Practitioners and researchers: putting heads together on the ‘big questions’ around social accountability in water

Key messeges from a global think shop

What motivates individuals and communities to engage in accountability mechanisms related to water? What influences governments’ willingness to respond to citizen queries or complaints? How can social accountability mechanisms be sustained without external support? These were some of the questions discussed and prioritized for further research during a global think shop organized by Water Witness International, Shahidi wa Maji, University of Glasgow, University of Dar-es-Salaam, Oxfam, WaterAid, and WIN last month.

During the three-event in Dar-es-Salaam (Tanzania), more than 80 practitioners and researchers from 20 countries presented findings from global studies and research inTanzania, China, and Nepal, and shared experiences and good practices from – among others – Madagascar, Kenya and India. Participants galvanized learnings from these cases, went into the field together, and discussed future direction for research and practice.

Highlight: public finance analysis and advocacy

Following the money is both crucial and incredibly challenging for accountability work in the water sector. It requires detailed knowledge about the roles and responsibilities of local, regional, and national public authorities, public and/or private service providers and water users in relation to water and sanitation services and water resource management; and the systems that both public authorities and service providers use for collecting revenues, allocating funding, managing programmes and expenditure, accounting, budget evaluation and review, and auditing. A budget analysis clinic provided an opportunity to exchange with members of the Policy Forum, a Tanzanian network of civil society organisations that conducts analysis and advocacy on public money across various sectors.

The exchange demonstrated that CSOs are doing well in advocating for higher, pro-poor and gender-responsive allocations to a specific sector or service. Following whether this money is being spent in a transparent and accountable manner and public investments yield value for money is more challenging for many CSOs, both in terms of accessing relevant information and analytical capacity, especially when dealing with intergovernmental fiscal transfers. Moreover, reaching out to potential ‘accountability allies’ outside the sector – such as supreme audit institutions – seems to be a largely untapped potential that deserves more attention.

The red threads: Big questions for unleashing the transformative potential of accountability

Across the vast set of examples raised, common challenges and lessons emerged that seem to be the breaking points where current practice still falls short of the ‘transformative potential’ of (social) accountability: fundamentally changing citizen-state relationships, accelerating the realization of human rights to basic services including water and sanitation, and triggering collaboration and where needed enforcement towards environmental protection and water security for all.

While comprehensive documentation and analysis is still ongoing under the leadership of Water Witness International, most of the questions I came home with spun around the following themes:

Community dynamics of power and culture

Social accountability mechanisms are very dependent on individuals that speak up – if things go well, champions from marginalized groups take on a shared community agenda and become new power brokers. If things go wrong, the whole process is captured by existing elites. So how can social accountability build on traditional practices for, amongst others, conflict resolution, and at the same change power relations? And how can CSOs look beyond their own priorities to empower entire communities while triggering and motivating individuals?

Government, governance systems and stakeholder interaction

While community ownership and grounding in sectoral and local context is key, accountability must be embedded in the broader government-lead institutional framework beyond the water sector or a specific location for systemic change. This requires a lot of actors to come out of their comfort zone. How can water engineers engage with professionals from the governance spectrum across finance, anti-corruption, human rights, etc.? Bureaucrats become stakeholder facilitators, or NGOs partner with government institutions instead of confronting or avoiding them? What are the internal dynamics and informal power plays that shape governance systems? How can CSOs identify and use the conducive spaces, times, thematic priorities, and partners for change within government, and strengthen the capacities of government to respond?

CSO capacities, programming and context for supporting accountability

CSOs can play a conducive role in supporting accountability mechanisms at the community, local, and national level and facilitating linkages between these, if staff capacities, programming, monitoring and learning systems are fit for purpose. How do we monitor pathways of change that require constant adaptation? How can CSOs live up to their own principles, missions, and goals while putting local priorities first? How can international CSOs organize the needed external support for accountability and at the time protect themselves against perceptions interference in often shrinking spaces for critical voice from civil society? Hot do we facilitate learning across organizations, sectors and regions while honoring specificity of context?

What next?

Although these questions may lead to more questions, rather than answers, it’s clear that further investigating and discussing these issues with those directly affected, and those who can influence change, is the way forward.

Firstly, check out the full event documentation by Water Witness International.

Secondly, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation at the event expressed their readiness to support one strong research proposal coming out of the think shop. WIN will continue to collaborate with Water Witness International, the other co-conveners and interested participants on elaborating such a proposal based further analysis of the questions that were prioritized at the event. As a group, we also remain dedicated to further collaborate for strengthening knowledge and practice on accountability in water and learning from other sectors.

Thirdly, Following the money will receive special attention from WIN and partners in the course of this year. Come join us to explore The trillion-dollar question: Turning safely managed finances into sustainable services at Stockholm World Water Week 2018 (29 August, 16:00)! Later this year we also look forward to interacting with you on two upcoming reports: a study on integrity in public finance in the water sector at county level in Kenya; and a policy brief on public finance and social accountability in the water sector.

Lotte Feuerstein is the Water Integrity Networks’ Programme Manager, Regional Coordinator – East Africa

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