku”—a common name, meant to refer to ordinary Kenyans—could possibly know about constitution-making, civil society appropriated the term, popularized it, and turned it into an organizing symbol for the constitutional reform process.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the legitimacy of Kenya’s civil society stemmed from its engagement with key issues that all citizens cared about. Following the liberalization of political space, CSOs undertook extensive civic education on basic rights and how public sector corruption affects citizens’ access to health, food, shelter, and education. They provided a link between citizens’ daily lives and the people who occupied leadership positions in government. Faith-based organizations offered sanctuary to those targeted by the state and used their platforms to speak about the need for political change.

Yet over the past ten years, the political climate has changed. A number of politicians have publicly questioned the legitimacy of CSOs, especially those engaged in governance and human rights. Some have referred to civil society as “evil society,” a label used to rationalize new restrictions on civic space. These attacks have their roots in the 2007–2008 electoral crisis. In the aftermath of the violence, CSOs worked closely with public institutions and international agencies to collect evidence against those suspected of having orchestrated unrest. When the International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted several senior political leaders, the latter used ethnic identity and nationalism to mobilize their followers to fight back. State functionaries accused CSOs of working with foreigners to undermine the sovereignty of the nation. Although the ICC later dropped the cases, the “foreign agent” label stuck. It has undermined CSOs’ relationship with the wider population and weakened their claims to legitimacy. Political elites’ incessant instrumentalization of ethnic identity has further exacerbated the problem. They have tried to paint civil society as ethnically biased in order to erode public trust in their positions. As a result, it has become harder for civic actors carry out their work.

Kenyan CSOs also have been tainted by the perception that they are partisan political actors. This perception is particularly damaging in a context of high ethnic polarization where oversight institutions are weak. During the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections, the incumbent government accused some civil society actors of siding with particular opposition candidates and political parties. This perception stemmed from the fact that parts of civil society voiced their opposition to politicians who had previously been indicted for crimes against humanity by the ICC and who were viewed as intolerant to the civil liberties enshrined in the constitution.

Perceptions of partisanship have not only alienated some civil society stakeholders but also fostered ideological divisions within civil society. Of particular concern, for example, are tensions over electoral justice between development and peace-building groups on the one hand and human rights organizations on the other. Whereas the latter emphasize that electoral justice is essential for sustainable peace, the former have argued that in a highly polarized nation like Kenya, electoral justice can only be realized in a stable, calm, and nonviolent atmosphere. The fact that some human rights actors have used labels such as “peace-preneurs” to categorize organizations working to prevent election-related violence does not help build the legitimacy of the sector. Instead, divisions among CSOs only serve as fodder for attacks by the political elite.

In the current hostile political context, public officials have also exploited administrative rules to crack down on civil society. As a result, it has also become crucial for all organizations to ensure they are properly registered and meet all statutory requirements. In August 2017, for example, the NGO Coordination Board set out to deregister the Kenya Human Rights Commission. It also instructed the Directorate of Criminal Investigations to shut down the operations of the African Centre for Open Governance (Africog) for allegedly operating without a registration certificate. Individuals from the Kenya Revenue Authority raided Africog’s offices over clams of tax noncompliance. Although these allegations were later debunked through the judicial process, it is noteworthy that the state had launched the attack based on alleged noncompliance with legal and regulatory processes. Kenya has hundreds of community-based organizations that generally are viewed as highly legitimate because they are known by their immediate constituencies, from the household to the village. They speak the language of their communities and undertake activities viewed as local priorities. These organizations can easily lose their legitimacy if they are no longer viewed as accountable and transparent in their work.

Kenyan CSOs face a delicate balancing act as they try to build legitimacy while facing continuous attacks by the state. To survive, they should continue to demand accountability in the use of public resources by leaders and public officials. Internally, they ought to build governance and monitoring and evaluation systems that enhance their transparency and advance their mission. They also have to engage with the issues that directly affect their constituencies. When the state seeks to limit civic space, our stakeholders in the communities we serve ought to be our first line of defense.

Kimani Njogu is the director of Twaweza Communications (Nairobi), an arts, culture, and media institution committed to freedom of expression. Dr. Kimani is Chair of the Board of Trustees at the Legal Resources Foundation Trust and Content-Development Intellectual Property (CODE-IP) Trust. He is a recipient of the Ford Foundation Champion of Democracy Award and the Pan-African NOMA Award for Publishing in Africa.

Do Multistakeholder Initiatives Deliver on Accountability?

By the International Budget Partnership

A number of multistakeholder initiatives (MSIs) have brought together governments, civil society organizations (CSOs), and private sector firms to hash out a variety of difficult governance issues. Initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, and the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency work to encourage transparency and accountability reforms in a rapidly expanding number of countries around the world.

But while the breadth of these MSIs is inarguable, how deep do reforms really go? What tangible changes are they driving at the country level? These are some of the questions that Dr. Brandon Brockmyer of the Accountability Research Center has been investigating. We recently spoke to Brandon about his research.

IBP: Can you give us a quick outline of your findings in terms of the effectiveness of MSIs?

Brandon: Overall, what I found is that global MSIs are quite good at encouraging participating governments to proactively disclose information about their activities and performance, even in cases where governments are disclosing this information for the first time. However, MSIs are notably less effective at encouraging participating governments to become more responsive to requests from citizens for information that they are not already publishing. This allows governments to retain control of the agenda, deciding what information to disclose.

MSIs help to improve proactive government transparency when two core conditions are in place: First, nongovernmental actors (i.e., civil society and the private sector) must be treated as full and equal partners in MSI decision making and implementation. Second, participating civil society organizations must have the technical expertise to steer disclosure in the right direction, as well as the resources to regularly attend meetings.

IBP: One of the interesting findings is that it seems MSIs are quite effective at advancing transparency, but broader improvements to accountability so far have been more elusive.

Brandon: Currently, global MSIs are designed to tackle transparency directly, while most of these initiatives address accountability only indirectly. This approach seems to assume that there is a straightforward, linear relationship between the two. I think my research findings support a more general consensus emerging in the field that transparency gains alone are unlikely to drive gains in accountability. Disclosed information needs translation, aggregation, benchmarks, and simplification to be useful to potential users. Demands for greater accountability require collective action that can be difficult to organize, especially given that civil society groups vary across regions, sectors, and funding levels and often have different priorities when advocating for government action. And even if these groups can come together to make coherent demands, citizen voice alone may not be an effective channel for changing the incentives of public sector actors, or for gaining greater influence over public resource allocation.

If global MSIs want to tackle the challenge of accountability more directly, their activities probably need to be more purposefully embedded within existing national pro-accountability coalitions. I think this could be done in several ways:

  1. Pro-reform actors—national and local civil society groups, government reformers, and international NGOs that are already invested in the MSI approach—could expand processes for civil society consultation and participation beyond political and economic centers.
  2. National MSI agendas need to be customized so that they resonate with broader civic and social constituencies.
  3. Since MSIs are voluntary, reformers need to petition independent audit institutions, ombudsmen, courts, and legislatures to monitor and support compliance with MSI guidelines and respond with inquiries and sanctions when problems are uncovered through these processes.
  4. If MSIs succeed in facilitating disclosure, newly released information needs to be embedded into existing channels of public discourse and decision making.

IBP: Many of IBP’s civil society partners are also trying to push their governments to improve transparency and accountability. Did you find any evidence where CSOs were able to use MSIs to advance their agendas?

Brandon: Yes, but it really depends on the specific agenda. CSOs that are already working toward greater government transparency will often find natural allies in the government and private sector by engaging with global MSIs. In these cases, MSIs offer a powerful way to advance their agendas. However, for those CSOs that value transparency primarily as a tool for advancing a broader social or environmental agenda, participation in a global MSI may be a costly distraction. In fact, I found that participating governments sometimes use MSIs to “openwash”— that is, to project a public image of transparency and accountability, while maintaining questionable practices.

IBP: IBP engages with initiatives like OGP and GIFT, particularly at the global level, while at the same time supporting many local CSOs at the national and local level. What insights do you have about bridging these big global movements with the nitty-gritty challenges that CSOs face on the ground?

Brandon: I think it’s critical that CSOs considering engaging with global MSIs have a realistic sense for how MSI activities and outputs might fit into their own broader reform strategies. Conversely, it’s equally important that global MSI architects work to tailor activities and outputs to fit the needs of pro-reform actors in participating countries.

IBP is well placed to inform both sides of this equation. IBP can educate CSOs about how global MSIs work, so the CSOs can make informed decisions about whether to get involved. If CSOs decide to participate, IBP can also serve as an invaluable resource for effective strategies and tactics for using global MSI processes to achieve their domestic goals. Simultaneously, IBP can use its influence within these global initiatives to advocate from a CSO perspective for MSI membership rules, events, and training opportunities are optimally geared toward producing the types of transparency and civic participation that CSOs identify as critical for their broader reform strategies to work. Nevertheless, it’s also important to remember that the reform process is likely to unfold somewhat differently across various contexts. As a result, IBP can guide MSIs toward offering participating members a more useful toolkit, but MSIs must still avoid being overly prescriptive.

Admittedly, this is a tough balance to strike. But by embracing the fact that not every global MSI will be a good fit in every context, IBP can help global MSIs improve their credibility, and help national and local CSOs avoid pointless opportunity costs.

This article was origninally published by the IBP here

South Africa’s print media is failing to empower citizens on corruption

By Vanessa Malila, Rhodes University

The mainstream media can play an important role in fighting corruption. Investigative journalists in South Africa, for instance, helped to expose how the politically connected Gupta family “captured” elements of the governing African National Congress.

As watchdogs of society, the media is well placed to forge social accountability: the collective effort of citizens and civil society in holding governments to account for their management and use of public resources. These groups need to be informed if they’re to succeed.

There are two ways for the media to fulfil its social accountability role. The first is through good investigative journalism. This, as scholar Professor Sheila Coronel has written

exposes not just individual, but also systemic failures. Investigative reports show how individual wrongs are part of a larger pattern of negligence or abuse and the systems that make these possible.

The second is that the media should function as a bridge between governments and citizens. It can provide the public with the information they require to debate and participate in public discussions and processes. This notion is much more aligned to the media’s role as a space for debate and engagement by citizens regarding public and political life. Here, journalism’s function is educational. The public is in the driving seat – but only if they’re a well informed citizenry able to participate in decisions about how public resources are managed.

So how is South Africa’s media doing when it comes to fulfilling this second role? Not very well, according to research conducted for the Public Service Accountability Monitor at Rhodes University. The accountability monitor forms part of the School of Journalism & Media Studies and aims to ensure the right to social accountability is universally realised.

Our findings reveal gaps in the media’s work. Journalists assume that merely reporting on scandals, corrupt officials or maladministration justifies their role as watchdogs. Instead, mainstream print media coverage on service delivery and public resource management normalises corruption because it reports in an episodic fashion, focusing on events rather than systemic failures.

This normalisation of corruption and public service failure means that media coverage doesn’t result in actual accountability.

Analysing coverage

The Eastern Cape is a troubled province. It’s home to 7 million people and is the poorest in South Africa. It measures badly against almost all metrics. More than half of the province’s schools have no water; 73% have no proper toilets. None of this information is unknown: there are daily stories in the press about the poor state of education in the province. Blame is apportioned and fingers are pointed. But little changes.

The research conducted by Public Service Accountability Monitor looked at coverage of education in the Eastern Cape by mainstream print media between 2005 and 2016. The articles analysed provide a glimpse of the type of “balanced” and episodic reporting that proliferates South Africa’s mainstream press.

Rather than connecting incidences of corruption or maladministration to citizens’ daily lives, the coverage simply alerts readers to the event with no context and no clear lines of accountability. This is inadequate for providing citizens with the information they require to become active participants in holding public officials in the education sector to account.

Instead, coverage of maladministration follows a formulaic pattern: an event is reported and a government official is asked to comment. There’s little or no investigation of how this maladministration was allowed to occur and how it will be prevented from happening again.

This type of coverage also normalises corruption and public resource management crises in the public sector. This is because it reports on these issues in much the same way as it reports other events, producing journalism which fails to act as the fourth estate because it fails to hold public officials to higher standards than other citizens.

The media needs to help people understand that poor service delivery is a result of systemic weaknesses. And these weaknesses result from the way in officials handle resources that actually belong to the public. The stories in our sample lack depth, context and a critical understanding of the way in which individual events are related to a bigger system of public resource management.

For example, when reporting on education infrastructure – the kind of problem
that can result in learners being hurt or even killed – the coverage is consistently about the event. Journalists writing the articles fail to ask why a department with infrastructure problems consistently under-spends its vast budget.

More importantly, who is responsible for such under-spending and mismanagement? Journalists fail to understand where weaknesses in the public resource management system are resulting in maladministration, lack of service delivery and corruption.

Strengthening the media

So how can the media’s contribution towards its role as a “bridge” between government and citizens be strengthened?

One strategy proposed is to build better relationships with civil society organisations that have spent years developing expertise in the area.

Why not draw on the voices of civil society? These are the groups implementing advocacy programmes, conducting research and engaging at a deeper level on how to improve public resource management and curb corruption.

The ConversationBoth the media and civil society need to rethink the way they understand their roles when it comes to social accountability – as well as their roles in relation to each other. By drawing on the strengths of both civil society and the media, the potential for social accountability practice, and through this greater service delivery, can be improved.

Vanessa Malila, Public Service Accountability Monitor: Advocacy Impact Programme Head, Rhodes University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Authoritarian accountability and accountable authoritarianism

This article was written by Mariz Tadros and first published on the IDS website here

With the proliferation of donor-funded accountability programmes, including in authoritarian settings, are we in danger of mistaking the means for the end? Do accountability tools such as community scorecards, workshops and roundtables, or participatory budgeting provide a convenient “citizen engagement” gloss without seriously probing uneven distribution of power or the stifling of marginalised groups?

It may seem unusual to talk about accountability and authoritarianism in the same breath. And yet multilateral and bilateral donors invest enormous amounts of funding into implementing accountability programmes in authoritarian contexts.

Given that accountability is still important in donor circles, this is unlikely to change any time soon.

The implementation of accountability-promoting programmes in authoritarian contexts is informed by a number of assumptions about how change happens, assumptions very similar to those that informed advocacy promotion initiatives of the 1990s and early 2000s.

These assumptions are that:

  1. Governments have the political will and/or capacity to respond to citizen demands in some way
  2. There is a democratic space (or at least a modicum of it) which allows for expression of citizen voice
  3. There is an understanding of how policy influencing pathways and policymakers work (broadly speaking)
  4. Technical know-how in claims-making will empower local actors to challenge power-holders

The absence of these conditions, or, uncertainty over how they will develop due to high levels of unpredictability, leads to a wide array of relationships that allow for the co-existence of authoritarian rule alongside accountability initiatives. It is probably best to think of them as a spectrum of possible power configurations, that extend from one extreme with authoritarian accountability, to the other with accountable authoritarianism.

Neither, however, are absolute and both shift temporally and spatially as opposed to being binary.

What exactly is Authoritarian Accountability?

At one extreme end of the continuum is when authoritarian systems of governance are kept intact or even strengthened by being associated with Western-style accountability programmes.

When it comes to identifying their impact, this phenomenon very much resembles the democratisation programmes being implemented in authoritarian settings during the 1990s and early 2000s, which Steven Heydemann has described as “upgrading authoritarianism”. Although the case studies he presents are from the Arab world, they are easily applicable to other contexts where authorities are able to effectively accommodate the introduction of measures that give a semblance of tolerating non-state political contestation but in a deeply controlled manner so that they do not pose a threat to the status quo.

Accountability programmes that function in authoritarian contexts without disturbing the status quo in substantial or even marginal ways initially generate win-win situations for donors and governments alike: the former can tick the ‘doing accountability’ box, and the latter can project an image of good relations between the governed and the governing.

In most cases, the label “accountable” is latched onto donor-funded programmes that essentially focus on applying tools and implementing activities. For example:

  • community members using score cards to rank priority measures/areas
  • roundtables between communities and local officials
  • school council meetings involving parents asking for improved educational services, etc.

These measures in and of themselves can be highly participatory and may sometimes even give access to officials that would otherwise not be possible. The problem is, however, they have no teeth because they are undertaken in a very controlled manner and have no roots in the community.

A given regime gains facade of accountability – but little more.

In essence such programmes can be interesting exercises in the application of accountability tools on the ground, which if we acknowledge them as such, at least we are realistic about the limits of donor-induced authoritarian accountability. The tragedy is that they are celebrated, lauded, and applauded as if they are genuine expressions of citizen power.

And what about Accountable Authoritarianism?

At the other end of the spectrum is accountable authoritarianism – when pockets of people or sub-sections within the governance system become responsive to citizen-led demands. Authorities may not  admit to it and their responsiveness doesn’t drastically shake up the status quo.

If the problem with authoritarian accountability discussed above is that it’s an apolitical, technical fix, the problem with accountable authoritarianism is that it does not fit the critics’ conceptual framing of what kind of effect qualifies as an accountability outcome.

In some respects, perhaps they are right. In some contexts where space is so deeply circumscribed, accountability, understood through in the traditional meaning of answerability and sanctions-enforcement, is not going to happen except rarely and on a limited scale, unless there is regime overthrow.

But the tragedy is that this results in accountability struggles being overlooked because we forget that they are operating in contexts where democratic prerequisites, such as enforcement of rule of law, fair process, freedom of expression, freedom of association, etc., are missing.

In fact, there are many accountability struggles occurring in highly authoritarian contexts: how they have framed the issue, their pathways and the kind of power configurations they have shifted have often been nothing short of ingenious.

Take, for example, women and men mobilising in a highly authoritarian context to institutionalise an anti-sexual harassment policy by establishing a unit to respond to violations on a university campus which liaises with police and ensures justice is served. The fact that they are able to make elements of authoritarian systems carve out pathways through which claims-making and redress are possible is highly significant. And it makes authoritarianism accountable in some small way.

These initiatives may not shout “accountability” to an audience acquainted with jargon and recognisable tools/methods (as described above). Instead, they are locally–led, non-projectised and premised on working with the grain of changing political opportunities of influence.

And above, all, the key difference with accountable authoritarianism, is that shifts in power do occur, even if these are temporally and spatially limited.

Authoritarian Accountability and Accountable Authoritarianism: two sides of the same coin?

Some would argue that whichever way you look at it, accountable authoritarianism or authoritarian accountability, the hazards are the same: the appropriation by repressive regimes of accountability initiatives to enhance their external (or even internal) image of tolerance and reasonableness.

For example, in Mubarak’s Egypt, well-intentioned multilateral agencies such as the UNDP sought to foster a culture of respect for human rights among security personnel by inviting them to capacity building workshops with human rights organisations.

Ultimately the programme had the unintended outcome of extending security personnel’s outreach within the human rights sector.

Perhaps another way to describe authoritarian accountability is as “Accountability-lite”. It manifests itself as externally-funded, technical fix-its which are far different from accountability struggles that go some way to making their authoritarian regimes a little more accountable.

The former may not endure because the face-lift it gives to authoritarianism is so contingent upon external drivers in projectivised forms.

The latter are part of people’s struggles to find spaces and niches in which they can extract some accountability while at the same time knowing that the “redlines” of what is politically permissible are changing and unpredictable, and require constant adaptation.

Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) – IDS-led research set in fragile, violent and conflict-affected contexts

In the Action for Empowerment and Accountability programme (A4EA) we continue to explore the tensions and complexities of how accountability “sits” with authoritarian and highly unpredictable systems of governance.

Across very different contexts (Pakistan, Mozambique, Nigeria, Egypt and Myanmar), we at least know that we need to avoid two extremities: overlooking the dangers of donor-led authoritarian accountability programmes that give window-dressing impressions of citizen contestation and under-estimating the potential for power shifts occurring on the margins of the governance systems which go some way to making authoritarianism a little more accountable.

Along the spectrum of different configurations of how authoritarianism and accountability sit together, there will always be many unintended outcomes and ripple effects of both positive and negative kinds, as will be discussed in a forthcoming blog.

This article was written by Mariz Tadros and first published on the IDS website here

Which Citizens? Which Services? Unpacking Demand for Improved Health, Education, Roads, Water etc

By Ruth Carlitz of the University of Gothenburg. Originally posted on the From Poverty to Power blog.

Clean water. Paved roads. Quality education. Election campaigns in poor countries typically promise such things, yet the reality on the ground often falls short. So, what do people do? Wait for five years and “throw the bums out” if they fail to deliver? For many people, the stakes are too high, and they may have well-grounded doubts about the ability of democracy to deliver anything other than a new set of bums. It’s worth asking, then, what other actions citizens take to improve their lives.

Building on Richard Batley and Claire Mcloughlin’s work on service characteristics as well as my own research on the politics of service delivery in East Africa, I’ve identified various factors affecting the likelihood that people will mobilize for improved public services. These include how frequently people experience (problems with) a given service, their ability to pay for private alternatives, and their expectations about the likelihood of improvements in response to their actions.

To better understand such dynamics, I’ve begun exploring data from the Local Governance Performance Index survey implemented in Malawi in 2016. The survey asked respondents what problems they faced with a range of issues related to service delivery. Those reporting problems were then asked if they turned to someone for help with the problem, who they turned to and why, whether and how the problem was resolved, and whether they were satisfied with the response.

Carlitz fig 1The figure depicts the main actors people turn to for help. In general people are most likely to turn to family members, friends or neighbors, followed by village leaders. Higher-level government officials are in a distant third place, despite the fact that they may hold much more sway when it comes to influencing outcomes on the ground.

Next, we can look at how demographics affect the likelihood of people turning to different actors. Wealthier respondents and those with more education are less likely to turn to friends and family, perhaps because they have the resources to solve problems on their own. This may also reflect their ability to exit the public system (e.g., going to a private clinic when the public health system falls short). On the other hand, such people are more likely to turn to other government officials, and to school officials – suggesting they may feel more empowered to approach authority figures. Gender also matters. Women are less likely to turn to village leaders or any other government officials but more likely to turn to school officials with their problems – perhaps because they are more involved in their children’s education. Finally, civic skills (having attended a community meeting in the past year) is positively associated with seeking assistance from all actors.

In neighboring Tanzania, recent survey data finds that nearly a quarter of all respondents took action to improve service delivery (education, health, or water) in 2015. The chart on the right unpacks what people meant by “taking Carlitz fig 2action.” Overall, Tanzanians were more likely to attend committee meetings than take any other action. We also see that people were generally more likely to raise issues in smaller group settings rather than more publicly (e.g., by calling in to the radio). Finally, note the low proportions of respondents who report tracking things like drug stockouts, teacher attendance, or water point functionality – suggesting that the focus of many citizen monitoring initiatives (report cards, etc.) may not jibe with people’s normal way of doing things.

When it comes to which citizens are taking action, we see similar results to Malawi. Specifically, civic skills are associated with increases in all forms of action-taking. Women on the other hand are less likely to take action across the board. Wealth matters, though only for actions related to education and health. Respondents who are more informed (listen to the radio more frequently) are also more likely to take actions of all kinds, though it is interesting to note that education levels do not demonstrate any relationship with action-taking. Finally, internal efficacy (belief in one’s own ability to make effective demands) is positively associated with actions related to all sectors, while external efficacy (expectations of government responsiveness to such demands) only seems to matter for water.

The paper I prepared for Twaweza’s recent Ideas & Evidence event digs into these relationships in greater detail. While preliminary, it highlights the importance of paying attention to the ways in which service delivery differs twaweza conferenceacross and within sectors. This is critical when it comes to supporting initiatives to enhance the efficacy of citizen engagement, which, despite having generated mixed results to date, continue to benefit from considerable amounts of funding.

As a final thought, practitioners may wish to consider which aspects of service delivery might be amenable to influence. For instance, establishing community groups could create greater scope for users to share information and coalesce around shared needs. Such groups will likely be more effective when they build on existing institutional channels rather than set up parallel structures. This implies taking time to learn about people’s existing routines for problem-solving, and supporting those strategies which seem to be generating more results. In other words, working with the (local) grain.

Public goods and services can also be distributed in such a way that reduces the availability of exit options. For example, a recent study of handpump distribution in Kenya advises against clustering, as people will be more motivated to maintain their local water points if they don’t have ready alternatives.

Finally, it may also be possible to shift expectations about the possibility of improved service delivery — in particular, providing information in a way that facilitates bench-marking. For instance, learning that everyone in the neighboring district has water piped into their houses when you are spending hours each day collecting buckets from a far-away tap could serve as a tipping point

Where does this leave us? For those of us who earn our keep by cranking out conference papers and journal articles (and the occasional blog) there is much work to be done. Hopefully, such work can help to guide donors when it comes to making impactful investments, and practitioners when it comes to making actual impact.

Originally posted on the From Poverty to Power blog.