16 Dec 2009

Unintended consequences

I was challenged earlier this week by the idea that work trying to increase the accountability of government to citizens could even have a negative effect - that it could reduce accountability rather than strengthen it. This unlikely-sounding idea might actually have a point in many cases, and we need to make sure that we at Daraja are avoiding this.

The argument has three basic components. First, pouring money into "accountability" programmes can change people's incentives for acting: people with a genuine desire to hold government to account may find themselves drawn towards donor's priorities and away from their real needs. If those same people simply acted on their own behalf, their actions would more accurately reflect their own priorities rather than those of donors.

Second, turning "accountability" work into an industry, as it is becoming in Tanzania, creates career opportunities that will tend to draw the brightest and best away from the districts and into Dar es Salaam, away from grassroots organisations and towards international NGOs. Thus accountability pressure where it matters most - at district level - is reduced.

And third, many accountability tools, notably Public Expenditure Trracking, involve creating new joint committees, etc, that draw government officials away from doing their real jobs, increase bureaucracy and slow down government even more, without the tool having much of an accountability impact.
These are genuine concerns that we need to take seriously. That either means showing that these arguments are wrong or showing that we are different. Let me have go.

Though it would be better to find counter-arguments that apply generally, it's not hard to put forward reasons why they don't apply to us, or at least not to all our work.

Our local newspaper, Twende Pamoja, escapes relatively easily. By using the paper as a platform for citizen-led debate on local priorities and scrutiny of local government performance, the paper should be very responsive to the issues prioritised by local citizens themselves. This also creates opportunties for large numbers of citizens to get involved. The paper therefore protects the priorities of citizens against donors' interests and increaese, rather tha undermining, the pool of citizen-activists at local level.

The more assertive, independent approach of the paper also helps. We won't be spending a lot of time forming new committees, etc, but rather will work more independently of local government, putting pressure on from the outside rather trying to solve problems together. In a narrow sense we're also not taking the brightest and best away from the district, but rather bringing them back from Dar.

Many of these arguments also hold for our work in the water sector. We're increasing citizen-activism, not spending time with committee work, and based up country. But whether the programme responds to citizens' or donors' priorities is a little more tricky since we've already set detailed objectives for specific service delivery improvements. You could argue that since opinion polls have clearly and consistently put water supply at rural Tanzanians' top priority, we can't be leading people far from their priority issues.

I'm not sure these are totally convincing defences though. More thinking required.

More generally though, promoting citizens' agency and creating citizen-led platforms could help steer the accountability industry away from the risk of undermining the very thing its working for.