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

MobiSAM sister project launched in Malawi

By Rachel Sibande, Malawi Coordinator

It is expected that inefficient mechanisms for citizen engagement in service delivery are not unique to the home of the social accountability monitoring tool MobiSAM, in the Makana Municipality, South Africa.

A sister project to MobiSAM has thus been launched in Malawi in late August 2016. The project is being piloted in the three main cities in Malawi; Lilongwe, Blantyre and Mzuzu.

Titled, Mzinda meaning “My City” in Malawi’s populous Chichewa language, the project seeks to enhance citizen engagement with locally elected Councillors, City councils, the Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (ESCOM), and the Water Board on the delivery of essential services such as waste collection, sanitation, water and electricity at the local level.

Prior to the launch over 80 community block leaders from Blantyre and Mzuzu were trained on how to use the web-to-SMS platform through “Deepening Democracy” boot camps organised by the Story Workshop Education Trust.  Twenty four of twenty six Councillors from Lilongwe City were also trained on how to use the Mzinda platform on 25 July, 2016.

Nine community campaigns were conducted in prime locations within Lilongwe City such as Ntandire, Mtsiliza, Phwetekere and Senti. During these sessions, more than 1,000 citizens were sensitised on their rights to engage with duty bearers and service providers.

Citizens were also introduced to the web-to-SMS based Mzinda platform through which over 122 verified and approved SMS reports on service delivery issues were sent to the platform by citizens within the following categories:

  • Water
  • Electricity
  • Sanitation
  • Waste Collection
  • Roads

Some reports translated from Chichewa to English read:

“Here in Mtandire; waste is dumped here but not collected.”

“There is no toilet in Kaliyeka Market”

A baseline study has been finalised to understand ways in which citizens currently engage with elected councillors, service providers and the city council. The baseline also seeks to understand how citizens use technology and gauge their willingness to use technology to engage with duty bearers and service providers. Comprehensive results from the analysis of data collected from the baseline study will be made available end of September, 2016.

Expectations

The ultimate test for any citizen engagement initiative lies in the rate of responsiveness from the state, duty bearers or service providers. It is expected that the purpose of such initiatives as Mzinda and MobiSAM is not only to amplify citizens’ voices, but to also enhance responsiveness and corrective measures. It is thus important to enhance the feedback loop from Councillors, city council and service providers rather than advocate for citizen’s voices alone. On the other hand; duty bearers have also expressed the need for citizens to use the platform productively and not for malice.

“I hope that Citizens will have the willingness to use the Platform constructively and resist from malice. I believe if Citizens report on real issues and with all honesty, we too as their representatives will be more than willing to assist,” said the Mayor of Lilongwe City Council, Willy Chapondera in his speech at the launch of the platform.

On the other hand, service providers such as the Lilongwe Water Board and ESCOM have fully embraced the platform. For example, Lilongwe Water Board has been posting water rationing schedules and tips on how to save water and prevent leakages through the platform. The board has also actively taken note of citizens reports on water issues and taken swift action where possible.

Lessons learned so far

One of the key lessons we have learnt so far is that, beyond access and use of technology; there exists a need to enhance citizen’s awareness of their rights to engage with duty bearers. This is corroborated by one of the key insights from the baseline study we conducted in the three pilot cities of Mzuzu, Blantyre and Lilongwe. The study reveals that 31.8% of citizens do not think their views matter or that they can make a difference at the local level; 65.3% have not participated in a community meeting. 80% have not reported any matter to their Councillor and 64.3% have not reported any service delivery issue to the city council, yet 72% are willing to use the mobile phone to engage with these entities.

We can therefore start making inferences which indicate that in the presence of technology, with low levels of citizen particiaption in local governance, there could be potential in the technological factors that will enhance citizen engagement. There are likely to be social, cultural and political factors that facilitate citizen participation. Several authors have alluded to this notion and suggested that social, political and cultural factors need to be considered when seeking to employ technological tools as way in which which citizens could engage with local government successfully, (Gigle & Bialur, 2014). Therefore it is important to note that part of the purpose of the research conducted by Mzinda is aimed at establishing which factors influence or inhibit the use of technology as tools for the engagement between citizens and local government.  that influence or inhibit the use of technology as a tool for citizen engagement.

The beauty of having MobiSAM and Mzinda run side by side in the two different countries and contexts is that there are lessons to be learnt based on the different contexts and scope of the two deployments. A comparative analysis of the social, technical, economic, cultural and political factors that may enhance or restrict citizen engagement through ICTs in such different contexts may be relevant to the emerging discourse on ICTs for citizen engagement. Such lessons would be useful for academics, researchers, practitioners and technology developers to consider in subsequent deployments of ICTs for citizen engagement initiatives.

The Mzinda project is funded by the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa. It is being implemented by Citizens for Justice and mHub with technical support from the MobiSAM Project at Rhodes University. Follow @mzindawanga on twitter, find us on Facebook or SMS your service delivery report to +265 888 242 063 and access the web platform at http://www.mzinda.com
First published on http://www.blog.mobisam.net/2016/09/mobisam-sister-project-launched-in-malawi/

Technology can boost active citizenship – if it’s chosen well

Indra de Lanerolle, University of the Witwatersrand

Civic technology initiatives are on the rise. They are using new information and communication technologies to improve transparency, accountability and governance – faster and more cheaply than before.

In Taiwan, for instance, tech activists have built online databases to track political contributions and create channels for public participation in parliamentary debates. In South Africa, anti-corruption organisation Corruption Watch has used online and mobile platforms to gather public votes for Public Protector candidates.

But research I recently completed with partners in Africa and Europe suggests that few of these organisations may be choosing the right technological tools to make their initiatives work.

We interviewed people in Kenya and South Africa who are responsible for choosing technologies when implementing transparency and accountability initiatives. In many cases, they’re not choosing their tech well. They often only recognised in retrospect how important their technology choices were. Most would have chosen differently if they were put in the same position again.

Our findings challenge a common mantra which holds that technological failures are usually caused by people or strategies rather than technologies. It’s certainly true that human agency matters. However powerful technologies may seem, choices are made by people – not the machines they invent. But our research supports the idea that technology isn’t neutral. It suggests that sometimes the problem really is the tech.

Code is law

This isn’t a new discovery. As the technology historian Melvin Kranzberg put it:

Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.

US legal professor Lawrence Lessig made a similar case when he argued that “Code is Law”.

Lessig pointed out that software – along with laws, social norms and markets —- can regulate individual and social behaviour. Laws can make it compulsory to use a seat belt. But car design can make it difficult or impossible to start a car without a seat belt on.

Our study examined initiatives with a wide array of purposes. Some focused on mobile or online corruption reporting, others on public service monitoring, open government data publishing, complaints systems or public data mapping and budget tracking.

They also used a range of different technological tools. These included “off-the-shelf” software; open-source software developed within the civic tech community; bespoke software created specifically for the initiatives; and popular social media platforms.

Less than one-quarter of the organisations were happy with the tools they’d chosen. They often encountered technical issues that made the tool hard to use. Half the organisations we surveyed discovered that their intended users did not use the tools to the extent that they had hoped. This trend was often linked to the tools’ specific attributes.

For instance: if an initiative uses WhatsApp as a channel for citizens to report corruption, the messages will be strongly “end-to-end” encrypted. This security limits the behaviour of governments or other actors if they seek to read those messages. If Facebook Messenger is used instead, content will not be encrypted in the same way. Such decisions could affect the risks users face and influence their willingness to use a particular tool.

Other applications, like YouTube and Vimeo, may differ in their consumption of data. One may be more expensive than the other for users. Organisations will need to consider this when choosing their primary platform.

It’s not always easy to choose between the many available technologies. Differences are not transparent. The effects of those differences and their relevance to an initiative’s aims may be uncertain. Many of the people we spoke to had very limited technical knowledge, experience or skills. This limited their ability to understand the differences between options.

One of the most common frustrations interviewees reported was that the intended users didn’t use the tool they had developed. This uptake failure is not only common in the civic tech fields we examined. It has been noted since at least the 1990s in the worlds of business and development.

Large corporations’ IT departments introduced “change management” techniques in answer to this problem. They changed employees’ work practices to adapt to the introduction of new technologies. In civic tech, the users are rarely employees who can be instructed or even trained. Tech choices need to be adapted for the intended users, not for a structured organisation.

Try before you buy

So what should those working in civic technology do about improving tool selection? From our research, we developed six “rules” for better tool choices. These are:

  • first work out what you don’t know;
  • think twice before building a new tool;
  • get a second opinion;
  • try it before you buy it;
  • plan for failure; and
  • share what you learn.

Possibly the most important of these recommendations is to try or “trial” technologies before making a final selection. This might seem obvious. But it was rarely done in our sample.

Testing in the field is a chance to explore how a specific technology and a specific group of people interact. It often brings issues to the surface that are initially far from obvious. It exposes explicit or implicit assumptions about a technology and its intended users.

Failure can be OK. Silicon Valley’s leading tech organisations fail regularly. But if transparency and accountability initiatives are going to improve their use of technology, they are going to need to learn from this and from other research – and from their own experiences.

The Conversation

Indra de Lanerolle, Visiting Researcher, Network Society Lab, Journalism and Media Programme, University of the Witwatersrand

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