I usually start these emails with some light observations, but can't do that this time. It's been a terrible end to winter, with the outbreak of war in Ukraine, and our thoughts are constantly with our colleagues and friends and so many innocent people defending their homeland and struggling to survive - as someone whose journey in this field began in Kyiv years ago, it is devastating to see the senseless destruction. We hope that promising news on various fronts in Ukraine joins with the promise of spring and offers a season of life and renewal, and soon.
We carry on, and it has been a fantastic quarter with a number of seminal publications that we're excited to share, so without further ado:
- A fantastic article on pathways to scale in social accountability highlighting the idea of "resonance" or an iterative process of cooptation, compromise, and collective action, which feels like it fills a much-needed void in the discourse around how progress happens toward greater accountability in many contexts in fits and starts. Part of a larger series on different ways to consider scale, which is a thorny and important question when approaching work through a systems and context-driven lens.
- Perhaps relatedly, this description of a systems convening perhaps highlights how social accountability practice is changed through more intentional identification of these modes of work - and highlights the value-add of external actors in helping to catalyze and distill social learning rather than by teaching or directing activists.
- A thorough investigation of accountability efforts in some of the same geographies (Mozambique, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Nigeria) by the Action for Empowerment and Accountability programme, which used a citizen-centered approach to look at how accountability was pursued, and often achieved, in difficult circumstances is a great read. It has a nice summary looking in real depth at some of the spaces between citizens and the state, as well as the various intermediaries who matter in those spaces, and how citizens pursue accountability in various forms (cultural or social as well as formal) with, through and against different actors. Their key implications are worth citing in full: Understand the political economy of governance from below, using approaches that take a ‘citizen-eye view’; Proactively link accountability-focused work with strategies for strengthening fundamental social, political and civic rights; Start with bolstering accountability on the issues that matter most to citizens and pay more attention to their choice of tactics; Approach accountability as the need to build countervailing power of organised citizens, with a focus on the political agency, organising and networks needed to do that; and Focus on the building blocks towards the long-run goal of democratic and accountable governance.
- But don't take my word for it: here's an excellent review on FP2P. They highlight another quote worth considering as donors and implementers move into the messy and murky world of accountability in practice: "Recognising intermediaries’ roles and in some case supporting them doesn’t mean formalising a relationship or funding them directly. We should resist the temptation to ‘formalise’ or ‘projectise’ intermediaries, or to try to co-opt them into external agendas. One risk is undermining their community-level respect and legitimacy, and another is concentrating or condensing power in these roles."
- Another reflection on the A4EA governance diaries and related research highlights dilemmas it underscores, such as whether we work with the grain or challenge it (and what this means for norms around human rights), how we weigh risks and select leverage points, what it means for scale, and - most interestingly to me - whether the takeaway is that we should support a plurality of authorities and the messiness as offering navigable space for citizens, or support convergence toward an order which may simplify issues but also increase capture.
- An outstanding article by Honig et al of When Does Transparency Improve Institutional Performance. They review more than 20,000 small projects under bureaucratic control of various actors highlights both the accomplishments of accountability and transparency initiatives, and the complexities of how they work, with robust evidence: "In sum, we find that these policies DO change what bureaucrats do, but ONLY when those policies have independent enforcement mechanisms and not by ‘catching’ bad behavior but rather by altering bureaucrats’ behavior well beyond the small % of projects where info is disclosed." In other words, even accountability mechanisms work through interacting with a wider system to inform norms and expectations rather than through direct sanctions offering deterrence or cautionary tales.
- Speaking of norms around accountability, here's a great interview with Tufts' Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church on social norms and combatting corruption, really laying out the case for it as well as her personal journey to arrive at this realization (quite fascinating, and felt very familiar).
- And in the arena of social and behavior change, the USAID DRG Center has produced a new SBC Primer which, in keeping with this area of work, is an easily-readable PPT presentation that is remarkably clear and conveys a host of information very straightforwardly.
- Some seminal TWP projects published valuable takeaways, including the PERL review of what works in integrating governance and social sector programs - highlighting the role of a cross-program vision of change, but also the nuts and bolts of collaboration as structured by specific projects and awards.
- A deep review of the political economy of learning in Vietnam from the RISE program, which gets into detail on how the particulars of societal engagement in the education system contributes to accountability in diverse ways and directions.
- And from RISE as well, a thoughtful reflection of progress or lack thereof in learning by Lant Pritchett, and what key two-pronged questions can help to orient a shared vision for change: How did we get here, and how do we stay on the trend we're on? Only with those answers can we find paths to new equilibria.
- In health, a recent Health Systems Spotlight on several techniques including outcome harvesting and contribution analysis offers an example - not always recognized as such - of how a sector furthers its own shift to embed systems thinking and TWP within its core practices.
- Relatedly, here's an academic paper by Rao around the importance of reflexivity in scholarship, and what economics can learn from anthropology and others that more directly address the vantage point of the researcher as a part of the information they provide.
- And perhaps espousing this reflexiveness in action, a paper by Mansoor and Williams that reviews systems practices in health, education, and infrastructure, to develop a typology of how systems approaches evaluation policy and social sector work. They "argue that the common theoretical core of systems approaches is the idea that multidimensional complementarities between a policy and other aspects of the policy context are the first-order problem of policy design and evaluation. What differentiates systems approaches from other research traditions is thus not so much a specific method as a general difference in question prioritization, and consequently greater methodological pluralism. We distinguish between macro-systems approaches, which focus on the collective coherence of a set of policies or institutions, and micro-systems approaches, which focus on how a single policy interacts with the context in which it operates." This seems to me to build off of Pritchett's and Rao's calls above, and offer more detail in how systems approaches become more than a grab bag and actually frame their questions of interest and use approaches to learn about them. Warning: very academic (but great!)
- Less academically, two excellent articles looking at how systems approaches (and TWP as an aspect of the system) can be embedded more simply in meaningful theories of change. Tom Aston writes about "the so what" and how we can use the questions of what, so what, now what to interrogate what we're discovering about the system, determine its significance, and then adapt our approaches accordingly. As he writes, we tend to get stuck at the descriptive "what" and not get to the hidden how and missing why, yet those are vital to align and adapt efforts.
- Monalisa Salib puts forward a five-step process to strengthen your theory of change, using a series of simple questions that are too infrequently asked in TOC design (such as getting beyond "what is the challenge" to "why does it matter? to whom? where is there already momentum for change?" and above all once we have an intervention "why do we think this will work?"
- Finally, perhaps the leading scholar in the democracy field, Tom Carothers, has published an article with Frances Brown in Foreign Affairs (should be free to read, at least once) reviewing the Summit for Democracy and how we can make further progress in light of a world where democracy is under threat. I close with his final paragraph, which doubles as a rallying cry for the significance of all of this work to make development more politically savvy, more context-specific, and more humble and oriented to appropriate roles for outside funders: "It is hard enough to elevate democracy renewal as a standalone priority and harder still to integrate such concerns into country-specific policymaking processes. The latter option entails finding a place for democracy among a broad mix of security, diplomatic, and economic concerns—and making difficult policy tradeoffs. For all the high-level focus on the global democratic recession, however, the assault on democracy is, at its root, very local. Turning the high-level impetus of the Summit for Democracy into concrete local action is the best way to make good on Biden’s mission to stem the global antidemocratic tide."
DCHA/DRG Policy, Coordination and Integration Team
United States Agency for International Development
T: (202) 712-1469
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