By Guillaume Labrecque, Governance Advisor, International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Social accountability in fragile states has drawn a fair share of attention and questions globally, which I witnessed more intimately at the GPSA Global Partners Forum last May.

I represented the IRC at the Forum’s “Social Accountability in States of Fragility” working session, where examples from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Sierra Leone were shared. Grandvoinnet from the World Bank also presented the key findings of a recent research report, while I provided practical insights from IRC’s experiences in eastern DRC on how to stimulate social accountability in fragile and conflict-affected settings.

We need to continue engaging in this dialogue and stimulate debates on how to best implement social accountability interventions in these contexts. There are so many lessons to capture around the world.

Certainly, the IRC has been exposed with perceived (for example, unelected therefore unaccountable officials) and actual limitations (for example, limited capacity of local governments to respond) while implementing social accountability interventions in eastern DRC. Through iterative processes, the IRC continually improved the design, implementation and evaluation in the DRC and elsewhere in order to maximize the impact for citizens and their institutions and maintain a focus on cost effectiveness.

The “Local Government Scorecard” represents the IRC’s latest social accountability tool implemented at scale in the DRC . Designed and implemented since 2012, the Local Government Scorecard (LGS) aims to strengthen the performance of nascent local government actors and local development committees, and improve responsiveness to priorities of citizens and local service delivery. The approach allows local authorities and their constituents to jointly assess the quality of services, engage in problem-solving and develop local government service improvement plans. With support from the UK Government, the IRC makes targeted investments available to implement action plans.  

LESSONS LEARNED

Firstly, while implementing the LGSs, the IRC learned that this tool created new opportunities for local officials and citizens alike. LGSs enabled local government officials to better understand their roles and responsibilities under the new decentralization law, and to engage their constituents in a participatory planning process that reflects their constituents’ needs and preferences. The approach also provided space for citizens, through local development committees, to express their needs and preferences to local governments, something which was typically unheard of in eastern DRC.

Secondly, we also learned that local authorities became progressively more comfortable seeking input from the general population (“look down”) while they continued to keep close relations with their hierarchy (“look up”). From the experience of the IRC, “looking up” or what is too often a rigid hierarchical culture, is a salient feature of day-to-day local government operations in fragile contexts. Social accountability interventions need to carefully negotiate this aspect.

Lastly, we found that service improvement plans contributed to participatory management of local development and progressively stimulated greater involvement of local stakeholders, including community-based organizations. It also cultivated a culture of transparency and responsiveness to citizens’ needs by local government officials, even in the absence of local elections.

PRACTICAL CONSTRAINTS

However, implementers in eastern DRC also confront practical constraints limiting their ability to meaningfully stimulate citizen participation and response from local officials.

First, the distance between local officials and citizens is significant. Decades of conflict in eastern DRC has weakened public infrastructure. Combined with the huge area covered by each local government body, this is problematic. Local officials require institutional support to decrease the distance with citizens.

Second, to improve trust between officials and citizens and to build confidence in the participatory process, local officials need to have assets available to make commitments and to follow through with them. In fragile states, the typical lack of resources available to respond to needs and preferences of citizens is significant (and when resources are available at the local level, it often funds local government priorities rather than those of citizens). While people’s expectations need to be managed, local officials actually need to be willing and capable to respond.  

Third, citizens require support to organize into legitimate and inclusive organizations willing and able to defend the interest of their constituents. In fragile settings, the assumption that there are CSOs and CBOs at the local level ready to engage with local government bodies and hold them to account often does not always hold true. Moreover, just like local officials, those organizations require institutional support to engage directly with citizens due to the distance that separates them.

These practical constraints therefore mean that in fragile and conflict affected settings, donor agencies’ funding mechanisms provide institutional support for actors on the demand and supply side of governance to engage constructively and respond to demands of citizens.

We are looking forward to continue to share and document our insights from fragile and conflict affected settings. In the meantime, we invite you to check IRC’s Outcome and Evidence Framework and pay special attention to the “how people influence decision that affect them collectively” theory of change which help the IRC – and could help you as well – design effective programming in development and humanitarian settings. We also invite you to download the Tuungane community scorecard paper to read about another example of stimulating social accountability in fragile and conflict-affected settings.