Book Review: Social Accountability in Africa

Social Accountability in Africa: Practitioners’ Experiences and Lessons, edited by Mario Claasen & Carmen Alpín-Lardiés

Social accountability is increasingly being recognised in Africa as an intrinsic and necessary political tool to preserve democracy in those countries on the continent that are opting for multi-party democracy. With the growing recognition that elections alone are a necessary but by no means sufficient condition to guarantee a transition to a democratic regime, different countries in Africa are designing diverse and innovative tools and strategies for ensuring that their governments are indeed responsive to the electorate.

Among the citizens of these countries – and sometimes also among their leaders ‑ there is a growing recognition that elections only hold elected officials to account and not appointed office-bearers. A vote alone amounts to no more than selecting the best candidate during elections; citizens of newly democratic African states are asking who holds governments accountable between polls?

Social Accountability in Africa is available from Lobby Books at R200

With this question in mind, the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in Africa (ANSA-Africa) conducted a series of case studies in different countries across Africa to explore different models of social accountability. It looked beyond the government-initiated commissions and institutions created in some countries to the role played by citizens and civil society in building more effective states through social accountability approaches.

It debunks the old convention that accountability exists only between those who hold formal state power and those who do not and in its research records instances in which institutions have been designed to encourage holding one’s peers and non-elected officials accountable as well. ANSA-Africa holds that the active participation and engagement of citizens and civil society groups in policy-making and implementation can greatly improve governance.

“Citizen monitoring can complement elections and by so doing reinforce and improve accountability mechanisms. It can include social audits of public services and expenditure-tracking surveys and citizen monitoring can also raise awareness of the performance of public services and put pressure on institutions to act,” argue the study editors, Mario Claasen and Carmen Alpin-Lardiés, who are researchers in the Economic Governance Programme of Africa-wide democracy institute, Idasa.

The research, managed by Idasa, was backed and supported by Victoria Ayer and Steven Grudzof the South African Institute for International Affairs. Initiated by the Human Sciences Research Council, it is a continent-wide project conducted by the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in Africa (ANSA-Africa) and the findings were released in May as Social Accountability in Africa: Practitioners Experiences and Lessons.

“Social accountability can significantly promote sustained good governance in Africa. This may help to address the many challenges the continent faces in moving towards sustainable development, in particular achieving the challenges of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals,” writes Dr Olive Shisana, Chief Executive Officer of the Human Sciences Research Council, in the foreword to the book.

Social Accountability in Africa: Practitioners’ Experiences and Lessons is a collection of diverse case studies from across Africa, which present unique approaches to how social accountability strategies and interventions are implemented within different countries. The book is written by practitioners, for practitioners, providing first-hand experience of designing and implementing social accountability initiatives and the challenges, methods and successes each one presents.

It considers independent institutions established to promote accountability and good governance in state institutions, including commissions on human rights or gender, ombudsmen and anti-corruption commissions. Most of these institutions play a monitoring role and are meant to be independent from state institutions. However, it documents the challenges these forms of institutions sometimes face when the states that set them up deliberately undermine their independence. They also face challenges of under-resourcing (both human and financial), ambiguously defined roles, and the most common one of not having the necessary ‘teeth’ to reprimand officials for misconduct.

South Africa is an example of this with Chapter Nine of the Constitution establishing a number of bodies such as the Public Protector, the South African Human Rights Commission and the Auditor-General. However, in the current socio-political context, Chapter Nine institutions, given their capacity constraints, reliance on government funding, and need for government support, require the support of civil society organisations. In short, they lack power, and therefore the role of CSOs in entrenching social accountability in South Africa is especially important.

Uganda has an elaborate legal and institutional framework to promote government accountability and improve governance. The government has also established several institutions to promote transparency and accountability. Yet despite all these provisions, public perception of government is low and, frustrated with the lack of progress in fighting corruption and poor service delivery, civil society organisations are beginning to develop social accountability programmes to mobilise citizens to push for change.

In Kenya, following the post-election crisis, and once the National Accord was signed, a civil society coalition was created, comprising four broad groups – the National Civil Society Congress, Kenyans for Peace with Truth and Justice, Vital Voices and the Humanitarian Coalition. The Kenyan example, where non-state actors played a major role in enforcing the international agreement, demonstrates that accountability requires a strong public voice and strong accountable institutions and rules. It also shows that the international community is important in promoting accountability.

The African Peer Review Mechanism can also serve as a catalyst for accountability, offering civil society various entry points to influence governance, raise issues of concern and demand accountability like mass public meetings, workshops, nationwide opinion surveys and written public submissions. But this opportunity for participation should not be automatically assumed and civil society may have to fight for it. The process can seem complex, intimidating, lengthy and elitist.

The book cites a wide variety of approaches that have emerged under the rubric of social accountability:

  • In Mozambique a joint Frelimo and Renamo initiative led to the establishment of the Parliamentary Office for Prevention and Fight against HIV and AIDS (Gabinete Parlamentar de Prevenção e Combate ao HIV e SIDA GPPC-HIV e SIDA).
  • The Results for Kenyans Programme facilitated cultural and attitudinal change in the public sector and citizens. It enhanced service accessibility and client service orientation. The Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission Survey 2006 showed that 95% of Kenyans interviewed had heard of “Huduma Bora ni Haki Yako” the campaign slogan of the programme.
  • In Johannesburg, a process was set up to ‘democratise’ and ‘de-technify’ municipal planning, to re-orient politicians and officials to think in micro-developmental and community-based terms, as well as positively engage community activists in a meaningful and structured way.
  • The use of Citizen Report Cards, a relatively ‘friendly’ instrument by which citizens ‘grade’ public servants on their performance in an attempt to encourage them to improve, is on the rise throughout the world.
  • Tougher strategies, such as independent anti-corruption ombudsmen, are also on the increase. The number of independent agencies has increased dramatically in recent years, such as the Public Protector in South Africa, the Inspector-General of Government in Uganda and Malawi’s Ombudsman.

The study proposes that the traditional approach to resource monitoring which focuses almost entirely on the accounting side of the issue must be modified to emphasise accountability so that all of the major stakeholders in the decentralisation process are empowered to play their role in furthering accountability in general, and social accountability in particular.

Moira Levy, Idasa

Social Accountability in Africa is available from Lobby Books at R200.


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