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Social Accountability Practice Reflection

This text was developed as "project" example for the "transforming capitalism lab" of the Presencing Institute at MIT.

What is the main vision behind your work?

My work is "capacity development" of Ethiopian organisations that are bringing citizens and local governments together to assess and improve basic services in the 5 pro-poor sectors: health, education, water and sanitation, agriculture, and rural roads. Millions of Ethiopians have been able to lift themselves out of poverty in the past decades, following pro-poor sector investments, which are currently still at 70% of the national budget. My work is part of a larger government initiative to improve accountability and transparency, which is hoped to lead to good governance for sustainable development. 

The vision is that when citizens deeply understand and shape governments' intensions for poverty reduction, they can really take ownership of public service delivery, and make these work better for them. Also, because these services are provided at the local level, decentralised, citizens can much better engage to ensure that everyone is being served (or no one left behind - as the SDGs say). The approach is inclusive, dialogical, and joint action oriented (social contacts are re-negotiated), and benefits from 'intermediary' process facilitators /capacity builders (ie local NGOs).

This vision (which is still emerging) sits in an environment where, in principle, only locally funded local organisations can engage in 'sensitive' good governance work; where the last elections have gone for 97% to one party; where parts of this young federal state are protesting, but hope to a peaceful path forward has flooded right back in with a recently appointed new PM.
Describe the concrete details: who, what, where and how you operate

VNG International - the Netherlands Association of Municipalities, with 2 partners, won the bid for the Ethiopian Social Accountability Program Phase 2 (and we just heard today that we have won the bid for phase 3, which will expand to half of the districts in the country, ie 500). We are the Management Agency of a World Bank administered, multi-donor trust fund - so far 30+ million USD spend in the past 7 years for capacity development, with 50+ million USD for the next 5 years with a 10 year horizon.

In phase 2, the program has worked for almost 7 years with 100+ Ethiopian NGOs, who receive grants to run social accountability projects across all regional states in 223 districts, roughly 25% of all districts in the country. We work under the Ministry of Finance, and have a close collaboration with all the nine regional governments and the two city administrations of Ethiopia.
Together with these local NGO and regional government partners, we have begun to shift the way citizens view their local government and vice versa. The blame culture is turning into a culture of dialogue. Each sub-district that engages in the social accountability process that we developed over time achieves remarkable improvements in the basic services sectors, mostly with local resources. All have achieved improvements, each following a unique path, with many experiencing transformational change.

We, the Management Agency, lead this messy change 'from behind'.We have our feet on the ground, spending much time with our partners to deeply understand what shifts and why (and what doesn't and why). We run bi-annual, large scale events that bring hundreds of innovating stakeholders from communities, local, regional and federal governments, and partner NGOs across the country together in one room to reflect on what is emerging and where they can go next. We welcome new stakeholders who want to help take the social accountability process where they think it can go next. All of this, it must be said, under the visionary leadership of the Ministry of Finance.

What is the great accomplishment of your work so far?

One great accomplishment is that regional governments now host sector dialogues with the ESAP2 local NGO partners, based on the patterns of service improvements (also what does not improve - though citizens want it to). It is unusual in Ethiopia to have policy dialogues with NGOs - and this is now happening across the country.

The Ministry of Health is ready to work with us on questions of institutionalising practice and ways of working that have proven helpful under the program, because it gets better results (eg in 2015, women delivering at health centres doubled with the ESAP2 program).

Some regional councils have asked us to develop learning materials on social accountability and
the district council - we already have a video that is being used to spread the involvement of the councils. The video shows how locally elected people's representatives have become much better informed and closer to the people, to diverse groups of people, by participating in or providing leadership to social accountability processes. They become more empowered to engage on equal footing with the often better educated, more powerful executive.
None of this was by design - we started with a few actors and the others mentioned here have joined (mostly) on their own initiative, along the way.

What personal practices have enabled you to break through existing paradigms?

Deep listening - it doesn’t matter where I think things can go (although I may 'see' where things can go before others do), what matters is where different stakeholders want to go.

Sense-making and studying patterns with my team, with a small group of NGO directors, with a group of experts who used to work for the ESAP2 projects, have moved on but are still engaging with us (how amazing is that?!). Finding the one or two things every six months that will help everyone to see what is happening, to think about what is possible.

Enabling people to do what they want to do, but building in rigour and reflection, accepting failure along the way, but learning and continuing. Withholding judgement.

Promoting documentation and communication. Large scale change can benefit from documentation, but this is hard to get right with over 100 local NGOs who are used to "tick the donor boxes", and write terrible reports with words that say next to nothing. We have invested in participatory video, story writing (we still do quarterly writeshops, to develop reflective practice with our partners), participatory theatre, finding the local change heroes, and so forth. Each year we have a documentation and communication award (you win by documenting AND communicating, reaching people with what you documented to stimulate more dialogue). We now have hundreds of short videos in local languages that are being used to spread the social accountability experiences and practices to other communities. In the next phase we hope to build a MOOC that can engage many more civil servants, local NGOs and citizen groups in social accountability practices.

While all these practices are important, I know that what is even more important is what I bring to all of this, in my heart, as a person who deeply beliefs that people, societies, are capable of caring and changing.

What organizational practices have enabled your accomplishments to date?

Flexibility - you have to be able to go with the flow that presents itself, new stuff WILL come up, it can't be planned.

Accountability - explain what is happening and why, never hiding failure, never hiding steps that could be perceived as too bold or politically too sensitive.

Cross functional teams - our monitoring work is done with people from our grants, finance, capacity development, M&E, and communication teams (the internal audit team followed it own course though!). This breaks through the organisational silos - and builds understanding of each others competencies, which all have a function in making the program successful. In fact we had to reduce staff during the current bridging phase (going from phase 2 to 3 - keeping the local NGOs expertise available for the large scale-up), and have merged the remaining CD, M&E and Comms staff into one unit, which works fabulously.

An M&E system that does something with data collected (benchmarks for our bi-annual learning events, service improvement overviews for the regional government dialogues with the local NGOs), and that aims for cycles of learning and improvement that follow local ambitions and realities (including the current State of Emergency - where citizens involved in the program told us how they stopped destruction of public facilities because "these belong to the people".)
An action-research approach to developing method / ways of working. For instance a gender responsive budget tool was not working in practice and we adjusted it through action-research. It is working now.

Willingness to spend money on bringing diverse stakeholders together, lots of people, trusting that however unlikely in the beginning, they WILL build relationships, and WILL go on to do new things, as long as we can help create unity, understanding, safe space to speak and to be bold.
Willingness to stick with it over the years, to convince decision makers and funders that the program cannot be stopped, not even for a year until the next phase is designed.
Let those lead who can and want to lead - not just those who have the title to lead (can be very confusing initially for some of the Ethiopian colleagues - males especially, not sure why.) 

What is currently keeping your project, initiative or organisation from moving to the next level of impact?

There is an important legal hurdle around which type of NGOs are allowed to do the intermediary and capacity building work under the program. If the legal argument wins from the political argument, we may have to start from scratch with a different type of local NGOs. At least it is clear that this is "the future the government and people want" that's not in question fortunately. The question is can it be constructed with the help of organisations that are internationally connected. Interesting - the fact that we, an international organisation are to some extend leading this program doesn't seem to be in question.

To move toward a 4.0 way of operating, what enabling conditions would be needed?

I will need to think about this...

One thing that springs to mind - the international donor community in Ethiopia is in my view pushing for things that have no local roots (yet). It is important that the international community earns to practice the lessons from the AID Effectiveness agenda, from many years back, eg about local ownership. There is something very wrong with demanding short term results, that can be sold to the voters back home. In a way I can't complain though - the donor community has agreed with the Ethiopian government to take a 10 year horizon with this program. Perhaps some are learning (or is it really just the strong Ethiopian government?).

What is the most important thing you have learned personally from your work?

Despite cultural differences, human beings are in essence the same everywhere. There are practices of listening, of being together, of dialogue that build new relationships and trust where none was possible before. I am also much clearer about what one of my mentors once told me when I was wondering what I was doing to make things happen among diverse individuals in a group - it is not what you do, it is who you are. I can and must be more ambitious to contribute to a better future.

What are the key questions or opportunities in your field that need to be explored in the next 5-10 years?

  • How can we harness the willingness of volunteers to go out of their way to help vulnerable people in society get access to better services through mainstream decision making and governance processes? How do we motivate and reward such volunteers?
  • How do we break through the idea that peoples' representatives can represent us without staying in touch with us?
  • How do we bring politics closer to the people, so that we can show that better results emerge for "ordinary people" when these "ordinary people" are engaged?

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