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.

Could the open government movement shut the door on Freedom of Information?

By: Suzanne J. Piotrowski, Rutgers University Newark ; Alex Ingrams, Tilburg University, and Daniel Berliner, London School of Economics and Political Science

For democracy to work, citizens need to know what their government is doing. Then they can hold government officials and institutions accountable.

Over the last 50 years, Freedom of Information – or FOI – laws have been one of the most useful methods for citizens to learn what government is doing. These state and federal laws give people the power to request, and get, government documents. From everyday citizens to journalists, FOI laws have proven a powerful way to uncover the often-secret workings of government.

But a potential threat is emerging – from an unexpected place – to FOI laws.

We are scholars of government administration, ethics and transparency. And our research leads us to believe that while FOI laws have always faced many challenges, including resistance, evasion, and poor implementation and enforcement, the last decade has brought a different kind of challenge in the form of a new approach to transparency.

Technology rules

The new kid on the block is the open government movement. And despite the fact that it shares a fundamental goal with the more established FOI movement – government transparency – the open government movement threatens to harm FOI by cornering the already limited public and private funding and government staffing available for transparency work.

The open government movement is driven by technology and seeks to make government operate in the open in as many ways as possible.

This includes not just letting citizens request information, as in FOI, but by making online information release an everyday routine of government. It also tries to open up government by including citizens more in designing solutions to public policy problems.

One example of this hands-on approach is through participatory budgeting initiatives, which allows citizens to help decide, via online and in-person information sharing and meetings, how part of the public budget is spent. Thus, while open government and FOI advocates both want government transparency, open government is a broader concept that relies more on technology and encourages more public participation and collaboration.

One type of open government initiative is data portals, such as Data.gov. Governments post lots of data that anyone can access and download for free on topics such as the environment, education and public safety.

Another popular open government reform is crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing asks the general public to come up with ideas to solve government problems or collect data for government projects. Two popular crowdsourcing initiatives in the U.S. are Challenge.gov and citizen science projects, such as the ones for Environmental Protection Agency where citizens are testing water quality.

Advocates of FOI and open government talk about them in similar ways and indeed participate in many of the same initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership. That initiative is a global partnership of countries that develop multiple types of open government practices like anti-corruption programs, open budgets or crowdsourcing events.

Movements complement each other

The open government movement could help FOI implementation. Government information posted online, which is a core goal of open government advocates, can reduce the number of FOI requests. Open government initiatives can explicitly promote FOI by encouraging the passage of FOI laws, offering more training for officials who fill FOI requests, and developing technologies to make it easier to process and track FOI requests.

There’s a lot to the Freedom of Information Act.
U.S. Department of Justice

On the other hand, the relationship between open government and FOI may not always be positive in practice.

First, as with all kinds of public policy issues, resources – both money and political attention – are inherently scarce. Government officials now have to divide their attention between FOI and other open government initiatives. And funders now have to divide their financial resources between FOI and other open government initiatives.

Second, the open government reform movement as well as the FOI movement have long depended on nonprofit advocacy groups – from the National Freedom of Information Coalition and its state affiliates to the Sunlight Foundation – to obtain and disseminate government information. This means that the financial stability of those nonprofit groups is crucial. But their efforts, as they grow, may each only get a shrinking portion of the total amount of grant money available. Freedominfo.org, a website for gathering and comparing information on FOI laws around the world, had to suspend its operations in 2017 due to resources drying up.

We believe that priorities among government officials and good government advocates may also shift away from FOI. At a time when open data is “hot,” FOI programs could get squeezed as a result of this competition. Further, by allowing governments to claim credit for more politically convenient reforms such as online data portals, the open government agenda may create a false sense of transparency – there’s a lot more government information that isn’t available in those portals.

This criticism was leveled recently against Kenya, whose government launched a high-profile open data portal for publishing data on government performance and activities in 2011, yet delayed passage of an FOI law until 2016.

Similarly, in the United Kingdom, one government minister said in 2012, “I’d like to make Freedom of Information redundant, by pushing out so much data that people won’t have to ask for it.”

Open data, no substitute for FOI

But the World Wide Web Foundation, the founder of the global open data ranking system called the Open Data Barometer, reported in 2015 that the United Kingdom government was using its first place ranking in the Barometer to “justify a (government) mandate to review, and allegedly limit, the Freedom of Information Act.”

Open government programs not mandated by law are easier to roll back than legislatively mandated FOI programs. In the U.S., the Trump administration took down the White House open data portal. The move was immediately condemned by open government advocates, to no avail. In other cases, new open government efforts could hinder existing FOI implementation due to a limited number of staff members assigned to transparency work.

One indication of this is a 2015 Mexican reform that increased the categories of information that government agencies were required to post in the online Portal de Obligaciones de Transparencia.

But the job of identifying and digitizing this information was given to agencies’ existing FOI response units – without any additional staff or resources. This led to severe administrative burdens and, in some cases, slower response times to FOI requests. Meanwhile, the updated portal was criticized for a complicated interface and unreliable or missing information.

Is it possible for open government and FOI to avoid the mistakes seen in the Mexican case? Some experts are optimistic. Beth Simone Noveck, who served as the first United States deputy chief technology officer and director of the White House Open Government Initiative from 2009 to 2011, suggests that “in the long term, FOIA and open data may themselves converge as we move to a future where all government data sits in a secure but readily-accessible cloud.”

The ConversationSuch a happy convergence would require a commitment by government to have any new or merged systems reflect the goals of both FOI and open government. That would mean a system that both supported existing avenues for transparency while also adding new ones. As scholars, we are unclear which direction government will take and thus, whether the public interest will ultimately be served.

Suzanne J. Piotrowski, Associate Professor, School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA), Rutgers University Newark ; Alex Ingrams, Assistant Professor, Tilburg University, and Daniel Berliner, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, London School of Economics and Political Science

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

Declining institutional trust: the need for the South African state to reconcile itself with the society it governs

Originally posted on the IJR website by Tiaan Meiring

Over the past two years, the trustworthiness of political institutions across the globe have generally taken a hiding. This is best illustrated by the rise in populist leaders across Europe and the USA, many riding the wave of increased anti-establishment sentiment (alongside anti-immigrant nationalism).

Domestically, the South African polity continues to be plagued by multiple divisions: i) structural exclusion that still correlates with apartheid boundaries, ii) vast disparities in income and wealth between different class and racial groupings, iii) perpetual incidences of racist and xenophobic confrontations (and the persistence of their underlying sentiments), iv) high levels of civil unrest and demands for increased resource allocation in a stagnating macro-economic environment, and v) large sections of the governing executive and public institutions that stand accused of large-scale, systemic nepotism, corruption and being ‘captured’ by private interests. Not only does this sketch a society and social groupings that are divided amongst themselves, but it also highlights the lack of trust in a central authority that can act as a unifying, progressive and developmental force. Supposedly, this central authority should be the state envisioned in all of the country’s key legislative- and policy literature, from the Constitution to the National Development Plan.

In a society with such a divisive history, the post-1994 government’s role in state- and nation-building was always going to be crucial to its cohesion and sustainability. Indeed, the post-apartheid government has made significant strides on both aspects, especially in terms of nation-building. Every iteration of the IJR’s South African Reconciliation Barometer (SARB) survey has shown that the vast majority of citizens from diverse class and race backgrounds buy into the desirability and possibility of creating one, united South African nation. This is no trivial feat for a collective that was arbitrarily grouped by colonial boundaries and that shares a subsequent history of conquest, violent oppression and resistance.

However, recent institutional failures are disconcerting. Indeed, some argue that the success of nation building project itself is inextricably linked to progress in the building capable state institutions. Service delivery has been a long-standing challenge for a post-apartheid government in the process of building capacity with limited resources. However, more recently service delivery frustrations have increasingly been exacerbated by perceptions of large-scale corruption. Too many public institutions, especially those crucial to economic development (like the state-owned enterprises), have been hollowed out by narrow private interests. In tragic irony, this has occurred under the very pretence of ‘pro-poor’ economic transformation under the guidance of a supposedly ‘developmental state’.

2006 2015
Parliament 6,4 24,9
National Government
4,8 22,8
Local Government 15,0 22,0
Legal System 8,2 21,7

*Trust on provincial government data available up to 2013.

Commensurately, confidence in political institutions have declined significantly in recent years. The table compares the high point of institutional trust in 2006 (when the country’s GDP growth also peaked at 5.6% per year), to the record lows recorded in the latest SARB survey in 2015. It highlights the increased proportion of South Africans that indicate that have no trust at all in key governance institutions. The decline in trust is also not limited to certain institutions, but affects all branches of government (the executive, legislature and judiciary). The political system as a whole thus increasingly suffers from a trust deficit.

This has important implications for both social cohesion and economic development. First, in a society with particular historical fault lines along race and class, there is all the more need for a central arbiter that is widely trusted to formulate and enforce “the rules of the game” on how the society and its economy operates. Perceptions of fairness in the distribution of power and material resources play a fundamental role in a society’s cohesion. In turn, state institutions and -policies are central to the objective of achieving a fair distribution of power and resources, by alleviating exclusions and inequalities. A society consents to the distribution and redistribution of resources based on need (predominantly by means of progressive taxation, labour market policies, and social welfare policies) based on two phenomena

  • the extent to which members regard themselves as bound to the beneficiaries by strong ties of community, and
  • the extent to which they have a widely trusted and efficient central mechanism (i.e. the state apparatus) by which to do so.

Therefore, if the state is not trusted, it cannot address these inequities- leaving a sense of injustice and uncertainty to fester within society.

Second, a term pervasive in South African policy- and economic development literature is that of the “social compact”. It implies a developmental consensus between the major societal stakeholders (business, government, labour and civil society). Such a developmental consensus is required to provide the basis for the durable institutions and policy certainty that would foster inclusive economic growth. Again, the central agent in driving such a developmental consensus must be a widely trusted and capable state. A trusted state is required to bring together these diverse societal stakeholders, provide leadership and ameliorate differences between them, as to produce coherent policy measures. Widespread buy-in, in turn, is required for policies to be implemented.

In short, South Africa’s immediate development path remains uncertain as long the state suffers from a trust deficit amongst the society over which it governs. Measures to address perceived corruption should go a long way to reconciling state-society relations in the short run. Longer term social stability and inclusive development requires something more, however. A sustainable and inclusive long run growth path requires a capable and committed state that enjoys the confidence of its society.

Tiaan Meiring is the Project Officer for the Inclusive Economies project at the IJR.

HOW CAN WE BRIDGE THE GAP BETWEEN CITIZENS AND STATE? PREVIEWING THE OPEN BUDGET SURVEY 2017

Originally posted on the IBP blog here

VIVEK RAMKUMAR, SENIOR DIRECTOR OF POLICY, INTERNATIONAL BUDGET PARTNERSHIP— JAN 04, 2018

On 30 January 2018 the International Budget Partnership (IBP) will release the Open Budget Survey 2017 – the latest round of the world’s only independent and comparable assessment of budget transparency, citizen participation, and independent oversight institutions in the budgeting process.

The Open Budget Survey 2017 findings on the systems and practices that countries have in place to inform and engage citizens — or not — in decisions about how to raise and spend public resources, and on the institutions that are responsible for holding government to account, come at a critical juncture. Around the world, there has been a decline in public trust in government, in part due to instances of corruption but also because of dramatic increases in inequality. In a number of countries, leaders who have disguised their intolerant and reactionary agendas with populist rhetoric have been swept into power by those who’ve been left behind. These political shifts have driven out many government champions of transparency and accountability — especially those from countries in the global south. More broadly across countries, there has been shrinking of civic space, rollbacks of media freedoms, and a crackdown on those who seek to hold government to account, including individual activists, civil society organizations, and journalists.

Because open and accountable public budgeting is at the center of democratic practice and equity, it is the first place we should look for ways to strengthen the interaction between governments and citizens. Ensuring that the budgeting process is characterized by high levels of transparency, appropriate checks and balances, and opportunities for public participation is key to stemming the decline in confidence in government and representative democracy.

In the face of the spread of profound threats to active, informed public participation, and thus the ability of citizens to ensure their governments will pursue policies that improve their lives, the Open Budget Survey 2017 will provide essential data on the state of budget transparency and accountability around the world.

The International Budget Partnership has conducted the biennial Open Budget Survey since 2006 to answer these two fundamental questions for representative government:

  1. Are the basic conditions needed for representative democracy to function — the free flow of information and opportunities for public participation in government decision making and oversight — being met in the budget sphere?
  2. Are empowered oversight institutions in place that can ensure adequate checks and balances?

To answer these questions the Open Budget Survey (OBS) assesses whether national governments produce and disseminate to the public key budget documents in a timely, comprehensive, and accessible manner. In addition, the 2017 survey includes a newly enhanced evaluation of whether governments are providing formal opportunities for citizens and their organizations to participate in budget decisions and oversight, as well as emerging models for public engagement from a number of country innovators. It also examines the role and effectiveness of legislatures and supreme audit institutions in the budget process.

The OBS 2017 is the sixth round of the survey and covers 115 countries across six continents. The coverage of the survey expanded in the 2017 round to include 13 countries for the first time, including some advanced economies such as Japan and Australia, emerging economies such as Côte d’Ivoire and Paraguay, and fragile states such as Somalia and South Sudan.

The survey, which is implemented by independent budget experts in each country and rigorously vetted, provides governments, civil society organizations, and development practitioners with key data and analysis to allow them to identify baselines and trends in country practices and implement or advocate for reforms to close gaps.

In addition to providing the latest findings on open and accountable budgeting, the report for the 2017 survey will also provide suggestions for improving countries’ public finance systems and practices to better ensure more effective and responsive use of public resources to meet public needs.

The Open Budget Survey 2017 could not come at a more critical juncture as we look to reinvigorate democratic practice, re-engage the disaffected, and restore public trust in public institutions. Be sure to see the results at www.openbudgetsurvey.org on 30 January 2018!

 

Following the Money in Ghana: From the Grassroots to the Hallways of the IMF

Originally published on the Accountability Research Center website

Between 2011 and 2014, Ghana went from boasting the world’s fastest growing economy to requiring a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). While a global downturn in commodity prices precipitated the fall, a lack of accountability in how public finances have been managed has been at the heart of the problem. Fiscal indiscipline, fueled by a lack of oversight and rampant corruption, left the government unable to mount an effective response during lean economic times.

Oxfam and its civil society partners in Ghana were worried that everyday Ghanaians would be left shouldering the burden of the economic crisis. Moreover, Ghanaians worried that their concerns and aspirations would not be represented in the high-level negotiations on the bailout between the Government of Ghana and the IMF. To address these concerns Oxfam and its partners coordinated a multi-level advocacy campaign. The campaign drew together a diverse coalition of civil society—from community activists to globally influential think tanks—able to represent and articulate local level concerns and project a united voice at the national and global levels.

This novel approach proved highly successful in driving important changes in policy and practice that have enhanced accountability, fiscal responsibility, and citizens’ participation. The campaign not only contributed to improving the laws governing how public finances are managed in Ghana, but also helped to increase pro-poor spending and protect crucial social services.

Three key lessons emerged on conducting multi-level campaigns:

  1. Establish accessible communication and sustained dialogue within a diverse coalition.
  2. Use global institutions as strategic levers for top-down accountability.
  3. Invest in citizens’ engagement in policies and implementation over the longer-term.

Download the full publication here

Citizen Accountability in a time of Facebook

This article is written by John Gaventa and first published on the IDS opinion blog here

“Develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.”

This is what Facebook’s Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said in his open letter to the Facebook community at the beginning of this year. The statement of intent from the social media giant is a bold one, and one worth reflecting on for those of us working on issues of accountability and empowerment. For me it raises a couple of important questions. How far can or should the likes of Facebook, and other technical innovations that have rapidly evolved over the last ten to fifteen years, connect us all as individuals and engage us with the institutions that govern us and help us hold them to account? And how does this happen in a world where the opportunities and spaces to voice dissent and protest are shrinking, and where questions about ‘whose voice matters’ are further confused and complicated by ‘whose voice is real or authentic’ in this digital age?

The promise of tech

They were also questions that arose at the recent Making All Voices Count (MAVC is a programme funded by DFID, Omidyar, SIDA and USAID) Policy and Practice Dialogue, Appropriating Technology for Accountability. And as I reflected in my speech at that event, these questions around transforming and improving accountability are by no means new. However, the context in which we ask them is constantly changing – from the Gutenberg press which took printing out of the hands of priests and put it into the hands of the people over five hundred years ago, to more recently, the advent of the personal computer, the internet (1990), Facebook (2004), Twitter (2006) and What’s App (2011). These technologies have revolutionised the way people access information, how they communicate with each other, as well as institutions and public figures, and how they respond to and organise around particular issues.

There’s no denying the positive force of these technologies in helping people to speak out and to amplify voices in an attempt to hold powerful institutions and individuals to account. This was evident in a number of examples shared over the course of the two-day event – the Black Sash human rights organisation in South Africa who are piloting a project encouraging citizen-led monitoring of local public services; This Is My Backyard (TIMBY) which has highlighted millions of dollars of misspent county social development funds and unearthed a 10.5 million dollar scandal in Liberia; Game my Village which built new relationships of trust and transparency between government officials and villagers in Indonesia and Oil Journey which communicated with over 300,000 citizens in Accra in Ghana about how oil revenues were being spent on community development projects.

Tech and closing civil society space

Yet at the same time there is no escaping the fact that these technical innovations designed to empower are operating in a global environment where civil society space is shrinking. The current situation has been labelled by Civicus as ‘a Global Civic Space Emergency’ in their 2017 State of Civil Society Report. The report highlights that:

  • Only three per cent of the global population live in countries where civic space is completely open.
  • In 106 countries, over half of all countries, civil space is seriously constrained.
  • This problem affects all regions of the world including the UK where civic space has narrowed in the past year.

Indeed, the evidence suggests that technologies are being used to close spaces as much as to open them, to surveil and monitor, as much as to connect and engage. Examples extend from malware being used to monitor the activities of advocacy and campaigning groups (highlighted in this open letter from Mexican civil society of the Open Government Partnership (pdf) and this IDS Bulletin article The Dark Side of Digital Politics) to state-supported trolling. For those gathered at the conference, there was a sense that the excitement and optimism that had characterised the work of MAVC and other similar programmes exploring accountability and the role of technologies in creating more open, inclusive and accountable societies only a few years ago was being replaced by a growing pessimism.

A digital level playing field?

The conundrums and paradoxes associated with technology and its role in promoting accountability is also evident in relation to global governance. On the one hand technology has enabled voice and responsive governance, but on the other hand the governance of the digital sphere remains in the hands of a powerful few who control the networks they have created. As reported recently in the New York Times, Google’s market share of search advertising is 88% and Facebook owns 77% of mobile social media traffic.

Digital technologies have created winners and losers, rather than a level playing field. Rather than disrupt, they have often replicated entrenched inequalities and power imbalances within society. Critically, just under half of the world’s population remain offline. Moreover, women are 50 per cent less likely to have access to the internet and a third less likely than men of a similar age, education level and economic status to access their Internet via their phone (World Wide Web Foundation, 2016). Inequalities also exist within the tech industry. A study in the US found that Hispanics, African Americans, and women hold only 8 per cent, 7.4 per cent and 36 per cent of tech sector jobs respectively (US EEOC 2016). Hence, across decision making, usage and application of technologies it is often the voices of the already powerful that are amplified and the voices which have always been marginalised remain unheard.

Within this unequal context, it has also become increasingly hard to distinguish amongst the myriad of information flows and voices between what’s authentic and what’s not. It is not well understood amongst the majority of technology users, how complex and sophisticated algorithms are being used by companies, by governments and by individuals, to control and manipulate what is shared and liked, and ultimately shape public opinion and debate.

While technology has helped achieve amazing things, in itself it cannot create a ‘social infrastructure…that builds a global community that works for us all.’ Politics and power still matter, and it is only when we link these with technology-led accountability initiatives as well more analogue, traditional efforts that of transformative change towards a more inclusive, accountable and open world is possible.

 

Using open aid data for accountability in Benin and Tanzania

This post was originally published on the Open Data Charter website, written by Elise Dufief, Research and Monitoring Manager at Publish What You Fund

The government of Tanzania announced in August that it was withdrawing from the Open Government Partnership (OGP) process. This was seen as a dramatic turn of events by some as the previous administration was regarded as a champion of transparency reforms. For others, it highlighted some of the challenges of international transparency initiatives and potentially offered an opportunity to reflect on how these initiatives could better respond to domestic issues and put citizens’ needs at their heart.

Earlier this year, I travelled to Tanzania and Benin and conducted interviews with representatives from government, donors and civil society organisations to investigate some of these issues. I looked into the opportunities and barriers for open aid data to be used as an accountability mechanism for partner country citizens. We at Publish What You Fund published a discussion paper earlier this month detailing the findings of our work.

Publish What You Fund, among other organisations, has argued that the public disclosure of information on development activities by major donors is an essential and necessary step to increase aid effectiveness. Substantial progress has been made at the international level through initiatives such as IATI and individual efforts of some major donors and governments to publish more and better quality development data. However, transparency alone is not sufficient as this information also needs to be used to promote accountability to local actors and respond to citizens’ needs.

We are also not the only ones reflecting on this. Organisations such as Oxfam and Open Contracting are also trying to find a constructive and collaborative way to move the transparency agenda forward and shed light on the necessary conditions for data to be used for accountability.

The new framework developed by Liz Carolan of the Open Data Charter, alongside the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, also helped shape our thinking on the matter. That study found 5 steps connecting open data and accountability: data production, sharing and processing, use and action. We proposed two additions to it: an initial step of identifying information needs and mapping potential users; and to also implement feedback mechanisms once data is made available to create a circular and iterative process from transparency to accountability.

Additionally, five key findings emerged from the interviews conducted in Benin and Tanzania:

1.There is a clear and repeated need for more high quality information on aid and development finance.

This was articulated clearly by donor country offices, government representatives and civil society organisations. Recent efforts to provide more information should be sustained and respond to these needs where possible.

2. International donor-led initiatives are not yet meeting country-level needs.

Tanzania’s withdrawal from the OGP is a manifestation of this. More attention needs to be paid to the national context and dynamics at play between different actors. This would help to identify where and how transparency and open data can help to improve development outcomes and accountability to citizens.

3. Both the development and data landscapes are fragmented and this is increasing.

The international development landscape increasingly involves more actors, more diverse flows and varied interests and objectives. In the absence of effective coordination, this complexity is reflected on the governance of data at country-level, also impeding its potential users.

4. A lack of trust in open data and its applications impedes its use as an accountability tool.

Data accuracy issues aside, examples from Tanzania and Benin demonstrated that more openness and transparency is sometimes met with fear of criticism and misinterpretation of the data. These are serious concerns that should be addressed. Shrinking civil society space and legislative restrictions to the access and use of this information, however, do not appear as viable solutions; they rather contradict the stated aim of the open data agenda.

5. With publication comes responsibility.

All actors have a responsibility to go beyond mere publication to make data truly accessible, usable and used. This requires putting people at the heart of transparency initiatives. It is only by working towards the identification of their needs, understanding their concerns and actively seeking their feedback that adequate responses and meaningful change will be implemented at country level. Data alone does not bring change. People do.

You can read our discussion paper ‘With Publication Brings Responsibility: Using open data for accountability in Benin and Tanzania’ here.

Turning Big Data Into a Useful Anticorruption Tool in Africa

Originally posted on the Global Anticorruption Blog

Many anticorruption advocates are excited about the prospects that “big data” will help detect and deter graft and other forms of malfeasance. As part of a project in this vein, titled Curbing Corruption in Development Aid-Funded Procurement, Mihály Fazekas, Olli Hellmann, and I have collected contract-level data on how aid money from three major donors is spent through national procurement systems; our dataset comprises more than half a million contracts and stretching back almost 20 years. But good data alone isn’t enough. To be useful, there must be a group of interested and informed users, who have both the tools and the skills to analyse the data to uncover misconduct, and then lobby governments and donors to listen to and act on the findings. The analysis of big datasets to find evidence of corruption – for example, the method developed by Mihály Fazekas to identify “red flags” of corruption risks in procurement contract data—requires statistical skills and software, both of which are in short supply in many parts of the developing world, such as sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet some ambitious recent initiatives are trying to address this problem. Lately I’ve had the privilege to be involved in one such initiative, led by Oxford mathematician Balázs Szendrői, that helps empower a group of young African mathematicians to analyse “big data” on public corruption.

The first step in this project was to develop software; this may seem trivial, but many cash-strapped African universities simply don’t have the resources to purchase the latest statistical software packages. The African Maths Initiative (AMI), a Kenyan NGO that works to create a stronger mathematical community and culture of mathematics across Africa, has helped to solve this problem by developing a new open-source program, R-Instat (which builds on the popular but difficult-to-learn statistics package R), funded through crowd-sourcing. Still in development, it is on track for launch in July this year. AMI has also helped develop a menu on R-Instat that can be used specifically for analysing procurement data and identifying corruption risk indicators.

Once we’ve got the data and the software to analyze it, the third and most crucial ingredient are the people. For “big data” to be useful as an anticorruption tool, we need to bring together two groups: people who understand how to analyze data, and people who understand how procurement systems can be manipulated to corrupt ends. Communication between the two is essential. So last month I tried to do my part by visiting AIMS Tanzania, an institute that offers a one-year high-level Master’s programme to some of Africa’s best math students, to help conduct a one-day workshop. After a preliminary session in which we discussed the ways in which the procurement process can be corrupted, and how that might manifest in certain red flags (such as single-bidder contracts), the students had the opportunity to use the R-Instat software to analyse the aid-funded procurement dataset that my colleagues and I had created. Students formed teams and developed their own research questions that they attempted to answer by using R-Instat to run analyses on the data.

Even the simplest analyses revealed interesting patterns. Why did one country’s receipts from the World Bank drop off a cliff one year and never recover? Discussion revealed a few possible reasons: Perhaps a change of government led donors to change policy, or the country reached a stage of development where it no longer qualified for aid? Students became excited as they realized how statistical methods could be applied to identify, understand and solve real-world problems. Some teams came up with really provocative questions, such as the group who wanted to know whether Francophone or Anglophone countries were more vulnerable to corruption risks. Their initial analysis revealed that contracting in the Francophone countries was more associated with red flags. They developed the analysis to include a wider selection of countries, and maintained broadly similar results. Another group found that one-quarter of contracts in the education sector in one country had been won by just one company, and more than half of contracts by value in this sector had been won by three companies, all of which had suspiciously similar names. Again, there might be perfectly innocent reasons for this, but in just a couple of hours, we had a set of preliminary results that certainly warrant further analysis. Imagine what we might find with a little more time!

It is programs like these, that develop the tools and cultivate the skills in the next generation of analysts, that will determine whether the promise of “big data” as an anticorruption tool will be realized in the developing world.

Post written by Dr. Elizabeth Dávid-Barrett of the University of Sussex

Why isn’t Tech for Accountability working in Africa?

Research is shedding light on the problems inherent with adopting technology for accountability initiatives, and providing recommendations for future projects.

In an article published by the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), Indra de Lanerolle, argues that “it seems that civil society organisations (CSOs) and governments often ‘re-invent the flat tyre’: experimenting with new tools without finding out what has been tried (often unsuccessfully) before. They also do not follow best practices in how to soure, develop and test technologies to ensure that these are ‘fit for purpose’. Decision makers should focus on building an effective innovation ecosystem with better links between technologists and accountability actors in both government and civil society to enable learning from success – and mistakes”.

Recommendations include:

  1. Those with responsibilities in creating the innovation ecosystem, including funders, should focus  on building a supportive innovation ecosystem.
  2. Funders should shift their focus from supporting short-term pilots to building institutions capable  of success over time, and invest in strengthening links between initiatives and disseminating  learning resources across the continent.
  3. Those who are leading and managing innovation initiatives – in government and CSOs – should  focus on getting better and smarter at managing the innovation cycle.
  4. Research suggests the following ‘rules of thumb’ will lead to better outcomes: acknowledge what  you do not know, think twice before building a new tool, get a second opinion, test technologies in  the field, plan for failure, budget to iterate, and share what you learn.

To find out more and read the full article: Why isn’t tech for accountability working in Africa?