28 February 2013 Published in Latest Events

Tell it like it is: what works for social accountability in Africa?

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An honest forum for discussions about accountability, power and development isn’t always easy to find. Issues of external aid financing for internal social accountability building, holding parliamentarians to account and finding ways to strengthen democratic structures are complex and sensitive issues.



The Mwananchi roundtable, bringing together politicians, traditional leaders, academics and civil society leaders was a unique opportunity to ‘tell it as it is’. The two day meeting in Johannesburg, hosted by CIVICUS and convened by the Mwananchi Programme, aimed to explore what works for holding governments to account through direct citizen action.

The event was primarily a response to the upcoming closure of the Mwananchi Programme, which after five years has amassed a wealth of evidence on ‘what works’ (and what doesn’t) for social accountability in Africa. Fletcher Tembo, the programme Director, presented some of the ideas which will inform a major report synthesising learning from across the programme sites (to be published in September). These include a flexible approach to a theory of change, rooted in specific local context, learning ‘in the rear view mirror’ and adapting the ingredients of what works in one country to another. He also proposed a model of ‘accountability as answerability’ rather than ‘accountability as responsiveness’. You can read Fletcher’s presentation here.

Fletcher outlined some of the success stories from the Mwananchi Programme, including empowering citizens through media partnerships, working closely with traditional leaders to tackle customary norms and local development challenges, and finding ways to engage with unresponsive MPs. Participants then heard from experts from the four Mwananchi categories of ‘interlocutors’ – the term created to describe individuals or organisations who act as intermediaries of the citizen-state relationship: elected representatives, civil society, traditional leaders and media. These were chosen from among the many power relationships that citizens experience, as key actors who can help change the ‘rules of the game’ to achieve accountability. How they do so is context dependent, but the categories of actors are found in different forms across the continent.

The discussion reflected a variety of African contexts, with participants from each of the six Mwananchi countries (Ghana, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Malawi, Zambia and Uganda), as well as South Africa and representatives from multi-lateral organisations and international NGOs. Despite, or perhaps because of, the broad representation, discussions were open and honest. An MP from one country where Mwananchi works presented on the challenges elected representatives in African countries face, including their own ‘policy illiteracy’ – or a lack of capacity to deal with the many, highly complex challenges of development. Delegates also engaged enthusiastically with the difficult debate of external funding for internal governance and development challenges, and the perverse incentives this can create.

Discussing traditional leaders, Emmanuel Gaima introduced participants to the complex structures of traditional authority in different African countries and discussion centred around what chiefs and other traditional leaders could add value to accountability. Asking the thought-provoking question ‘what would happen if chiefs didn’t exist?’, participants agreed that chiefs fill a power-vacuum at a local level, left by ineffective democratic structures, as well as confirming one aspect of identity within a culture.

Turning to the diverse role of media, Shanta Bloemen from UNICEF’s Africa Service Unit urged us to consider how the media can contribute to our objectives, and suggested that ‘accountability as answerability’ could be an aim of media engagement, while remembering that stories need to be real news to gain media profile. The discussion moved on to suggest that consumption of media as well as output could be a focus for action, for example through media literacy: In Uganda a Mwananchi project used radio listening groups to encourage constructive engagement with accountability issues raised on local radio, and to generate real peoples’ voices to contribute to radio programmes.

On civil society – a non-specific term at best – Jalal Abdel-Latif, the Chief of Section for the UNECA’s Civil Society section , warned us not to reduce civil society just to NGOs, particularly NGOs funded by external aid. Ethiopia for example has a vibrant network of local associations performing different social functions, such as burial societies. To take advantage of existing civil society networks, Mwananchi has been working with Farmers’ cooperatives in Ethiopia, helping to strengthen their internal governance and increase trust in them among ordinary people.  He also questioned funding models which inevitably focus on upward rather than downward accountability, at the expense of the people that funding was supposed to serve.

On day two, Prof. Alan Fowler, as a main discussant to the Mwananchi synthesis report responded to some of the ideas in the draft synthesis report and issues participants had raised, asking whether we need to go back to basics on how we define social accountability, by understanding different types of power and from there working out which interlocutor is best placed to create change. He reminded us that collective action is a process not an event, and praised the Mwananchi model of examining interlocution processes in order to identify which actors are most competent to deliver which actions for social accountability outcomes. He finished by asking participants to consider what needs to happen for the sort of change Mwananchi sought to create with external funding, to happen internally.

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