16 August 2011

Social accountability, an imperative

By Dr. Antonio G.M. La Viña

This is the first of six columns I intend to write about “social accountability” and the Affiliated Networks for Social Accountability. I decided to write this series because social accountability is an idea, a powerful tool for good governance, whose time has come. ANSA, on the other hand, is a global network of institutions and researchers dedicated to promoting social accountability concepts and practices, and in developing citizen engagement by leveraging demand-side governance: helping people connect with their governments, and make them accountable for public goods and services. I am grateful to my writing collaborator Christian Laluna and the ANSA team in the Ateneo School of Government for assisting me with these columns.

What has been called the “Third Wave of Democracy” by Samuel Huntington describes the growth, around the end of the Cold War and the following years, in the number of countries which have granted their citizens the right to vote at large for their government, and guaranteed their civil liberties and human rights such as the right to free speech. It remains an admittedly incomplete picture, though, because civil liberties and periodic elections are two out of three ingredients for a sustainable, stable democratic state. Voting and human rights are not merely ends in themselves, but the tools by which citizens can ensure their prosperity, welfare, and stability. In the political environment, this is achieved through the policy process—in short, through governance.

This is where the ball is often sadly dropped. As the Philippine experience will attest, it is very difficult to translate electoral gains into policy gains: ensuring that the public servants elected into office execute the mandates for which they were elected. As well, Filipinos certainly enjoy many liberties—one of the most free presses in the region, if not the world; a political culture built on the foundations of the EDSA People Power revolutions; an expectation of democracy, even in spite of the occasional cynicism about Philippine politics. Yet for these advantages, we still face the challenges of bridging the gap between the rich and poor; effectively delivering basic services such as education, health and welfare; protecting the environment and marginalized peoples; and ensuring fairness and justice in the distribution of public wealth. Corruption still plagues governance, as recent headlines show.

So much of the world faces the same crisis as the Philippines: a governance crisis. Across many countries, both developing and developed, people feel disconnected from their governments. Ordinary citizens are unable to influence the policies they wish to be enacted and powerless to stop corrupt officials and personalities from hijacking public institutions and policies for personal profit. The outcomes are poor delivery of public services, miscarriages of justice (both law and social justice), and graft and corruption.

This is where “social accountability” and the Affiliated Networks for Social Accountability come in.

Social accountability is that old idea of a “government of the people” given new impetus: that citizens, even if they do not hold public office or don’t have the influential power of lobbyists, rich people, and corporations, can still work with government in a productive, meaningful way. This is “demand-side governance”, or the governance practiced and provided by the intended beneficiaries of public policy, the citizens of a given country. Thus, social accountability mechanisms reconnect people with their governments, to make governments for the people and by the people of the people to begin with (completing Abraham Lincoln’s famous three-part description of representative government).

ANSA is a global network of institutions and researchers dedicated to promoting social accountability concepts and practices, and in developing citizen engagement by leveraging demand-side governance: helping people connect with their governments, and make them accountable for public goods and services. In the Third Wave of Democracy, we have seen the developed world assist the developing world in conducting successful democratic elections. We have seen nonviolent democratic revolution cross national boundaries, from India and the Philippines, to countries like Poland and the Ukraine, and recently to the Arab Spring. And we have institutions like the World Bank assisting governments in improving their governance capacities to deliver public goods and services. What remains to ensure sustainable democracy is the same global assistance on citizen engagement at the local level, to give citizens the skills and tools to hold their own governments accountable for policies and programs.

This is ANSA’s global mandate. Based out of the Institute of Governance Studies in BRAC University, Bangladesh, and formally launched in partnership with the World Bank Institute last June 29 here in Manila, the ANSA Global Partnership Fund (ANSA Global or ANSA GPF) provides a networking platform for the three main regional ANSA networks: Africa (ANSA Africa, in fact the oldest of the regional networks, created in 2007), East Asia and the Pacific (ANSA-EAP, which incidentally is headquartered in the Ateneo School of Government), and South Asia (ANSA-SAR, which is based in BRAC University alongside ANSA-Global), a means for these networks to exchange ideas, distribute and share knowledge and resources, and collaborate with each other achieve their objectives of enhancing sustainable citizen engagement in their respective home bases.

Through each regional network serving as both social accountability schools and project manager, ANSA links together knowledge and practice, through people in government and in civil society (e.g., academia and NGOs), to apply the concept of social accountability to policy design and execution. We can think of each local instance of policy, each public program of government as an opportunity for social accountability, as a laboratory for developing and testing methods and mechanisms of constructive citizen engagement in governance, and a means to promote the concept to governments and people alike. “Learning in action”, ANSA-EAP calls it: turning policy and accountability projects into schools of governance, accountability, and citizen engagement.

From these local projects, ANSA Global gains the necessary data and experience to refine the concept of social accountability, building up a database of knowledge and best practices for academics, policymakers, and citizens. To these local projects, and the regional networks as well, ANSA Global provides a platform and forum to advance and discuss their interests and objectives to the rest of the world, and mobilized resources and technical resources to fund and sustain these projects, such as CheckMySchool.org here in the Philippines. Much like in environmentalism (“think globally, act locally”), the global and local levels feed into each other: serving to develop and promote social accountability on the regional and global stages as a cornerstone of democratic governance, and attracting attention and support from partners, while improving such democratic governance at home and citizen’s participation in government programs.

ANSA Global and the regional networks aim to lift demand-side governance to the mainstream of public governance practice through advocacy, research, and technical support, to make constructive citizen engagement an adjunct to the formal institutions of governance and government accountability (the “supply side” of governance). Part of ANSA’s challenge is understanding the limits of traditional, formal governance approaches, or of relying on government institutions alone (such as checks and balances among government branches, or independent investigatory bodies like ombudsman offices) for accountability.

Next week, I will write about mainstreaming social accountability in governance.

The writer is Dean of the Ateneo School of Government (ASoG)  and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in East Asia and the Pacific (ANSA-EAP).  This essay was first published in the 16 August 2011 online and print edition of the Manila Standard Today. It is featured in VOICES with the writer's permission. Dean La Viña can be reached through e-mail at tonylavs (at) gmail.com and twitter: tonylavs

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