Development 3.0: is social accountability the answer?

Shanta Devarajan asks if we have found Development 3.0

Shanta Devarajan, the World Bank Chief Economist for Africa, describes in an important new blog post the evolution of development policy in terms of changing ideas about market failures and government failures.   In the 1950s and 1960s, he says, development was about addressing market failures by providing public goods, addressing externalities, and redistributing income to poor people. Starting in the 1970s, attention shifted to government failures such as weak capacity, rent-seeking, political patronage and corruption.    Today, he says, many of the most egregious failures have been addressed, but the remaining failures directly hurt poor people.

On Shanta’s view, these failures arise from two kinds of imperfection in the public sector: that governments have difficulty monitoring and enforcing performance (leading to absentee teachers, clinics without drugs, etc) and imperfections in the political system which prevent it from serving the poor.

Shanta says that changes in technology and the rise of civil society can change all this:

Our understanding of government failure has coincided with two other developments.  One is the rise of civil society’s voice in public discourse.  The second is the technology revolution in poor countries.  There’s a message here.  Can we use technology and the voice of civil society to address these government failures?  Rather than imposing conditions, we can empower poor people to monitor service providers.  With some 80 percent of Africans having access to a cell phone, it is not difficult to have parents (or the students themselves) send an SMS message if the teacher is not in school, or there are no drugs in the clinic or the purported road maintenance program is not happening.  This could do more for helping governments and donors get value for money than all the fiduciary controls we put in place.  While we are at it, why don’t donors (including the World Bank) use technology to have the beneficiaries monitor and supervise development projects?

Can this work? Is social accountability a new model for development?

There is increasingly good evidence that transparency and accountability make a significant difference, in some cases surprisingly transformational.  There is an increasingly impressive collection of individual case studies, rigorously evaluated, which demonstrate the effectiveness of this approach.  For example, Jacob Svensson and Martina Björkman conducted a randomized field experiment in Uganda to test the effect of increasing community-based monitoring. They found that when communities more extensively monitored providers, both the quality and quantity of health services improved, including reducing infant mortality by a third.

There have, however, been no significant comparative studies bringing this evidence together.  Until now.  Rosemary McGee and John Gaventa have just published an extensive review of literature and experience across the field.  There is a lot of material to digest, but here is the core of what they find:

…there are a number of micro level studies, especially in the service delivery and budget transparency fields. These begin to suggest that in some conditions, the initiatives can contribute to a range of positive outcomes including, for instance,

  • increased state or institutional responsiveness
  • lowering of corruption
  • building new democratic spaces for citizen engagement
  • empowering local voices
  • better budget utilization and better delivery of services.

Reading the study, my conclusion is that we know rather more about the impact of greater accountability than we know about what we can do to bring that accountability about.

I currently work on transparency, because I think makes an important contribution to the ability of citizens to hold governments and donors to account and so improve service delivery and accelerate poverty reduction. There have been some good examples of how this can work in practice, which are summarised in Appendix 1 of this cost benefit analysis for the International Aid Transparency Initiative (page 23 of this pdf; disclosure: I’m a co-author).  The most famous example is this study of the impact of information on funds flowing to schools in Uganda which found a strong relationship between transparency and funds flowing to schools, though the evidence was subsequently challenged.   So while there is increasingly good evidence to confirm the intuition that transparency plays an important role, we need to understand a lot better how, and in what circumstances, transparency works, and particularly to understand better what else needs to be in place.

One issue on which Shanta is clearly right is that role that technology can play in supporting greater accountability. We know that technology does not end poverty, but we are seeing more and more examples of how technology – especially mobile telephony and text – has enabled and supported changes from mobile banking to wholesale agriculture markets. Just as technology underpins changes in markets (think of newspapers, or bookselling), so it can underpin changes in political economy and social accountability.

So is this, as Shanta says, Development 3.0?

Development is a long, slow, uncertain process and the road is bumpy and winding.  Transparency and accountability are not a one bound and we are free solution, any more than the ‘big push’ or the Washington consensus which Shanta labels Development 1.0 and 2.0 respectively.  But this time there is an important difference.  The ‘big push’ and the Washington consensus were blueprints for a better world. Social accountability, by contrast, does not start with a preconceived idea of how resources should be used or services should be delivered: it seeks to change the dynamics of the system to make it more responsive and more likely to converge by itself on solutions which better serve poor people in developing countries.

A big challenge will be whether development agencies themselves are able to adapt.  Their models for project cycle management are based on a top-down view: you specify the world you are trying to create (the “goal”) and then you articulate a series of outputs and activities which you expect will bring this about.  It will be a big change – intellectually, organisationally and culturally – to modify their systems, incentives and procedures to a world in which donors work instead to help the citizens of developing countries to determine their goals and priorities and build their own systems to achieve them.

If what Shanta is calling Development 3.0 means that instead of offering a one-size fits all solution we should work to close the broken feedback loop so that communities themselves can find the answer, then I think this may indeed be a change of perspective on development worthy of a major version number.

17 thoughts on “Development 3.0: is social accountability the answer?”

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    Having read this 3 times, I would like to suggest that vodaphone be encouraged to donate some of the tax revenue which will not now be going to HMRC, to fund local projects in developing countries with transparency as a prerequisite. To be run by and for local people.

    It is disheartening to read however, that much mobile use is taken up by young men watching the usual stuff and that women are excluded in many communities.

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  4. Thanks for this post Owen. Very interesting, particularly as in the past you have made clear to me that you don’t think that donors should be seeking to improve domestic accountability in developing countries. I guess the difference with soc acc – and your apparent interest in it – is that it’s about donors helping citizens to improve domestic accountability in ways that citizens want rather than donors imposing their own models. Is that right?

    Given your location in Ethiopia however, I can’t help but make the obvious but important point that social accountability initiatives will work differently in different contexts. In some contexts, they might not work very well. What do you know about the effectiveness of the Social Accountability component of the Protection of Basic Services Grant in Ethiopia?

    I think that your comment that we know more about how accountability can make a difference and less about how to enhance accountability is spot on.

    Glad to see you putting your weight behind social accountability! Owen 3.0 😉

    PS: Declaration of interest. Until May 2010 I was working for DFID in Ethiopia on governance and accountability. Now, I am working for DFID’s Policy Division, with a good chunk of my time taken up by work on “Empowerment and Accountability”, a pair of issues that sit pretty close to social accountability.

    1. Alan

      Thanks. I certainly plead guilty to changing my mind about things as I learn more.

      I remain very uncomfortable about a donor agenda to improve developing country accountability. This is not – and has never been – because I do not recognise the benefits of greater political accountability. It is partly because I have not seen any good examples of donors being able to do this, in practice; and there is every chance that they will do more harm than good trying. It is partly because I am concerned about the legitimacy of donor involvement in the politics of developing countries. It is partly because I think there are many aspects of their own accountability that I think donors should get in order before telling other people what to do.

      Your comment made me think harder about why I am supportive of these social accountability initiatives. Partly it is, as you say, that this is more about supporting citizens’ own initiatives, as you suggest; though any donor can find some stakeholder willing to pursue an agenda for which it is willing to pay. Partly I think there is a difference between service delivery accountability, and broader political accountability.

      I think donors should think carefully about the extent and nature of their involvement in this. That’s what attracts me to the transparency agenda. This is squarely our business to solve, especially as it relates to resources flowing from donor nations. It seems to me to create an environment in which domestic accountability (and accountability of donors) can grow, while enabling donors to remain neutral about how that happens.

      I think we agree that astroturf grass roots movements conjured up by top down donor interventions – of the kind we see with the social accountability component of the PBS grant – are unlikely to succeed.

      Kind regards

  5. If this really is a shift in thinking of the magnitude implied, this is fantastic news. It reminds me of something Neal Lawson said about New Labour: It trusted the state, and it trusted the market, but it never appeared to trust the people. Sounds like we might finally be getting there… (ps I wrote a piece for the Development journal last year called “Openness, Democracy and Humility: The principles of a new era in development” which is heading in a similar direction)

  6. The moot point I think is – how do you stregthen accountability. Every example that adds to that knowledge is important.

    Because as Owen says more accountability certainly has a positive impact. The question is

    one additional unit of accountability is a function of (Transparency, X,Y, Z ?). I’d like to know more from our projects on this equation.

  7. An extremely useful post! I’ve come to development work in just the last three or four years and only via a stint of “cultural tourism” in Tanzania, leading to friendship with some villagers and their appeal to help save their primary school; that led to creation of my small nonprofit, hence to acquaintance with a big segment of California’s community of small nonprofits working in Africa. The current Gospel in this community announces exactly the need, identified in your post, “to help the citizens of developing countries to determine their goals and priorities and build their own systems to achieve them,” and most people I know in the community accept this (with a handful of glaring, disastrous exceptions).

    Yet we are of course amateurs and therefore especially susceptible to current doctrine. But whether the giant development agencies, led by professionals who came of age when different teachings prevailed, will embrace the new Gospel is another question, one to which I have little right to speak.

    Addressing your point that we need to know more “about what we can do to bring. . . accountability about,” though, I observe the following issue in the village where I work: the “village leaders” talk freely about “their goals and priorities” but I don’t know how faithfully they represent the goals and priorities of. . . well, the led, who talk far less openly. In case a lot of people doing development work at the village level harbor the same doubts, the spread of cellphone access might liberate many of the voices we need to hear.

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  9. A very interesting post. But not an easy one. I have ranted before on the demise of a strong civil society because of the fragmentation brought by NGOs and direct support by donors and governments to CBOs. Social accountability seems to me one of those areas where angels fear to thread, but donors rush in.

    As Duncan says in one of his postings: actions never happen in a void: they will impact the local power structures. In general, we see donors go out of their way to support the “Powers that be”, meaning the government of the day, the local power-brokers. Social accountability too will happen within that framework. There will be attempts to murder a project because it would help a political rival. Hire a crowd happens in the best of democracies, why shouldn’t it happen elsewhere?

    This does not mean we should not try to fix the broken feedback loop. Social accountability is an option, but it should be done carefully. However, the most basic way the feedback loop is broken is by not delivering the agreed results at a decent price. Results are still elusive for most interventions.

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