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Q+A - Embrace failure in the fight to hold leaders to account, expert says

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 6 Dec 2012 15:24 GMT
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LONDON (TrustLaw) – Holding decision-makers to account is hard work and embracing failure is a key step for those trying to bring about greater accountability in the developing world to understand what works, Blair Glencorse, founder and executive director of Accountability Lab says.

Glencorse, a former World Bank employee and expert on issues of state-building and accountability, spoke to TrustLaw about what accountability means to him, what his Washington DC-based organisation is doing to further it and whether progress is being made in the fight to hold those in power to account.

Q: Why did you set up Accountability Lab?

A: I came to see that a lack of accountability of decision-makers is the central problem in the developing world. I too often witnessed the anger of citizens who were unable to receive fair treatment and their frustration at the lack of tools to hold power-holders accountable. At the same time, I realized that while the international community was beginning to focus on this problem, it was not making much progress in dealing with it. There was no room for innovative ideas or risk-taking with new accountability methods. In response to these concerns, the Lab hopes to catalyze more creative and sustainable tools for accountability, and to build communities for change around these ideas.

Q: How do you define accountability?

A: Accountability is difficult to define- which is in part the reason why we have had some much trouble working on it in the past. Accountability is more than transparency and is different to corruption- which tends to relate to individual actions rather than systemic problems. The Lab operates under the assumption that in practice accountability is about making power-holders responsible, but not as a punitive process or effort to assert control. Rather, it is a process of collective discussion to understand dynamics and relationships, improve the responsiveness of decisions, and make development more effective. 

Q: What can be done to improve accountability in the developing world?

A: The first step is to listen and understand the problems in a specific place. Too often, interventions do not respond to the needs of the people they are supposed to help. The second step is to recognize what works and what does not, and build partnerships to capitalize on successful approaches. Embracing failure is important- in many cases, knowledge is not shared or used properly. (To avoid this problem, we have developed a “Failure Lab” where all ideas that have not worked are carefully documented and learned from). Finally, accountability requires communities that can use new ideas to bring real change on the ground. Collective solutions to shared issues of accountability are more successful and sustainable than individual efforts.

Q: How is the Accountability Lab engaging on these issues? 

A: We are engaging on these issues in three key ways. First, through the Accountability Change Agency, we are connecting with innovative civil society groups to address issues of corruption- with an initial focus on youth, skills and higher education. Second, through the @ccountability Toolbox , we are partnering with ICT experts to design new technologies for accountability. And third, the team is in the process of deploying Accountapreneurship Funds, which provide catalytic support to “accountapreneurs” (or entrepreneurs in the field of accountability). We do not accept donor financing and work in a highly cost-effective way. As a result, the Lab is building a reputation as a valued and objective partner across countries.

Q: Is progress being made in making power-holders more accountable?

A: The accountability agenda- if it can be referred to in that way- has developed significantly over the past twenty years or so. Technology is also expanding opportunities in terms of accountability- and citizens are realizing the difference they can make when they come together- online and off- to generate positive change. At the same time, non-accountable systems are deeply entrenched and are extremely difficult to dislodge. The Lab is working to develop real solutions to these problems- we are making progress but there is a long way to go.

Blair Glencorse regularly blogs for TrustLaw Good Governance. His posts can be found here.


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