Aid accountability

Have those hard-won accountability reforms had any impact?

8 December Dec 2015 1203 08 December 2015

Australian researchers Kate Macdonald and May Miller-Dawkins summarize the main points from recent contributions to the Global Policy Journal on the impact of accountability reforms in aid

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Australian researchers Kate Macdonald and May Miller-Dawkins summarize the main points from recent contributions to the Global Policy Journal on the impact of accountability reforms in aid

Many readers of this piece may have spent part of the 1990s and 2000s campaigning for increased transparency and accountability from the World Bank and other development banks. Under often intense external scrutiny and pressure a range of development finance institutions have since acknowledged the need to answer for their decisions to an expanding group of ‘stakeholders’ outside their organization, to promote adherence to their internal policies and in some cases to provide access to grievance procedures for those affected by their lending.

Was it worth the effort? Have relationships of accountability, which we understand as “moral or institutional relation[s] in which one agent (or group of agents) is accorded entitlements to question, direct, sanction or constrain the actions of another”, actually shifted? And if so, has it really made a difference to people’s lives?

We pulled together a special collection of articles for The Global Policy Journal to explore these questions.

  • Lidia Cabral and Iara Leite on accountability in Brazilian development cooperation in Mozambique.
  • Samantha Balaton-Chrimes and Fiona Haines on the engagement of the World Bank International Finance Corporation’s independent accountability mechanism, the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman, in the Indonesian palm oil sector; and
  • Susan Park on the evolution of accountability mechanisms in the Asian Development Bank.

Accountability To Who

Here are some of the insights they generated:

Downwards accountability mechanisms oriented towards affected communities have been enthusiastically embraced by many lenders, but with mixed results

Accountability arrangements now look different, with more explicit commitments to strengthened accountability to affected people.

This is particularly true of the multilaterals. The studies on the ADB and the World Bank in Indonesia find that the new accountability mechanisms have indeed enhanced the capacity of communities to air their grievances. In some cases they have also enabled communities to access compensation for project impacts, such as loss of livelihoods, or to negotiate other improvements to their conditions.

However, the potential for these mechanisms to prevent or redress harm in the first place remains limited. The new accountability mechanisms can usually only ameliorate social or environmental harms resulting from a project, rather than stopping or fundamentally reconfiguring contested projects.

Multilateral accountability mechanisms are still influenced by the power and interests of powerful creditor governments, and governments of borrowing countries in which controversial development projects are located.

Notable differences are evident between the accountability practices of bilateral aid programs, and those of multilaterals like the World Bank or ADB, reflecting the differing political environments that each must navigate. Bilateral aid is dominated by accountability practices answering to domestic political constituencies on the use of public funds, and to recipient governments with regard to broader policy frameworks. They have often placed less emphasis on direct accountability to citizens of host countries affected by lending projects.

Local, national and cross border campaigning is an important driver of donor accountability. Particularly in cases where community grievances relate to whether or not a project goes ahead in the first place, or to more fundamental transformation of the terms of such projects, protest and opposition by people’s movements seems more effective than reliance on institutionalized accountability mechanisms that lenders themselves have established.

For example, a coalition linking protest movements in Mozambique with like-minded organisations in Brazil and other countries has fundamentally challenged the premises of a Brazilian-funded project in Mozambique, which many of them view as imposing a paradigm of large scale commercial agricultural development, threatening the livelihoods of both peasant farmers and the environment.

So has it all been worth it…?

New accountability systems can serve as useful political channels for marginalized social groups affected by Big Aid. Downwards accountability practices have sometimes achieved modest but significant shifts in the norms and power relations underpinning decision making.

But while such institutional changes have benefited some project-affected people, they have failed to make a difference for many others. The unevenness of such impacts reflects the inescapable ways in which accountability institutions (like all institutions) remain constrained within broader relations of social power.

Whether we think all the hard won claims have been worth it perhaps depends on the level of ambition or modesty of our initial expectations. Learning from the successes and failures of the new accountability approaches is crucial, both to inform future campaigns or reform efforts, and to allow project-affected people and their allies and supporters to think critically about how they can best seek justice, remedy or change in the future.

This blog was originally published by Oxfam GB Duncan Green's blog ‘From Poverty to Power’.

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