Wednesday, March 13, 2013

How To: Hold Your Government Accountable.

The electric blue skies of the Eastern Cape in March.

I am having nearly illegal amounts of fun in South Africa this month. My fellow coursemates include local government officers, professional politicians, NGO folk, fellow media peeps and the cherry on the class cake: a poet. Dreadlocks included.

We are spending two weeks trying not to kill each other as we learn the ins and outs of social accountability. I have been to my fair share of trainings geared for civil society, delivered some myself.  So of course I started out with a reasonable amount of healthy skepticism. What I found, to my delight, is a rather beautiful system of investigation, tools included. It is broad but adaptable to fit specific situations, internally coherent, complex without being complicated, and comprehensive. Sweet piece of intellectual engineering.*

One of the greatest challenges we face in the business of social change, especially in the formal civil society sector, is disorganization when it comes to our tools of the trade. Lots of idealism and good will and even principled concern, too little grounded and dependable methodology. Not to mention the proliferation: one of the reasons I can't be bothered to join Big Donors and Big INGO is how every one has a unique system that you have to adapt to, for branding purposes. Whatever. I am a big believer in streamlining, like other professions do. Which is why I support the GoT in General Budget Support. You have to coral your development partners where you can see them to keep things sensible, lest they bog you down with fiddly reporting demands and other creative dithering.

Back to the issue of public accountability. We all like the idea, but the how-to bit can be rather elusive. There are a number of tools and concepts and initiatives and programs and frameworks etc. you name it that address the issue, but I have had trouble finding one with elegance in its favor. Elegance is essential, as Steve Jobs so handily demonstrated via Apple, because it drives uptake. 

When it comes to accountability there is a temptation to slide into ultimately ineffectual rote activities. The machine of government is monstrously complex, which works in favor of inertia. We fall into patterns: vote, wonder why change doesn't happen overnight, grumble, call for revolutionary action, fall for whichever opposition party says what we want to hear, rinse, repeat. Maybe use community score cards, maybe adopt the Open Government Project, maybe try out a movement. And the core question never quite gets answered in a satisfactory manner: how does one translate ideas and ambitions into real outcomes on the ground?

I am not a big believer in two of the most popular methods of social change that have been kicked around Tanzania lately, for two reasons. Revolutions and benevolent autocracies undermine democratic practice, and they offer shallow and temporary solutions. Their benefits are easily reversed by the next group in power, inserting an element of instability and unpredictability in a political system.

Paul Kagame might be doing grand things for Rwanda, but what happens when he leaves? And when he leaves, is he really going to leave or is he going to "leave?" Is the Rwandese system robust enough to survive his departure and (perhaps) the emergence of competitive politics? Or will it turn into a succession system where Kagame kingmakes and wields power from the background like a Don? What about popular democracy in Egypt? What happened to their Spring? Is this what they had in mind, the political waltz with the now powerful Muslim Brotherhood? I am sure I don't have to run through the list of self-styled liberators and other African populists and their habit of declining into monstrosity. 

So, what is the alternative? What miraculous 'third way' has the potential to liberate us from these available extremes? I believe it is active citizenship, at the individual and institutional level. 

I am obsessed by the idea of devolving as much practical power as possible down to the individual. The vote is a limited  method of participation in governance, and the pitfalls of electoral representative democracy are well documented. But on the other side of those pitfalls lie a host of opportunities if only we exert ourselves beyond the symbolic and occasional practices of democracy and get our hands dirty. 

It turns out that there are actually infinite opportunities for participation in governance, limited only by the resources that an individual or an institution can afford to dedicate. Seriously. I had no idea that the architecture of state is so permeable, but how many of us do? All this time I have been bogged down by the usual misinformation that its all about expertise and "leadership" and out of the reach of the average voter. In actuality, there are very few areas into which you cannot poke your nose if you've a mind to do so. 

Since governance is also about negotiating the relationship between those tasked with governing and those forced to suffer them, it's in our best interest to show up. Is it easy to do? Not on your life. Is it grand fun and worthwhile? I would argue so. Now that I finally have an idea about how to show up in a more effective way, I suspect I am really going to become insufferably intense about motivating people to participate, participate, participate. Friends: consider this a warning. You will be lectured. And don't bother running away, I know where you live. :) 

*So this course, Foundations in Social Accountability Methods, is pretty great and offered about three times a year. If you have the interest and a chance to attend, do so. Bongolanders: there's an in-country network and an adapted version of the course is offered in Kiswahili. I believe you can contact Policy Forum for more information. 


  1. Heh heh, yes I am not so secretly hoping there is an as yet unannounced large cash prize for "TMR Commenter of the Year" :-)

    But you do make it easy on us by not posting too frequently ;-)

    And you really should cross post your links on Facebook (& Twitter) ... don't be shy!

    As for this entry I really do envy you where you are, I bet you're having a blast strolling in Camps Bay and accessorizing at the V & A ;-)

    BTW, did you delete an entry, something about "women in business"? It looks like it was only a draft but some of us eagle eyed readers don't miss a thing!

  2. Lecture us? LECTURE US?!?

    Shurely that should be find some immeasurably kool 21st century social-media-centric way to engage everyone in the bizness of accountability and participation?

    Cos otherwise, like the form 4s, we'll fail as a result of spending your lectures secretly surfing the social web ...

  3. First, I take exception to the grant reports we so eagerly await as "fiddly reporting demands and other creative dithering." Though I am short on the latter of late, so do spill what this means!
    Second, I am exercising my right to participation and casting my vote for Rweba to win whatever is on offer from TMR. Dud(ess)? has seriously kept to the promise of commenting on every post. He is being accountable!
    Third, told you the course would be interesting! So wish I'd attended when the politicians were there. We had media, but alas, no poets either.

  4. @Dr. Bob: erm... I'll get back to you about the end of year prize, which you are winning hands down for lack of competition :) What would you accept in lieu of cash?

    @Steve: Lol! Lecture is the wrong word. I should have said 'preach' like a missionary of democracy (can already see your eyes glazing over as you furtively reach into your backpack for your smartphone)

    @Jetsetter: Thank you madam, your valuable feedback has been noted and subsequently forwarded to the TMR customer service department as per the regulations governing TMR. The department responsible will respond to your query in a timely manner. Secondly, your vote in favor of one Rweba (Dude) has also been noted and forwarded to the Electoral Commission. Thirdly: you were right, it is fun (how nerdy are we!). The politicians have been a valuable resource, and admirably willing to lend us their experience. Pretty decent of them.


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