Blog | May 6, 2015 | Rosie McGee

In our eagerness to be constructive, we who work for accountable governance from our comfort zones in the global north sometimes forget what it’s like to live with a deeply unaccountable state. 

I don’t just mean finding that the party we voted for has since done a U-turn on a pre-election policy promise (a sensitive issue in the UK this week as the hotly contested general elections loom).  I mean being a citizen within a state that has a history of torturing and massacring its citizens.  For instance, how does it sound to a Guatemalan indigenous community when an international agency urges it to hold its state to account through ‘constructive engagement’?

At IDS on 30 April, Making All Voices Count’s Research, Evidence and Learning component hosted the third workshop in a series focused on accountability, organised jointly with the Transparency & Accountability Initiative and the World Bank’s Global Partnership for Social Accountability. We chose as a theme The Quest for Citizen-led Accountability: Looking inside the state.  Libraries overflowing with literature on the state and its institutions haven’t proven very useable for social actors who see the state within an ‘accountability politics’ frame, and come at it in campaigning mode.  This event brought together some of the scholars who’ve written that literature with some of those social actors who lead and support those rights-claiming processes, to unpack the state in ways that might help citizen-led accountability struggles gain purchase.

Sharing the most politically nuanced analysis of accountability that has ever been developed under World Bank auspices, Anu Joshi (IDS) and Helene Grandvoinnet (Lead Social Development Specialist, World Bank) offered a series of reflections, insights and devices for digging down inside of “context” so as to understand what makes state actors tick.  Their work points to what can be learnt by applying to state actors – individual and collective – what we already know about citizen actors – individual and collective.  Among these are the notion that power relations are at work not only between citizens and the state, but between one state actor and another; and that for governance to become more responsive and accountable, state officials may need to be empowered or mobilized at least as much as they need to be informed.  Here was ‘the state’ viewed on the inside, and from the inside looking out.

To understand the conditions under which states respond to citizen demands, it helps to look out from inside the state – ‘seeing the citizen’.

–Anu  Joshi

Man at the front of a crowded room

Zackary Canepari / Panos Pictures

How does the state look as an accountability actor if you view it from the angle of a particular issue, sector or function, as distinct from the more siloed perspective of ‘accountable governance’ as a field or subfield?

A rich set of reflections ranging from taxation to health systems via education budgets threw up both promising tactics and thorny challenges. Examples from the health sector highlighted changes that happen in the course of a rights-claiming process: from being rights petitioners, ‘users and choosers’, citizens become rights-bearers set to play roles as ‘makers and shapers’.   And it’s not only the citizen identities involved in the accountability relationship that change.

As the stakes shift from fighting for a slice of the pie, to arguing about the pie’s ingredients, to deliberating over whether pie or cake should be on offer, the basis of accountability claims has to change too.  Which is the new currency, which are the new levers that will keep the state engaged as the claims mature?   In terms of the tactics required, maybe lobbyists know the answer to this better than accountability-claiming citizens – but are lobbyists’ tactics compatible with the moral economy and the rights frameworks that underpin citizens’ accountability claims?

And then we had a range of perspectives on the state viewed from the outside in, provided by colleagues from CEGSS in Guatemala  (Centro de Estudios para la Equidad y Gobernanza en Sistemas de Salud – Centre for Health Systems Equity and Governance Studies), Oxfam GB’s Within and Without the State initiative and IDS’s Food Riots and Food Rights project.  They questioned what ‘collaborative approaches’ and ‘constructive engagement’ mean in the context of accountability claims: who defines them, and how citizen-led initiatives can engage with the state that barely exists yet, as in South Sudan, or with the state that has been the enemy for centuries, as it has to indigenous communities in Guatemala.

These experiences showed the spectrum of approaches to citizen-state engagement to be long, and to reach all the way from unruliness through contestation and confrontation to collaboration – and onwards to co-optation.  How you calibrate it and where you situate yourself along it depend on who you are and where you stand.  At any moment of a given accountability struggle, there are points along the spectrum that might work for you, or for your allies.  A key insight from Fox’s distinction between ‘strategic’ and ‘tactical’ approaches to citizen-led accountability is that ‘strategic approaches’ can combine several at once, deployed nimbly and dynamically by multiple allies, situated at various points along the spectrum, engaging a state that is as non-monolithic and multi-level as they themselves are.

All in all, it felt like a day of stepping forward past the state-citizen dichotomy, and stepping over our own platitudes about political will, black boxes and constructive engagement. Recognising why it is hard from the state’s perspective to actually ‘see the citizen’, we might understand better how much harder it is to see the marginalised, illiterate, indigenous citizen.  Recognising the complexity that’s at play when people engage constructively with even the well-disposed state in a sustained and transformative enough way to make a difference, we can start to grasp how much harder it is for dispossessed citizens to look a historically violent and unaccountable state in the eye.

The workshop gave a flavour of how multifaceted both the analysis and the action need to be. It left me with a sense that accountability claimants can get better at exacting accountability, especially in the messy real-life contexts where it’s most sorely lacking, if they consciously adopt new perspectives and look at the state dynamically, close-up, from the inside out, and the outside in.

Download a summary report of the event here.

Presentations from the day are available below


Them Belly Full (But We Hungry): Food Rights Struggles in Bangladesh, India, Kenya and Mozambique by Patta Scott-Villiers from makingallvoicescount

The Quest for Citizen-Led Accountability: Looking into the State - Budget Coalitions by Claire Shouten from makingallvoicescount

Opening the Black Box, Contextual Drivers of Social Accountability: Engaging the State by Helene Grandvoinnet from makingallvoicescount

Seeing the Citizen: State Response and Citizen-led Accountability by Anuradha Joshi from makingallvoicescount

Health Systems and Accountability by Gerry Bloom and Alex Shankland from makingallvoicescount

Citizens Engagement with the State: Experiences from Guatemala by Walter Flores from makingallvoicescount
[1] Jonathan Fox ( uses the term ‘accountability politics’ for what he describes as ‘the arena of conflict over whether and how those in power are held publicly responsible for their actions’ (2007: 1–2). ‘Accountability politics’ cannot be reduced to a set of institutional mechanisms or a checklist of procedures.  It is mediated by formal institutions but not determined by them; an arena of contestation, not a tool for efficiency and effectiveness.

About the author

Rosie McGee is the Research, Evidence and Learning component Co-ordinator for Making All Voices Count, an international initiative that contributes towards effective governance and accountability by enabling citizen engagement and open, responsive government in 12 countries in Africa and Asia