The once encouraging ‘governance turn‘ in development thinking emphasized the need for building formal and informal democratic institutions to supplement and consolidate more technocratic reforms such as strengthening treasuries or training auditors. As it turns out, the manufacturing of governance accountability is harder than most people thought.

Reporting on the findings of their impressive 10 year, 150 case study Citizenship DRC project, the IDS distinguishes three models for encouraging citizen-led accountability. We discuss these three models below.

The huge contribution of the IDS project is to give us more and more detailed descriptions of how citizens sometimes succeed in holding governments to account. However, the analysis and interpretation of these descriptions still have a long way to go.

There are few hard and fast rules for sparking and supporting the sort of democratic eruptions seen in the MENA region recently. In any given country, knowledge  of context still plays a more important role than any recipe for producing accountability. And anyone wishing to support the emergence of greater accountability will more than likely end up with some mixture of all three the models that the IDS discusses.

Considering the tiny portion of development aid that is spent on building governance and accountability, it can also be argued that the development community is yet to make a serious effort at testing any of the models for igniting and sustaining governance accountability.

The supply and demand model

The IDS describes this model as follows:

“Development agencies have pursued a two-pronged strategy for good governance. On one side have been initiatives to bolster ‘voice’, encompassing the variety of formal and informal ways that citizens make themselves seen, heard and understood; on the other, have stood state-led reforms to strengthen the institutions of accountability. This is the ‘supply and demand’ model, whereby the state, on one side, is the supplier – the duty-bearer and the agent being held accountable. Citizens do their part on the other side of the transaction by demanding their rights and an account of what the state has done.”

“Each year, about $9 billion is spent to promote fair elections, government transparency and justice, among other common components of the good governance agenda.”

While this model may look familiar, the truth is that only a fraction of development aid is spent to promote it. It is paid lip service in most strategy documents, but receive only passing attention in the budgets that emerge from these strategies.

It is also true that most of what is spent according to this model, is spent on the supply side. Funding of citizen-led activities is dwarfed by the various interventions designed to improve policy and budget processes.

The matchmaker model

Here is how the IDS describes it:

“… the supply-and-demand model has recently come under threat by many critics who say that good governance is a function of the relationship between states and societies. It is not, they say, just a matter of building generic capacities on each side, but a matter of building the specific capacities needed to engage with one another, making development agencies less like an architect and more like a matchmaker.”

This model is rather nascent and it is hard to find examples of interventions that promote it. Among its only visible forms are donors encouraging governments to include civil society in donor consultation processes or parliamentary strengthening programs that introduce members of Parliament and civil society organisations to each other.

It is also questionable whether donors themselves are well placed to play this matchmaking role. Governments experience such ‘facilitation’ as pressure and their halting engagement of citizens and civil society are hardly a model of sustainability.

The deep throat model

According to the IDS:

” …change happens not just through strategies that work on both sides of the equation, but also through strategies that work across them… While the state is often a target in such movements, actors within the state also play a critical role too, opening and closing opportunities for citizens, championing and sustaining reforms, and protecting the legitimacy and safety of the movements.”

The strength of this model is that it emerges from the IDS’s empirical analyses, not only from theory. Close description of successful citizen-led advocacy initiatives show that the state is not a monolith and that astute civil society strategists succeed in finding allies inside the state.

This model also questions the overly confrontational approach that civil society organisations sometimes engage in. Descriptions of successful advocacy campaigns show that they depend as much on informal alliances with reform minded officials as they depend on forcing  the state’s hand.

So what’s next?

This magisterial IDS program provides invaluable material for analysis. We are however still some distance from a set of easy guidelines for creating or supporting the emergence of accountability in countries where it is not present or not sufficiently so.

A close look at any given country shows that context is more important than any recipe. Local knowledge is always more important than any theory or model.  As a result, any intervention usually ends up being a mixture of the three models described above.

Even if an accountability recipe were available, it is not clear who  the broker would be with sufficient credibility to engage government and civil society.

We would also need much larger and more sustainable funding of citizen led accountability interventions to give these experiments any real chance of sustainable success.

What do you think? Any ideas for what the magic formula would be for igniting accountability?