Two words always come to my mind when talking about accountability: “power” and “holders.” In principle, power comes from the people (the constituency). In a representative democracy, people are the source of power and they hold it by choosing their delegates through elections.
More often than not, however, the officials who get a mandate from the people hold power against the interests of electorate. Consequently, the power dynamic changes alongside the changes in attitudes, behaviors, and interests of the power holders. The cycle then repeats itself. For example; the recent constituent assembly election in Nepal resulted from the failure of the first assembly to promulgate a constitution.
For many Nepalese, democracy is a tool used to subjugate human beings to operate within certain norms, guided by the rule of law and constitutions. It only gives a framework, not an inclusive picture to judge and regulate the behaviors and relationships between individuals as members of a larger society. Democracy without accountability does not achieve equality, but rather degrades morality, integrity, and ethics. Accountability is more than just transparency and anti-corruption. It gives strength to democracy to be a foundation in society and to inspire people to become responsible citizens.
Today, corruption continues to be the biggest challenge worldwide. Corruption distorts development, undermines trust between citizens and government, and produces structural violence. Corruption also carries huge costs. The European Union spends close to 120 million Euros every year fighting corruption. According to World Bank, corruption is one of the largest “industries” with a scale of $3 trillion every year.
Nepal, like in many other developing countries, not only tolerates corruption but actively welcomes it. Bribery, nepotism, favoritism, and embezzlement are common at all levels of society. The country is highly divided, the social fabric is loosening, and trust is constantly undermined. Aid becomes easy money, providing incentives for Civil Society Organizations to continue conducting ineffective advocacy campaigns rather than engaging on innovative behaviors. It gives no emphasis on using creativity to seek sustainable solutions to the problem.
Simply talking about problems will yield no results, but only create frustration and apathy. Countries like Nepal and Liberia have already lost their trust towards government institutions. Youth, which makes up more than half of the population in both nations, have been fleeing abroad in search of a better living. The interaction between citizens and government is very limited. Political agendas led by the political parties and a few coteries constantly outshine common peoples’ issues.
Theory of change
The organization I am serving at, the Accountability Lab, believes in the power of grassroots democracy. We incubate innovative ideas to generate appropriate tools that build trust and interdependence between citizen and people with power. On the flip side the tool eventually help citizen to act responsibly. We provide a holistic approach to the problems rather than just focusing on individuals, it recognizes the positive relationships within systems of individuals and institutions that build accountability. It combines the best elements of both- creativity, sustainability, cost-effectiveness and integrity– to redefine the development paradigms of the past.
The most visible result of the absence of accountability is the depth and breadth of corruption, which undermines the development of transitioning countries (developed nations aren’t immune, but are less affected). Many anti-corruption initiatives only deal with the symptoms of problems, such as child mortality, poverty, and disease. However, the true causes of corruption have gone largely unnoticed because they are deeply rooted in the systems, behaviors, cultures and traditions that encourage individuals to engage in corruption.
Accountability cannot be understood by simply focusing on issues at the government level. It is a two-way process involving both rights and responsibilities. We need to understand why schools are not built, why the ratio of child mortality is increasing, and so on. These are only symptoms and the causes must be tackled through sustainable action. There are vast differences between discussions at the national and international level, versus practices on the ground in the way that the challenges of accountability are viewed in terms of scope (corruption as the end point) and thinking (individuals not systems).
The Need for Change
Radical transformation is necessary to bring changes in accountability. Collective solutions are needed to solve collective problems through Accountapreneurship, the combination of accountability and entrepreneurship.
This approach focuses on changing mindsets from the top-down of development toward creative and demand-driven approaches. Accountapreneruship incubates innovative ideas through actionable projects with equal emphasis on both high and low tech approaches.
Accoutapreneurs have powerful ideas for attacking problems and making changes sustainably throughout its design and implementation. It embraces failure as a key for corrective action. It also engages youth as agents of change. Youth, among many other groups, are more creative, flexible, technologically savvy and less likely to be entrenched in corrupt practices.
In Nepal, with innovation, we are shifting citizens towards real, practical change, from traditional aid models centered on risk-averse projects. We’ve helped organizations like Galli Galli develop a popular citizen navigation portal called nalibeli, on public service for example; and we’ve created a tool called Speak UP (www.bolaun.org) to help citizens connect to communities of practice. We are also supporting a young film maker who is training a group of youth on film-making for accountability in their communities.
These activists are now documenting issues of corruption, nepotism, and patronage and using their films to generate discussions on solutions. In Liberia, the accountapreneurs are resolving legal disputes in a unique way. The team collaborates with the police and commissioner’s office to refer cases to community mediators, while coordinating with volunteers and cities to bring parties together to solve cases. This is reducing corruption and saving citizens time and money.
Through such initiatives, the Accountability Lab is pushing for transparency and accountability around the globe.
CIPE-Atlas Corps Think Tank LINKS Fellowship brings talented young professionals with strong research backgrounds to shadow researchers and experts at leading U.S. think tanks for six months. Narayan Adhikari is part of the Fellowship, serving at the Accountability Lab.