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An Introduction to Social Accountability: Why is it important and how can we improve it?

Social accountability refers to the extent and capacity of citizens to hold the state and service providers accountable and make them responsive to the needs of citizens and beneficiaries (World Bank 2003).

It is important to emphasize that social accountability operationalizes several key principles which are at the heart of both democratic governance and a human rights-based approach (HRBA) to development. States are legally responsible for commitments they have made under international human rights treaties and their own national legislation. If there is a good degree of social accountability, citizens are entitled to hold the state actors to account for these obligations and can use a wide array of formal and informal measures to do so. Formal measures include legal mechanisms, such as the use of courts and international treaty bodies.

Social accountability can enhance development outcomes and progress towards the achievement of human development overall, by strengthening links between governments and citizens to:

  • improve the focus of public service delivery;

  • monitor government performance and foster responsive governance;

  • emphasize the needs of vulnerable groups in policy formulation and implementation;

  • demand transparency and expose government failure and corruption;

  • facilitate effective links between citizens and local governments in the context of decentralization;

  • empower marginalized groups traditionally excluded from policy processes.

The governance triangle

© Illustration by Civil Society Academy

A useful concept in understanding social accountability is the governance triangle, which was introduced in the World Development Report 2004: Making Services Work for Poor People. The report marked a change in the strategy international donors took in supporting governments in the global South. After international agencies had supported and sometimes imposed myriads of “good governance projects” in developing countries in the 1990s—with mixed outcomes—donors realized that working through the state system was not enough. Bottom-up processes were needed to improve the link between citizens and service providers on the ground and make the services more accountable at the sites where they are provided.

The triangle differentiates between the state and the service providers, which are often the main institutions interacting with citizens. Service providers can be private or public and refer to all sectors that are conventionally provided by or controlled by the state, such as health, education, roads, or subsidized housing among others.

The triangle visualizes the direct link between citizens and service providers, also referred to as the “short route” to improving service delivery. In a well-developed system, this link would be supported through several mechanisms, for instance by providing information to create transparency about a service, through participatory planning, feedback questionnaires, complaint boxes, or email addresses for whistleblowing. There are also more and more online tools which help service providers receive feedback. All those mechanisms can help make services more accountable and progressive. They are often complemented by independent state institutions such as courts, auditors, or ombudsmen to make sure that the citizen inquiries and complaints are heard and processed. Further, civil society plays a role. Civil society organizations can support citizens in their claims and magnify citizen voices, for instance by organizing protests or giving advice to citizens.

In many countries, the short route is not well developed

In countries with poor services, such mechanisms and systems are usually less common and sometimes suppressed by corruption or political agendas. In such cases, supporting the short route is critical and can lead to immediate improvements. The World Bank realized this and increasingly promoted community-based tools and civil society actions since the early 2000s. In Ethiopia, for instance, the World Bank supports 42 national NGOs in 25 percent of districts to implement social accountability measures, where groups use community scorecards and citizen report cards to improve the local governance of critical services (status of 2017).

Also, national organizations and movements as well as international NGOs became increasingly interested in more systematic approaches to support the short route since the late 90s. This is evident in publications such as PLA Notes, and the increasing adaptation of the human rights-based approach, which emphasizes citizen participation and accountability.

Many organizations soon realized that social accountability action, for instance through community scorecards, can make a difference at the local level. Yet to achieve larger impacts, such actions need to be scaled to larger areas. In addition, the evidence created on a specific service is gold for pursuing advocacy. Many organizations and movements therefore use strategies to work on both routes—including the indirect and lengthier way referred to as the “long route” in the governance triangle. The long route aims at influencing the overall policy and legal framework related to a specific issue or sector through a variety of strategies, including campaigning, evidence-based advocacy, and where possible, capacity development of state actors.

The final goal: accountability mechanisms are integrated in legislation and enforced

Civil society organizations that facilitate a community planning session or a community scorecard exercise to bring service providers and citizens closer together can be an intermediary solution that improves services and fills an important gap. But it is only an intermediary solution, not the final goal. In a more developed system, the state itself ensures accountability.

In India, many important strides have been made in this direction over the last two decades, with civil society actors being important drivers. In 2005, India adopted the Right to Information legislation, which is an important precondition for state accountability. Now citizens have the right to be informed about almost everything of interest to them. They can also demand information, for instance why a certain person is not on a beneficiary list, or why the local health service is not working. The Right to Information law was among Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan’s successes. The group has scaled accountability mechanisms through a large campaign which uncovered a shocking degree of embezzlement and corruption in state services and schemes. Please see the chapter on social audits for more details.

But the story does not end at the right to information. Social Accountability tools such as social audits and complaint mechanisms have since become an integral part of the legislation. The national rural employment guarantee scheme of India [1] which provides 100 days of paid labor to every Indian, for instance, has social audit mechanisms built in to ensure that the funds and labor arrive where they should. We should remain committed to building such systems that are legally enforced around the world.





International Institute for Environment and Development, 2002. Participatory Learning and Action Notes 43:. Advocacy and Citizen Participation.

World Bank. 2003. World Development Report 2004 : Making Services Work for Poor People.


About the Author:

Joachim Schwarz is passionate about social justice and on a mission to support like-minded civil society actors and social entrepreneurs to become more powerful and innovative. Hence, in 2014 he left his NGO career to build the Civil Society Academy. He is an outstanding facilitator and coach with expertise in social innovation, leadership, organisational change, and advocacy. After more than 20 years in Africa and Asia, he is now based in Berlin.

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