By John Gaventa, Institute of Development Studies

In his welcoming remarks at the GPSA Global Partners Forum in May 2016,  Dr. Junaid Ahmad, Chief of Staff of the Office of the World Bank President, told the several hundred participants: ‘Social accountability is the bridge for building relationships between citizens and the state.’ 

The metaphor stuck. Speaker after speaker referred to social accountability as a ‘bridge’ with great promise:  building it could help us to link the supply and demand sides of governance; develop a new kind of ‘constructive engagement’ between states and civil societies; achieve Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) on inclusive institutions and; indeed meet the broader SDG commitment to  ‘leave no one behind.

Yet, 18 years ago, I had been in the same room in a similar meeting, where the agenda was how the World Bank could ‘mainstream’ participation in all of its programmes.  I found myself asking: Was this new ‘social accountability’ bridge different from the ‘participation’ buzz of the late ‘90s, or had we just been ‘running in place’ down the same bridge all those years? 

After almost two decades, there are some important contextual changes.   In the 1990s, the agenda was how to strengthen citizen voice in the ‘front end’ of policy processes. Now the focus is on downstream accountability, focusing on how to give ‘teeth’ to these voices through holding policies and their makers to account.

Then, the focus was on the radically new idea of ‘mainstreaming participation’ in the Bank, at the time through the PRSP process. Now the Bank is firmly committed to achieving 100% beneficiary feedback in all of its lending processes and to building ‘sustainable national systems for citizen engagement with governments and the private sector.

Then, as Thomas Carothers reminded us, while there was a lot of buzz about participation, its forms and practices were still somewhat ‘thin’ on the ground. Now, he argued, the demand for social accountability is one of the most important political ideas of the 21st century, with possibilities not only for strengthening aid effectiveness, but for also for deepening democracy.

But while progress has perhaps been made, the metaphor of the bridge also lends itself to some cautions:

1) Bridges must have strong foundations if they are to survive; they require careful investment over time and planning as well as careful monitoring to see if they remain strong. While the Bank has committed itself to 100% civil society engagement, and to some (declining) funding for social accountability, the investment is still relatively small.

2)  Bridges are only as strong as their anchors at either end. If either the citizen or state end is weak or fragile, the bridge itself will not be strong.  At the Forum, we heard many examples of the erosion of civil society space, and about the impact of austerity on states and their commitment to citizen engagement.  Supporting social accountability without investing in civil society at the one end and building effective governance on the other risks creating a very weak structure indeed.  

3) No two bridges are alike – each must be designed according to the context and needs of its terrain. ‘Context, context, context,’ is one of the oldest mantras of international development, yet it is one that we have had to continuously re-learn.  The set of tools and recipes we use for social accountability that work in one place will not work in another place.   At the Forum, we heard about social accountability as contributing to redistributions of power. Yet, we also heard warnings that the rhetoric of social accountability is deeply disconnected from the lived realities of people on the ground in many contexts. We need to bring in the voices of those who know the local terrain, not just use standardized plans designed by experts from above and afar.  

4) Bridges require champions for their construction and sustainability.  Champions provide political support for building bridges, and make sure that they remain strong and accessible over time.  At the Forum, GPSA, Making All Voices Count and OGP hosted  a very exciting discussion with 35 government leaders from countries across the globe who are playing such a role. We also talked about the challenges such leaders face, including acquiring the new skills of collaboration that go beyond contestation to constructive forms of engagement, and preserving space for citizen engagement in the face of pressures from peers to protect their power and privilege. 

One way leaders do so is to model the norms of social accountability themselves.  Leaders from within national governments urged the leaders of the Bank, including at the Board level, to model its commitment to social accountability because, in doing so, they create the space for national leaders to reflect that norm in their own societies as well.  

Dealing with each of these challenges will be critical for the new buzz of social accountability to become both stronger and more sustainable.  At the same time, those of us who have worked on issues of participation and accountability for many years now face a paradox: while the opportunities for social accountability in many countries have grown, during that same time, the levels of economic inequality have also increased.  We know from our own experience and countless examples that the power derived from the privileged few can trump that of thousands of citizen voices. Unless social accountability can be a bridge for countering inequality and building economic accountability, we may find that we have crossed one bridge only to find  a deep and growing chasm between the haves and have nots around the corner.  Two decades from now, if I am back in that same World Bank conference room, I expect we will be asking ‘who did the bridge leave behind?’

This blog is based on closing remarks given by the author at GPSA Global Partners Forum, Washington, DC May 19-20, 2016.