13 Mar 2012

On citizens' agency and accountability: Some quick thoughts from Twaweza immersion

Daraja had the pleasure last week of hosting a large group of Twaweza staff and partners for their annual "immersion exercise". On Monday morning they set off from our office, in pairs, to join host households in rural villages around Njombe district, returning on Thursday.

It's not a formal research exercise, but rather an opportunity to get a glimpse of life as lived by people in a different setting - people who Twaweza is trying to reach.

Friday was back in our office, sharing and discussing the exercise to extract some broader learning. A lot of interesting points we raised, but one theme came up several times - is it better to work around a struggling system, or to try to make that system work better?

What if supporting "citizens' agency" involves citizens taking actions that solve problems but which undermine government accountability?
If the capitation grant doesn't reach schools, and parents get together to pay for chalk, text books and other materials, is that citizens' agency? In one sense, of course it is, as it is clearly a case of citizens taking action to improve their lives. But if the result is that government feels less pressure to deliver on its promises, less pressure to get the capitation grant out to schools, then things don't look so good. Instead of government bearing the cost of teaching materials (and fulfilling its own promise to do so), parents are forced to bear this burden. Citizens' agency, yes, but poverty-reducing?

This blog has discussed a similar example before - the Magoda water project - in which residents of Magoda village gave up waiting for the long-promised "World Bank" water project. Instead, they contributed the money and did all the work themselves.

There were several examples where influential individuals - local MPs, Catholic Fathers, etc. - had spent their own money and/or using their influence to set up new projects. Does getting a new road, new water project, or new dispensary depend on having an influential friend who can find a way of attracting the funding your way? And if so, should we encourage people to use this informal system?

If we're happy with this, it means that people who don't have influential allies will continue to struggle, while those with friends in the right places will continue to attract more and more outside funding. And if we insist on MPs spending their own money in the constituency before we vote for them, aren't we putting an obstacle in the way of poorer people running for parliament?

Several participants reported seeing a general lack of confidence in the formal channels of governance. Their host families, neighbours, etc. were sceptical that their MP would represent them well, that the local government planning system would deliver "development", that the capitation grant would arrive? So they look for other, more direct ways of improving their lives.

And it's difficult to say that they're wrong for doing so. They get a new water project, access to electricity or a repaired road as a result. Or their kids are taught by teachers who have chalk.

But they shouldn't have to spend their own money on these things, and by doing so this time, they make it more likely that they will have to do so again next year. More importantly, perhaps, if we (Twaweza / Daraja / whoever) encourage them to do so, aren't we undermining pressure for government to do a better job?