In June 2007, I took a trip to Nepalgunj to meet representatives of the Madhesi community. I wanted to try and understand more about political dynamics in the Terai. While sipping chia, the groups I chatted with explained vociferously, often for hours at a time, the difficulties they faced on a daily basis, which ranged from issues of exclusion, to poverty, to inequality.
I have two enduring memories of that visit. First, Nepalgunj is very, very hot. Second, it was driven home to me that societies cannot function effectively if people with power are not accountable. Unless citizens have the tools to ensure that decision-makers are responsible, a sense of frustration develops, illegitimate practices emerge and democracy withers.
Nearly five years later, in early 2012, I had the opportunity to set up the Accountability Lab to try and address some of these issues and catalyze new kinds of accountability tools. The organization hopes to respond to the resounding call from citizens- which I had heard in Nepalgunj, but which seems universal- for increased transparency and equity. My colleagues and I realized that the world is full of change-makers who want to do something to fix their societies: we just need to know where to look and how to support them most effectively. The Accountability Lab identifies those leaders that are interested in accountability and unleashes their creativity. We call them “accountapreneurs”.
We decided to pilot the Lab’s programs in two countries: Nepal, of course, and Liberia which at first glance may seem so diverse that it might be difficult to identify where the commonalities lie. The West African coast is a long way from the Himalayas after all. Sitting in a Monrovia cafe eating banana bread, listening to the rain come down the zinc roof, it is hard to imagine sipping tea and watching cows wander by in Kathmandu.
For the Lab, however, these two countries make a great deal of sense. Both have incredible human, intellectual, institutional and natural resources, both are countries in transition, working to overcome the legacies of their pasts, and both are places in which citizens are developing plenty of useful networks and ideas.
The diversity of these countries is exactly the point. We’ve been asking: what elements of accountability are universally desired by citizens, and which are unique? What is it that ensures that some tools for change work in one context but not another? What on earth can a country like Liberia learn from Nepal, and is there anything at all Nepal can learn from a place like Liberia?
This journey has been incredible. We’ve talked to citizens on rubber plantations in the rainforests of Southern Liberia and conducted trainings in very low-income urban neighborhoods in Monrovia. We’ve examined local politics in the mid-West of Nepal and discussed accountability with youth groups in the Terai. We’ve been drenched in downpours, stuck in broken-down vehicles, and bitten by more mosquitoes than I knew existed. But everywhere we’ve benefitted from amazing hospitality from the people we’ve been lucky enough to interact with. And while it is foolish to generalize too much, I’ve come to realize some common trends emerging through our work in both Nepal and Liberia.
FIRST, START BY LISTENING
It is amazing how much you can learn about how people feel, what their challenges are and where the possible solutions might lie when you ask a pertinent question and then listen.
We’ve been doing this in universities in Liberia for example, and what we heard was that students and professors wanted a confidential, anonymous system to report problems on campus. So we worked with a university administration and student government to develop an SMS based tool to gather information, connected to an operator who calls back users to verify the issues. Now we’re working with the relevant decision-makers to fix the problems that arise.
In Nepal, we’ve taken a different approach. We conducted hundreds of formal and informal meetings over the past year with student leaders, professors, administrators, and political parties at Tribhuvan University, and we heard that what is needed is a trusted forum for dialogue to resolve problems on campus, beginning with the issue of the academic calendar. So we are now working with these groups to form a dialogue center through which issues can be discussed peacefully and constructively.
SECOND, TRUST BUILDING TAKES TIME
We’ve come to understand that turning good ideas into realities is about more than the ideas themselves. It is about the relationships that underpin those ideas, which allow them to move from conception to implementation. And relationships, of all sorts, are based on trust, which in turn takes time to evolve. It is a function of repeated interactions, demonstration of commitment and delivery on promises.
In Nepal and Liberia, we have been building trust with “accountapreneurs” through engaging them consistently in accountability programs, trainings and networking opportunities. We’ve provided catalytic funds for their activities, organized “accountability collectives” and “friendraisers”, and helped them build support from other organizations in the field. This has allowed us to develop long-term relationships which avoid the patron-client dynamics which can poison aid-based projects. And the accountapreneurs are doing brilliant things from creating a network of film-makers pushing for integrity to using mobile chalk billboards to disseminate information to citizens.
THIRD, CREATIVITY IS ESSENTIAL
Too much of what happens in international development lacks imagination and repeats the same ineffective approaches of the past. Reports are written (and used as doorstops), workshops are held (and quickly forgotten), and results matrices are completed (but real change on the ground is absent). The incentive within many organizations is to spend money quickly to show they are doing something, rather than spend it effectively, this inherently prevents changes in approaches and inevitably precludes experimentation.
At the Lab, we take the opposite approach. We focus on tools that work over time, we aim to make sure that every single dollar is used to maximum effect, and we try to build relationships that are directed towards shared goals.
In Liberia, for example, we are beginning to work with the religious networks- senior Bishops and Imams who are interested in integrity- to develop an “accountability accord”. This will be used as an advocacy tool to engage officials and decision-makers on accountability, it builds on learnings in the Bible and the Koran, it has the ability to reach a significant proportion of the population, and it is highly cost effective.
In Nepal, we’re working with Right to Information (RTI) advocates to help citizens use the RTI law. We’ve written an RTI toolkit that journalists are now using to gather information through legal channels; and we’re planning on driving a colorful information bus around the country to engage Nepalis in creative ways on what information they should expect and demand from the government. In this way we are bolstering existing legal frameworks and making accountability more tangible and more fun.
FOURTH, COLLABORATION IS BETTER THAN COMPETITION
The international aid model tends to pit organizations against each other because too often it becomes a competition for funding- this turns real civil society organizations into contractors, and sucks the voluntarism out of non-governmental groups. There is something seriously wrong when more money can be made in the non-profit sector than in for-profit businesses, which is often the case in Nepal and Liberia.
At the Lab- where we are not bidding on international contracts, we welcome collaboration with all organizations that hope to push the accountability agenda. In Nepal for example, the Nepal Economic Forum has been an incredible partner and supporter in terms of ideas, resources and connections. We’ve also partnered with GalliGalli to crowd-source information on higher education across the country. In Liberia, the Business Start-Up Center has provided us with office space, staff and logistical support, and an organization called the Citizens’ Bureau is working with us to roll-out alternative dispute resolution programs in low-income neighborhoods. These are just a few examples, but demonstrate the larger point: collective efforts help to solve shared problems.
FINALLY, MISTAKES ARE THE KEY TO SUCCESS
We hope we are beginning to make progress on accountability in both Nepal and Liberia, although we’ve definitely made mistakes along the way (it turns out that the middle of the rainy season is not the best time to plan important meetings in rural Liberia, for example, because it rains so hard that roads are often washed away).
But failure is a learning process, and mistakes are wasted if they are not embraced and used as a way to improve in the future. Too often, organizations are scared to admit that their programs are not as effective as they had hoped, which means that problems are ignored, results are fudged and the same problems persist. It is only when we can accept failure and build upon it that we will truly be able to improve development outcomes.
It turns out that Nepal and Liberia have more in common than it might seem at first- despite differences in levels of development, political dynamics and cultural norms. Both countries are full of brilliant people who are trying to harness creative energies for positive change. We’re recruiting them one at a time behind the accountability agenda. Isn’t it about time you got involved?