Democratic accountability

by David Week on 21 June 2014


This was originally published as a comment on this page.

If you look at all the political economy of the aid industry, you’ll find that most NGOs and aid researchers are today servants of government. (Disclosure: me too.) Most of these governments—even those traditionally Labor or Social Democrat—now operate under a neoliberal intellectual regime. Most of what passes as “learning” is in fact learning what the governments want to know: how to ration aid according to those governments’ criteria of effectiveness; most what passes as “accountability” is accountability to those governments.

Note: I have heard that Oxfam has started to institute “downward accountability”. I haven’t looked at what they’re doing myself, but that seems like a good idea. On the other hand, it would also be an admission that the prime mode of operation to date has been “upward accountability.” The mental frame revealed by the metaphor, with donors being “up” and the poor being “down”, is also unfortunate.

Coincidentally, the Open Society Foundations (citation is not endorsement) just published this story:

The Brekete Family Radio (BFR) is a reality radio program in Abuja, modeled after a public complaint forum or people’s court. Conducted in the local lingua franca (pidgin English), people call in to report on issues of impunity, whether public or private. The panel sitting in the studio discusses the issue and invites the public to give advice to the plaintiff.

In some circumstances, the government official involved is actually called while the program is still on air to offer an explanation over an alleged act of impunity. This kind of on-air public accountability inquest has become very effective in putting a large number of public officers on the spot and has also achieved significant results in confronting impunity.

This is traditional democratic public accountability: by independent actors (often the press) reporting directly to the public. Why do we have these channels in democracies? Because governments and corporations are inherently untrustworthy. They have their own interests to pursue and protect.

In the KDP project in Indonesia (now PNPM Mandiri) the funder (the WB, under a TTL with a good grounding in political economy) mandated that the implementing agency (the Ministry of Home Affairs) channel program funds into a blind trust, managed by the (banned!) Indonesian Union of Journalists, to in turn commission journalists to investigate and publish as they chose. I’m not sure how well that worked, but that’s an attempt at real accountability, to democratic standards.

This is another account of an attempt at democratic accountability is described in the film Revolutionary Optimists. In this film, poor Indian children map their neighbourhoods, analyse problems, and use the knowledge they gain to interrogate the people in charge.

What passes as “accountability” in our industry is to a very weak standard. It is by financially beholden actors reporting to (from the poor’s perspective) a foreign power. All of these actors will frame their actions as being in the interests of the poor, without actually being accountable to the poor. A political-economic perspective suggests that one ignore such rhetoric, and instead look at economic interests, flows of money, and structures of power.

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