A few years ago a donor asked us (informally) whether we would be prepared to partner up with another local NGO that they were also considering supporting in order to reduce their transaction costs. (An illusory goal – in effect they were asking to pass their transaction costs on to us.) We wanted the donor’s money, so we said yes we’d be prepared to partner in that way, but due to political concerns and doubts about our proposed partner’s capacity, we said that we would not be held accountable for what the supposed partner did or did not do, or how they spent their money. The donor quickly realised the sense of what we were saying and dropped the idea.
Accountability is one of the major pillars of good governance, and a regular buzzword in development-speak. With responsibility comes accountability. But, as the above example shows, with accountability also needs to come responsibility. We rightly object to being held accountable for something we cannot control.
And yet in efforts to improve local governance in developing countries I fear this is exactly what we may be in danger of doing. Around here at least, service delivery over the last mile is often poor to abysmal, so pushing local officials into being accountable for the performance of their departments seems like a good idea. But department heads have remarkably little control over their juniors. They have minimal say over who is hired, and even corrupt officials are very rarely fired, just transferred to another province, to become somebody else’s problem. Patronage is also a problem; disciplining some local bigwig’s distant relative is always going to be a dicey proposition. So officials lapse into the inevitable semi-comatose apathy.
Civil society advocates for accountability should take note. So should donors. My suggested rule of thumb: never give money to someone who lacks professional authority over his/her own staff. Unfortunately that would rule out a lot of government to government aid.