Social accountability for development


By Levi Zeleza Manda:


Since the early 1960s, trillions of United States dollars in foreign aid have been poured into African development. The money inflow has been in the form of bilateral loans, donations, investments and service support, such as free primary education and HIV and Aids mitigation. But more often than not, evaluations have concluded that there has been no tangible return on all that money.

The reasons for the catastrophic failure of foreign aid to develop Africa are many. For Dambisa Moyo of the Dead Aid fame, Martin Meredith, author of The Fate of Africa, Peter Schwab who wrote Africa: A Continent Self-Destructs, and Robert Calderisi, author of The Trouble with Africa: Why Foreign Aid Isn’t Working, aid has failed to develop Africa because of, among other factors, corruption in high offices.


Some authors have argued differently. In Bottom Billion, Paul Collier claims that Africa has failed, even with foreign aid support, because most of its states are landlocked, ‘the Dutch disease’, too many resources leading to conflicts, wars and political and economic instability.

For other authors, the nature of the relationship between the lender-cum-donor countries and Africa is to blame. In Africa’s Debts, Who Owes Whom? James Boyce and Leonce Ndakuimana claim that, actually, through reverse resource flows, the donors take away all their money via the so-called technical assistants, poverty barons—as Andrew Giligan of the UK’s Daily Mail once described the expatriates sent along with the aid package.

These are paid huge salaries and allowances, housed like kings and treated like ambassadors, thus swallowing a large percentage of the aid and let only little crumbles go to real development. So on paper, Africa receives a lot of aid but, in fact, Africa gets nothing. And because of corruption and other illicit offshore activities by politicians, business and other actors, Africa sends out more money than it receives in aid.


To curb government—sponsored corruption and theft of donor money, donors and bilateral lenders have opted to fund civil society organisations and international or national non-governmental organisations (NGO). Even this change of approach of dispensing foreign aid has not worked as some civil society organisations and non-governmental organisations have failed to properly use the money and account for it.


While all the foregoing explanations and structural adjustment policies may account for the failure of aid to transform Africa, recent studies by the World Bank and some development agencies indicate that one of the major problems has been the lack of genuine popular participation and citizen empowerment to monitor use of the money.

Consequently, projects presently abound that conduct participatory public expenditure tracking where local people are involved. Inclusion of grassroots ideas and priorities in local government and national budget formulation and expenditure monitoring are now commonplace.

This approach has been christened social accountability. The World Bank defines it as the “use of a broad range of actions and mechanisms that citizens, communities, independent media and civil society organisations can use to hold public officials and public servants accountable”.

Social accountability entails active citizenship. Activated or empowered citizens use social audits, scorecards and other tools to assess service provision. Social accountability means citizens demanding good governance, transparency and accountability from duty-bearers. Social accountability means governments supplying governance and acting transparently to citizen satisfaction.

Social accountability involves media and journalists, as the megaphone of the voices of the usually marginalised men, women and children. Social accountability uses opinion influencers such as chiefs, music icons, teachers and civil society to drive the social transformation agenda. While citizens monitor and demand governance from government, government also expects the citizens to take up their responsibility and ensure things work. As such, social accountability is mutual and 360 degrees.

Studies indicate that where social accountability has accompanied development initiatives, qualitative and quantitative returns on investment are clear to see.

World Vision is one international NGO that is using social accountability as its development strategy. Its Citizen Voice and Action (CVA) strategy has resulted in tangible outcomes and impacts in Africa and elsewhere. In its 2019 report titled ‘Scaling Social Accountability’, World Vision reports that in Uganda, CVA in the area of education resulted in “an eight to 10 percent increase in pupil attendance and a 13 percent reduction in teacher absenteeism” while, in the area of health, CVA led to ‘significant increases in health centre staff, drug availability and quantity of drugs in government health centres”.

According to the same report, in Indonesia, CVA led to drastic improvements in health services. More women delivered at a health facility while cases of child immunisation increased as did supplementary feeding programmes for children, which included lessons for parents on how to cook healthy food for their children.

As demonstrated by Jonathan Fox’s meta-analysis published online by Science Direct, evidence is there that social accountability works in improving social service delivery. It is working in Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America and North America. And institutions adopting the approach are growing in number.

In Malawi, the voice and participation in designing development, budgets and monitoring and evaluation have been largely ignored or tokenistic because, essentially, the intelligence and wisdom of the poor—rural men, women and youths—is underrated. If we really want Malawi to benefit from the development aid it receives and realise the dreams prioritised in the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy III and the Sustainable Development Goals, top-down approaches should blend with bottom-up strategies.

In short, it is advisable for all social project planners in Malawi to include aspects of social accountability for their social projects to work; not once but throughout.

Next week, we will discuss how social accountability projects are impacting primary education in Malawi.

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