Digital savvy – developments’ answer to that elusive accountability! – Series 4

In this fourth blog of the digital-savvy series, we are discussing how high digital-quotient (DQ) aids effective accountability framework development at pro-poor organisations. Pause for a moment and ask: why discuss accountability, ‘effective’ or not? Even more interesting, is discussing accountability but from the development organisation lens. I suppose the place to begin is: understanding what Effective Accountability is to a development organisation.

Do development organisations need to reflect on their accountability value regime ?

Should development organisations reflect on their accountability values regime ?

Accountability is answerability, blameworthiness, liability, and the expectation of account-giving. Accountability is discussed from either the governance or leadership lens. As an aspect of governance, accountability is central to discussions related to problems in the public sector, nonprofit and private corporate and individual contexts. In leadership roles, accountability is the acknowledgment and assumption of responsibility for actions, products, decisions, and policies including the administration, governance, and implementation within the scope of the role or employment position and encompassing the obligation to report, explain and be answerable for resulting consequences

This blog interests itself in the governance lens of accountability. In here, accountability has expanded beyond the basic definition of “being called to account for one’s actions”. It is frequently described as an account-giving relationship between individuals, for example, “A is accountable to B when A is obliged to inform B about A’s (past or future) actions and decisions, to justify them, and to suffer punishment in the case of eventual misconduct”. Accountability cannot exist without proper accounting practices; in other words, an absence of accounting means an absence of accountability 

Those of you working for development organisations and in a relationship with poor and vulnerable people, direct or indirect, understand how nerve wrecking it is to justify effectively to the poor people, development organisation: actions and decisions, their justification as well as a reprimand for any failure. Tell the latter to a development organisation CEO and you will witness in many, an extremely uncomfortable human-being. The development industry, I know has its heart in the right place, but is yet to understand the philosophy of effective accountability, as opposed to what I call politically correct accountability. The latter accountability mostly answers to donor’s (development god) accountability needs, while the former is about full transparency, explaining rationale, and taking responsibility for failure including where justified, ‘professional-death’ of both the development organisation and leader. Indeed, effective accountability relates to my earlier blog that discussed fail-safe culture and monks

Accountability perspectives for the development organisation:

As a development practitioner, I relate to multiple perspectives of accountability. Development organisations known for delivering effective accountability in their operations, consider all accountability perspectives, in their efforts at effective accountability framework building.

Below is an outline of four perspectives, development organisation leaders can start building from:

  1. Relevance and efficacy of development projects. Development organisations design cutting-edge development projects and throw all available resources at them. However, do the projects bring about the kind of intervention needed to solve the biting poverty my village mates in Nakabugu, Uganda face?
  2. Whether the project is relevant or not, is the money invested in the project, reaching the poor? Development projects, without naming any, suffer massive resource-leaks
  3. Assuming the money reaches the poor, and that is what we practitioners want to see, is the service/product of the right standard? How many times have you witnessed botched products and services in the field of development?
  4. Are development organisations delivering BOTH effective and efficient work? You and I know that one may achieve effectiveness at what they do, but not necessarily efficiency. For example, a development organisation may deliver a state of the art gravity water system to a remote mountain village, but at extremely high cost, bringing the systems sustainability into question.

I will leave it to development practitioners and industry critics, to ponder which of the above four accountability perspectives as well others that they may think of, apply to their specific situation.

What I know is that practitioners in development (some), continue to pilot various frameworks to deliver effective accountability. Therefore, the ‘lack of’ is not necessary due to ‘lack of will’, but perhaps the ‘scope of will’. Why the limited scope of will? Well, there are many answers, but one I want to discuss is the willingness of the development gods, to make effective accountability a condition for aid, as well as define effective-accountability standards. If development gods had the will to enforce doctrine a little more than they do today, the industry would seamlessly embrace effective accountability in its business.

Obstacles to delivering effective accountability in the development industry:

  • The information gap: what do the poor people know about projects that are designed to take them out of enduring poverty situations?
  • The emergence of the native development organisation and its ‘hereditary right’ to the fortune of its international peer: while I support the capacitating of the native organisation, I also know that its arrival on the development scene has increased the distance between the development gods, its international peer, and the poor people. There are too many layers in the development industry value chain and with it, ‘diluted’ monitoring and oversight
  • Without a proper register of homes and births, how do development organisations identify and find the poor people? Try delivering a parcel to a remote African village – it can take you hours or days, to identify the owners location and identity.
  • The attribution challenge: It is not uncommon for two or more development organisations to work with the same people, in the same village, and on a similar intervention. It becomes extremely difficult to attribute ‘information-sharing’ and ‘project success or failure’ to any one organisation. In itself, the latter is an accountability complicating factor.
  • Business as usual project evaluation toolbox: The year 2015, and many of the top-notch evaluation consultants still use the traditional paper questionnaire for their work. The latter makes the process too cumbersome to administer and from the word go a quality killer. The consultants are digital-savvy as individuals, but not their work!
  • Development work is not like a supermarket: the supermarket provides a one-stop shop for ’service provision and payment for the same’. One on one development transactions take place away from the ardent eye of the ‘shop owner’. The shop owner or investor has no means to monitor 24/7 what is happening on the shop floor

Is a savvy digital culture the ‘effective accountability’ ‘messiah’?

Below is a quick outline of simple, yet potentially powerful solutions to developments’ effective accountability challenge:

  1. Provide the right project information and on time, to the poor people: using predesigned basic phone text message templates, send to the poor people information on planned project activity, the timing of the activity, and their stipend entitlement. It then becomes difficult for the service provider to divert resources since the beneficiaries understand upfront what the service offer is
  2. Should the development service provider force their way and divert resources, provide a feedback loop for the poor people to the development organisation. Again, use simple text message templates to send feedback to a toll-free number.
  3. For project activities that are time bound, deploy GPS powered tracking software, activated as and when project activities are in session. Those of you familiar with car tracking technology should understand the technology options available to the development industry. There are many other possibilities using current social media platforms like Whatsup, Facebook, etc.
  4. Apparently, development organisations impose project interventions on the poor people and never provide them with the opportunity to inform project design. I have designed projects before, and I fully understand how difficult it is to engage efficiently, the poor in design dialogue. However, If we invested the time to study how development can model highly successful online design frameworks like Kickstarter and Crowdfunding, there is so much that development can do, to effectively include the poor in design. Development does not have to cut and paste such gigantic design frameworks, but borrow principles that can be use on a basic Nokia mobile phone platform

My takeaway: Do you envisage like I do, the incredible potential of the mobile phone to change the manner development is delivered? There is so much in ‘digital’ that can bring about effective accountability in development.



Categories: Strategy

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