By Andres Falconer, Partnerships, GPSA


A couple of years back, when I started my first assignment with the GPSA, I took the inevitable step of googling the term “social accountability”. Not exactly a newcomer to the field, but still baffled by jargon I came across in the World Bank, I was in search of a definition I could use. To my surprise, most of the search results that did not refer to the private sector (mainly due to the SA8000 social standard) pointed straight back to the World Bank as the source. Was this the latest flavor-of-the-month in the donor community? The Bank itself has embraced social accountability as it has participation and, more recently, citizen engagement. My question was – if social accountability is not a clear and precisely defined concept, is it still a useful construct? In the years that followed, I found I was not alone asking the question.

We decided to ask our Global Partners – what is the term that you use to describe what we are talking about? We also asked for the term in their own language, if other than English, as well as a translation of this back into English. This was not to be, by any means, a scientific study, but the results from 41 responses are revealing:

  1. Unsurprisngly, the top term used by the community gathered around the GPSA is… “social accountability”. But the term leads by a very slim margin, and the results are quite all over the place, with “citizen engagement”, another Bank favorite, coming a close second.
  2. “Accountability”, unqualified, also ranked highly, revealing that perhaps it is understood to the respondents that it is governments that are being held to account, and it is citizens that are doing it. But this is only my assumption.
  3. Two main clusters of responses emerge – the first emphasizing citizens (citizen feedback, citizen engagementparticipationcontrolorganizingvoice etc.), the second underlininggovernance or government (governance accountabilityresponsibilityresponsive or open governance etc.), and an overlapping of the two (e.g. participatory governancecitizen governance).
  4. Advocacywatchdogpolitical participationcommunity organizing – terms with a long tradition in the NGO world – also made themselves present and retain their importance to a number of our Global Partners, it is important to notice.
  5. Finally, terms like trustworthinessethical solidarity, and mutual accountability, remind us of values underlying the field, beyond its instrumental role.
  6. Translating social accountability is challenging, and the same diversity of terms appears, highlighting the values of the respondents and the peculiarities of the languages. The French “redevabilité” (akin to being indebted or beholden to) conveys a very similar meaning to the word accountability, as does Spanish “rendición de cuentas” and Portuguese “prestação de contas”, loanwords from accounting, still more commonly used referring to accounts per se (i.e. money) than for policies and actions. “Responsabilização social” (≈ to be held responsible) is proposed in Mozambique, but not commonly used in other Portuguese-speaking countries like Brazil. And this is as far as my command of foreign languages takes my analysis…

After all, there is clearly no strong consensus around the term social accountability, even among a community of practitioners and thought leaders operating in this field. There is no agreement, however, on a more acceptable alternative. Again, I ask – beyond the search for a rigorous definition (not my purpose here) – is the term useful? Can it convey an easily understood meaning, accessible to the uninitiated – to citizens themselves? Can it unify and invigorate a movement to achieve governments of the people, by the people for the people? Can new paradigms in social accountability, as the GPSA proposes achieve more effective results than, on one hand, relying solely on public accountability (i.e. formal accountability institutions), or on the other, on traditional advocacy, community building and activism?

Please let us know what you think!

This post was written in response to a snap survey conducted by the GPSA with its 250+ Global Partners. What questions would you like us to ask our community next? Let us know.