The idea of doing development differently has recently gained traction in the aid sector as a whole. Aid agencies as well as practitioners are asking themselves how to effectively support problem-solving that is locally embedded, nationally led, and citizen owned in a given political context.  In a ‘doing more’ or ‘doing less’ dilemma of international actors, the best route to linking citizen-informed reform processes to broader coalitions of change has also put social accountability at the heart of the development debate. However, are we being strategic enough? 

Jonathan Fox, Professor, School of International Service, American University, is asking this very question in a new U4 Issue paper while looking in particular at how civil society accountability initiatives need to take into account power structures at multiple levels to produce lasting institutional change.  Others also ask similar questions, such as the recent blog by Duncan Green ‘Do we need to rethink Social Accountability’ (Sep. 27, 2016) which looks at multiple lines of accountability and the competing powers at play in any given context, calling for the need to go beyond a narrow ‘tools-driven’ approach.

As the GPSA is currently in the process of formulating its longer-term Strategy 2020, we met with Prof. Fox to hear his views about the implications he thinks the ongoing debate, and the conclusions from his recent paper, may have for the GPSA.

Q: It is widely acknowledged that you have been instrumental in pushing the field of social accountability towards acting more strategically, differentiating between strategic and tactical social accountability approaches. Could you provide some elaboration on your proposal that there is a need to ‘re-think’ some existing approaches to social accountability and what a ‘different’ way would look like?

A: We argue in the paper that a ‘conceptual reboot’ may be needed to learn from both success and failure across the vertical chains spanning from international donor to individual citizen via the engagement of civil society. Yet, the issue at stake may not be so much re-thinking the approaches, but – as the U4 paper also indicates – to actually do them differently.  This means systematically linking any social accountability intervention to scale and power transformation, not making unrealistic assumptions about the state’s incentives and capacity to respond, and to closely monitor if we are on the right track. We need to be collectively wiser as to how to pool resources towards transformative change, and to link up initiatives that are often happening in parallel at a country level. Yet many donors are still more focused on their own local-global silos than with building strong accountability coalitions with others at national and subnational levels.

Q:  You define what you mean by ‘scale’ in your paper, but could you elaborate a bit more on this concept?

A:  The conventional understanding of scaling up means doing more of X. That may be fine, but the whole may still be less than the sum of the parts. For example, doing more exclusively local initiatives will not address “upstream” problems. Some social accountability initiatives are at risk of only addressing the symptoms, rather than the causes of accountability failures. Plus, it is not uncommon for donors to fund the lateral expansion of local initiatives without actually bringing them together in ways that would strengthen countervailing forces. I am proposing, in contrast, “taking scale into account.” This means bolstering the linkages between change initiatives across scale. “Taking scale into account,” as I see it, is what makes an initiative potentially transformative – or not. I’m talking about both multi-level citizen voice and oversight, which we refer to as vertical integration, and territorial expansion to broaden the social and civic base for accountability initiatives. Both dimensions of scale matter. The only slightly oversimplified punchline of the U4 paper is: ‘No scale, no power’.

Q: So, what would be some key challenges and opportunities for building stronger vertical change coalitions spanning from individual citizens, civil society, through to national actors (state and non-state), international coalitions and donors? Isn’t this what many INGOs and international donors already try to do?

A:  Are they? The classic INGO linkage is local-global, going back to the 90s – but that approach tended to skip the national level. I am trying to learn from as many cases of multi-level work as possible, so please, let’s discuss. Though many locally grounded national accountability activists are certainly connecting the dots across scale in practice, I have come across fewer cases where the multi-level dimension of their work, or building countervailing power through territorial expansion is seriously funded. There are plenty of good reasons – strategic initiatives are harder to “fund well” - it requires real embeddedness in national context. That’s why this approach resonates so much with the “doing development differently” approach. The U4 Issue Paper concludes with Aranzazu Guillan Montero’s very thoughtful epilogue, which proposes very practical suggestions for donors.

Q: Can you give some suggestions or point to some practical examples?

A: Clearly, vertical integration is not easy, but there are more cases out there than one might think from reading the literature. The U4 paper tries to highlight several notable examples, such as the Oxfam-backed ‘Ghana’s Oil 4 Agriculture Coalition’ stretching from broad-based membership organizations of smallholder farmers and a large-scale citizen petition on the one hand, as well as ongoing engagement between national sector-specific think tanks engaging with the Ministry of Finance and the parliament on the other, with Oxfam assisting in linking the campaign all the way up to the IMF. There are some key initial victories to learn from here, just like the mobilization of citizens for an initiative to make sure text books reached schools in the Philippines – which Joy Aceron of G-Watch describes in detail in the report – clearly illustrates the idea from a national angle.

It also shows that to bring about change, you may need a mix of both collaborative and more advocacy-oriented engagement and mobilization that goes beyond just political pragmatism of a small number of actors. This is an area where more empirical evidence is needed to identify the conditions under which different types of engagement lead to lasting institutional change. To help to address this gap, Joy Aceron is coordinating a comparative study of diverse multi-level CSO policy monitoring and advocacy campaigns in the Philippines that will be published soon, with support from Making All Voices Count.

A challenge for the analysis of scale as well as for communicating its importance, however, is doing so without creating the expectation that it is about ‘all or nothing’.  An example would be the expectation that you as a civil society organization is either expected to engage at all levels at the same time, or that you have one hand tied behind your back, only looking at the micro-level. No. The U4 paper tries to communicate the importance of even partial vertical integration, such as the sub-national to the national, or the village to the district etc., as long as feedback loops really go deep enough to engage citizens in the opportunity of collective action. Even two levels of civil society coordinating and monitoring around a social accountability agenda and having a common advocacy strategy can do more, I would argue, than looking only at one level.   

Q: Was this also what inspired you, along with several practitioners, to undertake the case studies for the recent ‘Connecting the Dots’ publication?  

A: Yes. The U4  paper is very much an elaboration of one of the conclusions which emerged from the ‘Connecting the Dots’ publication which came out of a joint brainstorming session between public interest strategists and researchers. It is also part of a broader approach to knowledge production where we are trying to flip the dominant hierarchy which assumes still that the researchers and the evaluators are the producers of knowledge, and the practitioners are just the consumers of knowledge. The job of synthesizing knowledge across individual initiatives and domains and making it more widely accessible is really only meaningful if such knowledge is also actionable, either by practitioners, frontline workers or citizens themselves or by policy makers at national or even international levels. 

Q: GPSA is currently in the middle of a stakeholder consultation that seeks inputs on the formulation of its Strategy 2020. Given you knowledge and influence on how GPSA has engaged in the field of social accountability in the past, what would be your advice for GPSA for its next phase?

A: For GPSA as a grant-maker as well as a knowledge broker located inside the World Bank, it will be important to look at proposals through the lens of scale. When you review proposals for GPSA support, how do you ask the theory of change question: ‘Why will a particular proposal lead to the kind of power shift that is required in order to produce accountability?’ I would also ask – how are lessons from ongoing GPSA projects being analyzed in order to inform both the field and the World Bank’s broader commitment to citizen engagement?