Flipping accountability on its heed

Accountability. A lovely concept, so often vague enough to disguise its multi-faceted and -functional nature. With a bit of expansion on the topic, we may be able to then drill down into the detail in order to pick apart some ways of improving something we’ve long feigned to improve.

When considering accountability in its broadest sense, it’s hard not to consider the infamous Aid Chain. Money flows downstream and power back up. And ultimately, that means accountability flows back up too. Governments are not held accountable by the organisations they fund. NGOs are not held accountable by the people they serve. Not enough at least. And nowhere near as much as they are accountable upstream. It’s Paulo Freire practically articulated. 

We talk of accountability to affected or at risk people (a cheeky twist on AAP) in a slightly oxymoronic fashion. It’s optional. Accountability as a concept isn’t. To be accountable is not to pick and choose how and when to what degree one can be held accountable. But that’s how we generally operate when it comes to AAP. It’s not like we don’t know what accountability looks like. A donor deadline is gospel. Their requirements written on stone tablets. And we work all the hours we can to ensure that we meet such requirements, regardless of perceived programmatic value, for fear of being financially crucified. Fair point, I’ll stop the religious metaphors there. You get the point.

Whilst earnest conversations have been had for decades, predating my existence let alone participation in this sector, progress has been slow. Change is multi-faceted. It requires holistic interventions that account for various intersecting factors. Yep, complex, dynamic blah blah blah. So how can it change more significantly and soon? 

That’s a tough nut to crack and it hasn’t been ignored in discussion to date. But here’s a thought. If power upstream is so strong, so reinforced, so incentivised, why not co-opt it? What if ‘upward’ accountability were the same as ‘downward’ accountability? Am I being a person possessed of some radical notions? Let me see if I can plant this idea deep enough into your conscious to create some inception style accordance. So let me be more specific. What if we were measured just in terms of constituent voice? What if we took the perspectives and opinions of affected and at risk people as a proxy at least for quality and for outcomes? 

It’s not that drastically radical a concept except that it brings up a topic that often sends people, not least of the M&E persuasion, into meltdown. Satisfaction. Why is this such a controversial concept? Well, I’m not entirely sure to be honest. Perhaps it’s because it’s a concept that is considered very culturally skewed – confirmation bias aplenty of overly positive reporting, especially when asked to report satisfaction to a member of that organisation. Perhaps it’s a fear of control? Of simplicity? Of a shift in power? Perhaps we don’t trust people, not just to be honest, but to be able to report on quality in an informed way. Yes, the height of condescension, we know what’s good for you style. Even in its most simplistic sense, whatever complex index or question set we ask is fundamentally based upon asking opinion, whether for PDMs or impact assessments. The concept of asking the question directly somehow creates a big problem. One that I’ve yet to see someone really break down, explore, pick apart and address. The conversation stops at the problem and I think we need more potential solutions. 

So let’s follow this idea down the rabbit hole. What would happen if we ran with it? If we used satisfaction as a proxy for various aspects of quality? Well, monitoring activities might become lighter, especially if you run with the proxy idea. If they’re more direct questions, lighter, shorter, less time consuming, we could use the space to either get such insights more frequently, more qualitatively and/or focus on following up after gathering insight – closing the loop.

Sounds simple enough, so what’s the problem? Sadly, credibility. And if we’re talking credibility, we have to understand to whom. Yes, we’re back to the Aid Chain. If a donor suddenly required that, beyond a few simple output indicators, the degree of participation, quality of feedback and degree of satisfaction were above all key, well, it could happen. And quickly. I’ve had discussions with people who work in financing institutions, including government donors, who are genuinely interested in the concept. But there are blockers elsewhere, nestled neatly within NGOs, and not least within the M&E ‘community’. To guard our status as specialists, we are incentivised to create complexity in order to reduce accessibility. That’s what makes us needed. Understanding specific, complex issues is what makes us special after all.

As per previous posts, the proof will be in the pudding. It needs to be tried, tested, adapted and discussed. And somewhere that it can be given some space for this kind of experimentation. It’s already being tried in different guises – again, this is nothing new, but it is something that I would like to see grow. To be promoted. To be given space. To be piloted. To be discussed. Because I think it has merits. I think that aligning accountability to affected and at risk people, to accountability to donors is a way of given AAP the force to be really driven forward. It is a concept that is fairly simple, using familiar tools but it has the potential to nudge us further towards radically shifting power dynamics. I hope.

NB: Cornwall and Brock’s article on Buzzwords and Fuzzwords is a glorious piece of work, especially in how it identifies where good intention often is coopted into undermining itself. They argue that certain (cyclical) calls for greater participation were born out of recognising the need for more collective, political agency for affected and at risk people. They also argue that in choosing the ‘community’ as the principle sociological denomination, the have served to undermine the group’s political power as most movements necessarily garner strength from being broader. It’s a great read, please check it out.

Flipping accountability on its heed

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