This article was written by Keren Ben-Zeev, Heinrich Böll Stiftung Southern Africa.
The South African government spends almost half of its budget each year on education, health, and welfare services. A further 20 percent of the budget goes to the provision of housing, water, electricity and sanitation. By some measures, though not all, these levels of expenditure compare favorably to similar economies and should be sufficient to provide quality public services to the majority of the population.
Despite these significant investments, however, public education and healthcare are both in crisis, and last year public outcry over failing services reached fever pitch: a record 185 “service delivery” protests took place in 2014, with residents demanding improvements to basic services such as water, sanitation, housing, roads and electricity. Whether public services can be significantly improved, however, largely depends on fixing accountability and transparency deficits inSouth Africa’s political system.
In response, South African civil society has been increasingly exploring participatory methods to enable citizens to hold the government to account for how it is using public money to deliver services. One powerful participatory tool that is emerging in South Africa is social audits.
Social audits enable citizens to interrogate the state on specific budget and expenditure choices, as well as their outcomes. In South Africa, where state driven participation has failed to challenge vested interests, social audits provide platforms for citizens to hold the government to account on their own terms.
In an effort to develop and expand the use of social audits in South Africa, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the Social Justice Coalition (SJC), Ndifuna Ukwazi (NU), and IBP organized a study visit to India for South African activists. Among the delegates were those who already use social audits in their work, such as those from SJC, NU and Equal Education, as well as delegates involved in monitoring the extractive industry and urban development for whom social audits are new, such as PlanAct and Afesis Corplan.
Learning from the “Pioneers”
Social audits have long been an important part of the accountability “ecosystem” in India. Indian civil society organizations (CSOs), such as Support for Advocacy and Training Health Initiatives (SATHI), Samarthan, and the Society for Social Audits, Accountability, and Transparency (SSAAT), have pioneered different ways of using social audits to improve service delivery outcomes.
For SATHI, social audit work has evolved into the Community Based Monitoring and Planning (CBMP) approach. CBMP involves establishing regular forums for citizens to engage with the government on service delivery problems that have been identified through citizen monitoring. SSAAT, a politically independent but state funded agency, organizes social audits government programs on a mass scale. Samarthan works in one of India’s poorest states to enable communities to take charge of the state’s social audit platforms.
Delegates from South Africa were directly linked with experienced social auditors from these organizations. They accompanied youths to audit infrastructure projects and employment programs; attended CBMP forums aimed at improving health clinics; and observed public hearings to report on audit findings. Delegates were also able to directly engage with villagers, civic leaders and government officials involved in auditing practices.
What we Learnt
A number of lessons emerged from the delegates’ own reflections on their experience.
Social audits can drive systemic change as well as deliver immediate justice.
Including political leaders alongside the officials directly responsible for resolving specific issues enabled solutions to be found and immediate justice to be won for communities. In one public meeting, an official who mishandled scholarship funds paid back the money. In a CBMP forum, identifying alternative accommodation for doctors helped to increase the length of medical consultations.
In contrast, social audits in South Africa have tackled systemic problems and targeted high profile office bearers. This is essential and must continue. But it leads to long term campaigns that don’t immediately improve people’s lives, and leaves communities to deal with “basics” like broken toilets outside of the audit. CSOs should consider an approach that combines regular forums with local officials to address specific problems, and special public hearings to address systemic issues with higher level representatives.
Communities need to be in the driving seat.
While the monitoring forums and social audits we observed were supported by CSOs or the Indian government, residents in the community took the lead.
In South Africa, social audits have been largely associated with the CSOs who led them. Structuring audits so that so that they are led by communities could strengthen the legitimacy of audit findings and the government’s response.
Combining social audits with community based monitoring should be explored.
Holding regular forums for the community to monitor services allows individual problems to be tracked until they are solved, facilitates collective action, and provides space for the community to take the lead.
Establishing resident committees to monitor the implementation of commitments won through social audits is one way this can be achieved. In time, these could also become inclusive and community based forums for planning and leading social audits.
Social audit findings should be integrated into official planning, oversight, and budgeting processes.
This could help to strengthen the state’s own planning and oversight processes, as well as the institutions themselves. This is particularly relevant in South Africa, where oversight institutions have largely failed to effectively interrogate government programs and champion the interests of the most marginalized.
Local power dynamics need to be considered.
As one official explained to us, SSAAT audits allow for “impartiality at every level.” To prevent the intimidation of the auditors by local elites, SSAAT trains youths from different locales to audit one another’s villages; and public hearings are overseen by district level representatives rather than local politicians.
This is more relevant for a context where communities can rely on a politically powerful state institution to lead the audit and ensure that its findings are remedied, rather than those where communities have only themselves to rely on. Nonetheless, there may be cases where it would be useful to creatively consider how localized power dynamics should be managed – whether through circumvention or challenge.
Over the next few years we will support PlanAct and Afesis Corplan to undertake their first audits. With Benchmarks, we will experiment with the use of audits to hold mining companies to account. Drawing on our lessons from India, Equal Education, SJC and NU will experiment with different approaches and adapt these insights to the South African context.
Collectively, these actions will hold government to account for failures to provide sanitation to informal settlements in Cape Town, the appalling conditions in township schools in Gauteng, and unreliable water provision to settlements in Mpumalanga. While these will address problems in specific locales, we hope they will also catalyze country wide action that strengthens participatory and oversight institutions, public services, and, most importantly, the citizenry’s ability to ensure that public funds are used to improve their lives.