It’s the accountability system, stupid – but how to build it?

By Albert van Zyl, IBP— Oct 29, 2012

Recent case studies of civil society advocacy initiatives to improve decisions about how public money is spent, or to ensure that these decisions translate into more or better services for the poor and vulnerable reveal that the impact of such campaigns is almost always facilitated by a range of other institutions and actors. While the number of examples of civil society organizations (CSOs) contributing to changing government budgets for the better is growing, such impact can seldom be attributed to CSOs alone. This means that CSOs, donors, and others striving to build responsive and effective finance systems within countries should think about how they can broaden the range of actors and institutions involved in accountability reforms, and how to strengthen the links and reinforcements between these actors. But let’s descend from the heights of theory and look at how all this works in practice.

When CSOs combine with each other, media and legislatures

In the case of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Right’s (NCDHR) campaign 789 in India (click here to read more), two CSO networks discovered that the government had diverted funds earmarked for Dalit (one of the poorest and most discriminated against groups in the country) development to pay for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. The resulting campaign sparked a chain reaction that ended with the government repaying the misused public money.  It’s true that the NCDHR and the Human Rights Land Network played key roles by accessing and analyzing the necessary budget information, mobilizing a broad range of civil society, and briefing parliament and media. However, once CSOs raised the issue, the media took over and amplified the controversy, which was then picked up by a range of MPs. They led two days of questions and debate in parliament that dealt the final blow to the government’s obfuscations and denials, forcing a public confession and a commitment to repay the funds (so far 75 percent have been returned).

 When CSOs combine with Churches, Trade Unions, Courts and Government insiders

In the well known case of the anti-retroviral campaign in South Africa (click here to read more) the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) coordinated the advocacy and spoke out at decisive junctures. But a key part of keeping the campaign alive through the dark days of AIDS denialism was the popular support base provided by trade unions and churches mobilizing their members. When TAC eventually resorted to the courts, it did so with arguments strongly supported by budget and cost-benefit analyses produced by prominent academics, which led to a favourable ruling. Throughout the campaign sympathetic insiders also provided information that was critical to the strategic choices made by TAC.

 When CSOs combine with CSOs, Courts, Government Insiders and Media

In Buenos Aires Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia (ACIJ) did the necessary budget analysis and litigated to provide access to education for preschool-aged children (click here to read more). But their work was massively supported from a number of other quarters: courts that were willing to litigate on socioeconomic rights and judges who were prepared to look at innovative agreements to ensure the implementation of the court ruling; other CSOs that kept up the pressure through ”friends of the court” testimonies (Amicus briefs); the media that kept the issue on the public agenda; while willing government insiders who negotiated the implementation of the court ruling.

Some questions about how to build accountability systems

How can we support accountability actors in ways that increase the chances that they will act together to enhance accountability? We have a lot more to learn and reflect on:

  1.  Most efforts to strengthen domestic accountability (in other words, that driven by actors from within a country) focus support on only one of the groups listed above, either CSOs, legislatures, media, and in some innovative cases, even reform-minded government insiders. Do those who want to build domestic accountability need to work in a more systemic way and find ways to support more holistically the actors and institutions that make up these campaigns?  And how would this work in practice?  Through partnership agreements between agencies like UNDP/NDI (parliamentary strengthening) and the IBP/RWI/Oxfam (civil society strengthening) or organizations like the Media Institute of Southern Africa (media strengthening)? Or some other form?
  2. Should such support to accountability systems be issue or campaign-based? Or would longer term support focusing on institutional strength and strategic relationships be more effective?
  3. We have some examples of how to support some of the “traditional’” accountability actors like legislatures, media, and CSOs, but how to support some of the less usual suspects like progressive academics or trade unions or government insiders?
  4. Obviously not all, or maybe not even most, accountability systems are harmonious. The IBP impact case studies show a number of examples where the media and legislatures divert CSO campaigns to their own private aims. What to do when the players in an accountability system don’t act in a mutually supportive way?

 Some answers?

We don’t have answers to these questions yet, but the cases above make a strong argument for finding them. And these examples of the potential benefits of cultivating “accountability ecosystems” may also hold some of the clues. The IBP itself is testing a few different ways to support “accountability ecosystems” in places like Kenya, the Philippines, Egypt and Tunis which might help to answer some of the questions raised. We will report on these experiments regularly. What has your experience been?


  1. for setting out borefe the event the factors that would play into this judgement and their relative importance. Shortfalls in public service delivery have arisen where it has been insufficiently clear the level of ambition targeted, and what were considered reasonable lengths to which those accountable ought to have gone.13.What if an official inherits accountability for something that is off track? It is right that where possible, the predecessor is held to account. But the successor also has a duty to assess the inheritance, flag at as early a stage as possible its problems and agree personal accountability as well.

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