Stiff-Collar Guys Confirm Democracy is Working in South Africa

Stiff-Collar Guys Confirm Democracy is Working in South Africa
SA Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan

Back in March, I was riding in an Uber car to my Johannesburg hotel. While most of the Uber drivers I’ve met in South Africa have hailed from Congo, Malawi, and Zim, this guy was born in Soweto. We were listening to talk radio, and the show was discussing the fact that the Moody’s regulators were in town, considering a downgrade on the government bond rating to “junk” status. The announcer said,

“If you see some of these guys — they are probably wearing button down shirts and looking down — why don’t you go buy them a beer?”


My driver could hear my American accent, and looked at me and asked if I was one of those guys. I smiled at him and said no, and he said, oh, I was going to give you a free ride and go buy you a few beers as a service to my country.

He was right to be concerned. It didn’t look good for the country. (And I would have felt bad taking the beer from him because the Rand was so weak that beers were practically free for me anyway.) In turn, I was pleasantly surprised when Moody’s last week confirmed the country’s Baa2 rating (still investment grade), despite a spate of bad news. And I think it was the right call.

While it is true that the South African media and the courts have raised some very serious and disturbing accounts of bribery and corruption in government in recent weeks and months, and President Zuma even stood up and pledged he would pay back the country for the use of government funds to improve his private Nkandla homestead… the fact that the media can report on these findings, that the court can cast judgment on the president, and that the president felt compelled to respond in this manner demonstrates that democratic institutions are actually working in this country! It is difficult to imagine, for example, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe conceding even an inch in such regard.

Similarly, when Zuma appointed an unknown and seemingly incompetent individual as finance minister back in December, he immediately faced a litany of bad press and intense pressure to reverse himself. Within days, Zuma reversed himself, and appointed the highly respected and experienced Pravin Gordhan to the job. Pessimists decried the whole episode as further indication of Zuma’s poor leadership. For those of us thinking about whether democracy has taken root, it looked like a healthy example of restraint on the executive. And while Zuma has rebuffed calls for his resignation, it is unimaginable to me (famous last words), that he has any ambitions for a third term.

With its warts and blemishes, South Africa’s democratic institutions have fared pretty well so far. And I’m glad that the Moody’s folks were broad-minded enough to see that. If they hadn’t, the already fragile economy would have taken a really big hit, in turn making it tough for democracy to survive.

The next big test will be the August 3 municipal elections. And of course, the other ratings agencies might not be so enlightened in their judgments.

Accountability as a contested concept

In the past week, I’ve read several sets of interesting commentaries on the notion of accountability, particularly with reference to foreign aid. Together, they highlight the extent to which “accountability” has become a term much like “democracy” — evocative, normatively attractive, but employed with so many different intentions that it’s almost impossible to know what it means.

Albert Van Zyl at the International Budget Project highlights the completion of a series of important case studies concerning how civil society organizations in poor countries “hold their governments to account for the use of public resources.” (One of those is a study of HakiElimu, an educational initiative in Tanzania, formerly led by Rakesh Rajani, who now directs Twaweza.) But in a broader discussion of accountability, Van Zyl  also points out that citizens in donor countries remain unclear about the size, role, and impact of foreign aid. Most readers will be familiar with the severe over-estimates that citizens in rich countries make concerning the size of the foreign aid budget as a share of total government spending. Along these lines, he writes,

Just as citizens in poor countries don’t want to be passive recipients of development, citizens in rich countries say that don’t want to be passive providers of development either. They can and want to understand much more about where there funds are going, how decisions were made, what the impact was and why.  Ultimately better communication to citizens in rich countries could lead to an exciting and dynamic new form of development with much tighter linkages between citizens in rich and poor countries.

Meanwhile, IRIN, the UN News and Analysis service, also recently published an article entitled, “Accountability – what’s in a word?” Their discussion of the diffuse understanding of the notion of accountability reminded me of David Collier and Steve Levitsky’s classic World Politics article, “Democracy with Adjectives.”

The concept of “accountability”, like much humanitarian vocabulary, can be complex and elusive. Some organizations, like Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) do not even like using the word.
“We’re not very comfortable with the term ‘accountability’, because. we are still not very clear on what we mean by accountability,” said Caroline Abu-Sada, coordinator of MSF’s research unit in Geneva.
And if understanding its meaning in English can be a struggle, translating it into other languages can be near impossible.
For example, “In French, it’s absolutely untranslatable,” Abu-Sada told IRIN. The best she and her colleagues have come up with is “redevabilité” – “it’s an unpronounceable, very bizarre word. It’s not really user-friendly.”

IRIN goes on to document the wide variety of ways in which aid and development organizations have defined the term, a few of which I paste here:

“the responsible use of power.” (Humanitarian Accountability Partnership – HAP)

“first and foremost about communication with affected people.” (Jacobo Quintanilla, director of humanitarian information projects, Internews)
“about beneficiaries participating in the process of improving their situation.” (International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies)

“leadership/governance; transparency; feedback and complaints; participation; design, monitoring and evaluation.” (Inter-Agency Standing Committee Sub-Group on Accountability to Affected Populations)
“a shared commitment to learning as the path to excellence and to integrity in fulfilling commitments to stakeholders.” (World Vision International’s Accountability Framework)

… All of these are only loosely connected to the definitions provided by the World Bank in their landmark 2004 World Development Report, which contained an extended and thoughtful discussion of accountability.

So where does that leave us? At the very least, when the term is used, a precise definition is needed, because the term, to quote Giovanni Sartori, has been stretched to the point that the intrinsic connotation is not clear. Given the ubiquity of the term, I suspect further analysis would reveal that much scholarly and policy analysis has suffered from unrecognized confusion.

Kenya-bound for more Uwezo research

I head off tomorrow for a few weeks of meetings and research in Kenya. I’ll join my collaborators, Lily Tsai and Dan Posner, and our project manager, Jessica Grody to continue our work trying to understand the impact of the Uwezo initiative. We’ll get started in Nairobi, and from there we’ll do some traveling around the country.

In our research so far, we have examined whether the direct provision of information to parents – specifically, their own children’s literacy and numeracy test results as well as information about what parents can do to be more active citizens – actually leads them to higher levels of local involvement in education. Like many other scholars, we are trying to understand if and when the provision of information leads to greater government accountability in terms of the delivery of key services.

For good reason, a great deal of impact evaluation research these days is being carried out using experimental methods. And if the definition of an experiment requires that the analyst randomly assign treatment to subjects, then technically speaking, ours was not an experiment. But fortunately, Uwezo had decided for various reasons to carry out this portion of their initiative to a random sample of villages around the country. Thus, one could not make the claim that there was something systematically distinctive about the villages that received the intervention. In order to estimate the effects of these informational “bundles” we required a control group. So prior to beginning our study, we identified a set of villages that were highly similar to the ones that had been randomly selected by Uwezo. Then we conducted surveys, focus groups, and other research in both sets of villages. We will complete a draft of a scholarly paper on this study fairly soon, and we will be presenting our results at the late August meetings of the American Political Science Association.

As for our estimates of the effect of those “information bundles”…. Well, we didn’t find any substantial impact. But in fairness, we didn’t hold particularly high expectations for an effect. It was important to see if this aspect of the initiative could drive desired outcomes on its own. It can’t. And now, we will investigate whether some of the much larger information dissemination campaigns make a difference.

On this trip we won’t be carrying out any systematic research – just learning about what Uwezo has been doing and what they plan to do going forward. Hopefully, we will finalize some interesting proposals for research in the coming years.

Making budgets more transparent around the world

The international budget project has updated their website, and has posted a series of papers on the causes and consequences of budget transparency. One paper by Michael Ross finds that

… among autocracies, greater oil wealth is correlated with less fiscal transparency, while greater non-fuel mineral wealth is paradoxically associated with greater transparency…There is some evidence that among autocracies, oil reduces transparency because it helps dictators stay in power.

The IBP is shedding light on how budget processes work, measuring the extent to which citizens actively participate in this key governance function, and is also actively promoting more participation by, among other things, supporting NGO partners involved in this type of work.

Twaweza responds to Ugandan police seizure of calendars

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Ugandan police’s seizure of Twaweza-produced calendars promoting active citizenship. This week,  Twaweza’s Uganda country director spoke out about the calendar’s intended message and why he believes the police should release the calendars.

What reason did the police give to impound a consignment of Twaweza calendars?

They say the calendars contained messages which could incite the public. But we think this is a message that tells citizens to wake up to the realisation that they have to change their livelihoods not to wait for leaders, governments or NGOs to solve their problems. We believe empowering these people can help them make changes in their lives. We think this is a misunderstanding that the police should not have caused.

So do you don’t (sic.) believe what the police say about your calendars?

Absolutely not; we think the calendars are not inciting as they want you to believe. It is colossal misunderstanding on their part.  There are no political innuendos in these calendars.

The full interview can be found here

The country director argues in the interview that the calendars were not intended to be “partisan” or “political,” but rather to encourage citizens to be change-makers in their own lives. Fair enough. But given that there was absolutely no suggestion of inciting violence in these calendars, their confiscation is a clear denial of open and critical political discourse. Irrespective of the goals or intentions of the sponsoring organization, the Ugandan state’s actions contravened any pretense of upholding democratic norms.

Ugandan government impounds Twaweza citizenship calendars

Last Friday, the Ugandan government confiscated 700,000 calendars produced by Twaweza. As far as I know, they remain in police custody.

The calendar was an effort to realize Twaweza’s mission to promote government accountability. Phrases such as, “who will change your world in 2012?” and photographs of various government officials were intended to provide information and to increase citizen awareness.

According to an article in The Monitor, police have charged that the calendars incite violence. More stories and debate about this incident can be found here.


Information good for government accountability?

Really interesting post questioning the information-accountability link from Stuti Khemani and Phil Keefer

In our (justifiable) enthusiasm for transparency, we rarely ask whether information provision leads private citizens to help themselves, thereby relieving governments of their responsibilities. If so, we may not be quite there (yet) in finding tools that improve government accountability…

It’s easy to be seduced by the notion that more information and greater transparency will lead to better governance outcomes, but we certainly need better theory and evidence to be convinced how this link works in practice, and under what circumstances.

Filmer on information, accountability, better education

Deon Filmer, one of the authors of the World Bank’s Making Schools Work book, blogs on the possible links between information, accountability and better education that are at the core of the Uwezo initiative that Posner, Tsai, and I are currently evaluating. In his post, he talks about what he is looking for in terms of a school for his own children in Washington, D.C., and relates this to  broader theories of the link between information and accountability. And he summarizes some of the mixed evidence from extant research in Africa and South Asia.

Filmer argues that, the two key features for success seem to be, “(1) keeping information simple, and (2) making sure that the intended recipients understand it.” And that this is true at both the household and school levels.

The fieldwork from the first phase of our research should be complete in a few weeks, and we look forward to disseminating information about the extent to which these conclusions also apply in the context of the Uwezo initiative both in Kenya and in Tanzania.