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.