Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
How Change Happens$

Duncan Green

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780198785392

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198785392.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2020. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 28 March 2020

Accountability, Political Parties, and the Media

Accountability, Political Parties, and the Media

(p.112) 6 Accountability, Political Parties, and the Media
How Change Happens

Duncan Green

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses political parties and the media as two crucial institutions that provide avenues for accountability, as well as the burgeoning field of ‘social accountability’, in both elected and unelected regimes. The political party system is both an opportunity and a threat for activists and their organizations. Parties can be long-term institutional homes for policies and ideas. The media route is another method of ensuring accountability, as the media can echo, amplify, or substitute for citizens’ voices. Lastly, the social accountability route is a more recent phenomenon, driven both by new technology and the need for solutions when states are weak or unresponsive. This particular route attempts to promote accountability by approaching authorities directly, instead of relying on intermediaries, such as political parties or bureaucracies. All three routes provide valuable channels for activists to hold those in power to account for their decisions.

Keywords:   accountability, political parties, mass media, social accountability, avenues for accountability

It’s hard to imagine a more precious timeslot in a politician’s calendar than three days before a general election, yet the May 2015 ‘Citizens’ Assembly’ in a cavernous London church hall attracted two of the UK’s three main party leaders, while the governing Conservatives fielded a high-level stand-in for David Cameron. The politicians submitted themselves to being grilled before 2,500 activists from Citizens UK, a community organization. The audience was a kaleidoscope of multicultural Britain, drawn from faith groups, schools, networks of asylum seekers and refugees, and other grassroots institutions. There was no favouritism: each politician was allowed just four minutes each to make their pitch and they were then cross-examined in detail. Vague or evasive answers were challenged, promises were extracted, and the politicians ended up making extra commitments under pressure from the crowd.1

For Francis Fukuyama, accountability means that ‘the rulers believe that they are responsible to the people they govern, and put the people’s interests above their own’.2 I would add that accountability also means that the population and institutions of civil society hold significant power and can exact redress when duties and (p.113) commitments are not met.3 Accountability is the glue that constitutes the social contract between citizen and state, which is desirable in itself because having a voice contributes to wellbeing, as well as being a practical means to drive progressive change.

In aid and official development, however, accountability is often framed much more narrowly in terms of being accountable for the results promised in a particular project, or ‘upwards accountability’ to donors, which often takes precedence over ‘downwards accountability’ to citizens.

Some observers equate accountability with democratic elections, but it is a pressing issue in democratic and non-democratic systems alike. This chapter discusses political parties and the media as two crucial institutions that provide avenues for accountability, as well as the burgeoning field of ‘social accountability’, in both elected and unelected regimes. All three provide valuable channels for activists to hold those in power to account for their decisions.

Political parties as drivers of change

Citizens UK’s deliberate and energetic engagement with political parties, especially Right wing ones, is comparatively rare for activist organizations. Development thinkers pay parties scant attention, and aid organizations tend to discount their importance. Few activists take the time to understand and engage with the labyrinth of committees, networks, and debates through which political parties influence the decisions made by those in office.

I sympathize because, in my experience, even progressive parties can be pretty unappealing. I was briefly a Labour Party member in the late 1980s, but found it focused on procedures and structures, and dominated by local government employees who seemed solely (p.114) concerned with conserving their jobs. When my first baby came, I quietly dropped the mind-numbing tedium of party meetings.

I now think that was short-sighted, because familiarity with the complex world of party histories, cultures, structures, and decision making is an essential part of understanding (and influencing) how change happens. However dull, political parties are the clutch in the engine of politics, linking citizens to government. They reconcile and represent the interests and viewpoints of numerous individuals and groups in society; they recruit and train future leaders; and above all, they hold government accountable and organize opposition.4 In national parliaments, provincial assemblies, and town councils, parties propose, debate, and scrutinize legislation and the actions of central government. And they really come into their own at election time, fielding candidates and marshalling votes.

Democracy based on universal suffrage and political parties is relatively recent, in historical terms. The American Constitution makes no provision for parties and many of the Founding Fathers were hostile to the idea that they should come to govern the country. George Washington warned in his farewell address of ‘the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party; a conflict that would divide and potentially destroy the new nation’. His Successor John Adams argued that ‘a division of the republic into two great parties…is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.’5

In 1900, New Zealand was the world’s only country with a government elected by all its adult citizens. Since then, democratically elected government has spread in successive waves, most recently since the fall of the Berlin Wall. By 2014, Freedom House, a conservative US think tank, classified 125 of the world’s 196 countries as electoral (p.115) democracies, compared to only sixty-nine in 1990.6 In the first twelve years of this century, elections were held in all but five countries with populations over half a million (the holdouts were China, Eritrea, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates).7

The parties that contest power in today’s democracies come in a bewildering range of shapes and sizes. Some are ‘Toyota’ parties, whose leaders and followers could fit into a single car; others are mass-based organizations with thousands of organizers. Some represent the interests of just a few wealthy businessmen; others speak for millions of impoverished and marginalized people.8 Some grew out of social movements, whether religious (India’s Bharatiya Janata Party/BJP, Europe’s Christian Democrats, the Middle East’s Islamist parties) or social (Bolivia’s Movement to Socialism/MAS, Brazil’s Workers Party/PT). Others were set up by a government already in power (Mexico’s Partido Revolucionario Institucional and the various phantom opposition parties it created). Some draw on ethnic or regional affiliation (many of Kenya’s parties) or are personal vehicles for charismatic leaders (Argentina’s Peronists, Thailand’s Thai Rak Thai).9

Parties that emerge from social movements, trade unions, and other organizations of the poor have been responsible for some inspiring breakthroughs in South Africa, Brazil, Bolivia, India, and elsewhere. A recent example is India’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, or the ‘Common Man’s Party’), which grew out of an anti-corruption protest sparked by a 2011 hunger strike by a renowned and self-consciously Gandhian (p.116) protestor named Anna Hazare.10 His action helped force the introduction of anti-corruption legislation, but the movement lost momentum and media interest in the energy-sapping labyrinths of parliamentary procedure. Other leaders then recast the movement as a political party to mobilize for the longer-term grind of political reform. In 2013, barely a year after its founding, the AAP came second in the Delhi Assembly elections, and in 2015 it won sixty-seven out of seventy assembly seats.

Social movements organize as parties because as movements they tend to rise and fall in sudden bursts of protest and can rarely muster the long-term engagement with the state required to achieve lasting change. What’s more, civil society organizations find it hard to make any legitimate claim to represent the will of the people because no-one has elected them. However, many activists argue that playing the electoral game entails compromises that inevitably tarnish the clarity of the message and the moral legitimacy of a protest movement and lays it open to betrayal by leaders seduced by political opportunism. Such tensions obliged leaders to break with Anna Hazare to found the AAP, and have dogged South Africa’s African National Congress/ANC, Brazil’s PT, and Bolivia’s MAS, all of which emerged from coalitions of social movements and came to rule the country.

Political parties often follow a cycle of birth, growth, and decay. A charismatic new leader bursts onto the scene, or a social movement turns itself into a clean, inspiring new party, and supporters rally to the flag of a new kind of politics. The AAP, like Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece, has shown huge mobilizing power and a commitment to a new way of doing politics: non-hierarchical, internally democratic, financially transparent, and free of big money or dynasty politics. But it proves remarkably hard to maintain that coherence and (p.117) dynamism. Most of them must make difficult choices and undertake compromises that contribute to an eventual decline in their support.

Brazil’s Workers Party (PT) was founded by independent trade unions, social movements, and others in 1980, initially to protest against military rule, then to turn civil society demands into a long-term political programme. Led by the charismatic union leader José Ignacio da Silva (known to all as Lula), the party won municipal elections and, after several narrow defeats, the national vote in 2003.

The PT brought an exhilarating burst of energy and legitimacy into an otherwise stagnant political system. Within a few years in power, it achieved real progress for Brazil’s poor, including substantial reductions in hunger, poverty, and inequality.11 But over the next decade the compromises required to pass legislation (e.g. using ‘incentives’ to steer laws through an opposition-dominated Congress12) brought an inevitable loss of mobilizing power. The logic of government took over from that of protest and community mobilization, eroding the very things that made the PT different. By 2014, Lula had stepped down, citizens were protesting against the PT government and its approval ratings were plummeting.

The churn of the political party system is both an opportunity and a threat for activists and our organizations. Understand and engage with it, and we can influence current and future governments, reaching far more people than an activist organization can ever hope to alone. Parties can be long-term institutional homes for policies and ideas, in contrast to the peaks and troughs of activist movements. But there are trade-offs. The election of progressive parties often leads to a dip in broader social activism as progressive governments and parties siphon leaders and activists from NGOs and social movements, while urging them to ‘leave it to us’. That is often a risky move as (p.118) even progressive parties need to be kept honest by activists to prevent the compromises and temptations of office from diluting their initial impetus. Like Citizens UK at its London Assembly, activists need to maintain our ability to criticize and oppose if we are to advocate effectively for poor and excluded people.

Patronage and corruption

In the early days of the PT’s road to power, in 1986, Chico Mendes, the Brazilian rubber-tappers’ leader who became a global environmental hero, ran as a candidate for state deputy. A memorable film shows him strolling down the main street in his home town of Xapuri, greeting his many friends and acquaintances. A stream of local people come up to ask how much he is paying for votes. When he explains he has no money, they wander off, bemused. He lost the election.13

The workings of the hidden and invisible power of vested interests and powerful ideas and social norms mean that parties that stand for a particular political, economic, and social programme are obliged to operate in a world dominated by very different beasts: parties designed to achieve power and influence for one or more Big Men, which use patronage to reward supporters and bind them to the leader. Of course, all parties are to some degree both personalist and programmatic, but the distinction remains useful.

Personalist parties are ubiquitous, perhaps reflecting Francis Fukuyama’s argument that, in evolutionary terms, kin and family usually come before any other form of personal loyalty.14 Among many voters (including those in Europe and North America), the strength of ethnic, tribal, regional, or religious identities trumps ideology.15 Personalist, (p.119) patronage-based parties make a mockery of platforms and policy positions as party hacks shop around for the best deal. According to one study of Kenya: ‘nearly all party manifestos look alike, often using the same phraseology, and even identical paragraphs.’16

In Argentina Peronist presidents seem to be able to convince their followers to support entirely contradictory policies, from free market liberalization (Carlos Menem) to state intervention (Néstor, then Cristina Kirchner). In Brazil, around a third of legislators in the Chamber of Deputies switch party during each four-year term in search of personal advantage, whether political or financial.17 Patronage politics also makes it easier for new entrants to create parties, provided they have enough wealth and power to buy support. The developing world in particular has seen an accelerating rate of party ‘churn’: instead of relatively stable party systems, new parties linked to particular candidates rise and fall each election, a phenomenon encouraged by widespread disenchantment with their more traditional rivals.

The currency of patronage is jobs and cash, memorably summed up by Michela Wrong in the title of her book, It’s Our Turn to Eat.18 An election brings a new set of snouts to the trough, as resources are siphoned off from government budgets and unqualified supporters are rewarded with government jobs.

The widespread problems of corruption and patronage are compounded by something I have always found baffling: the apparent inability of countries to establish a fair and transparent system of party and campaign financing. At $6 billion ($51 per vote cast), the 2012 US (p.120) elections cost 120 times more than the UK 2010 vote ($50 million, $1.68 per vote cast). Even the violence-scarred 2007 elections in Kenya cost $10 million ($1.01 per vote cast). By some estimates, the total expenditure across all political parties in the 2009 Indian national election was US$3 billion ($7.20 per vote cast).19 This is big money, and in the absence of state funding for political parties or election campaigns, the prospect of elections sparks a frenetic hustle to raise cash. In such circumstances a relatively small amount of money can buy an inordinate degree of political influence.

In some countries, leaders have apparently perfected the art of organizing superficially competitive elections, without actually letting go of the reins of power.20 Some are more blatant than others: in 2015 Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev was re-elected with 97.7 per cent of the vote, on a 95 per cent turnout. The ‘point 7’ is a particularly nice touch, I think.21

Since 2000, only fourteen of fifty-one states in Sub-Saharan Africa have seen power transferred between political parties.22 You might think that the sight of political parties and leaders clinging doggedly to power would boost support for opposition parties. In fact, the opposite appears to be the case. The Afrobarometer public opinion research firm found that while 56 per cent of respondents across eighteen countries said they trusted ruling parties ‘somewhat’ or ‘a lot,’ only 36 per cent said the same about opposition parties. Opposition (p.121) parties were in fact the least trusted institution among the thirteen Afrobarometer asked about.

Moreover, while 71 per cent agreed that the news media ‘should constantly investigate and report on corruption and the mistakes made by government’, they rejected a similar role for opposition parties. A clear majority (60 per cent) said that after elections, opposition parties should essentially set aside their differences and ‘concentrate on cooperating with government and helping it develop the country.’ Just 35 per cent thought the opposition should ‘regularly examine and criticize government policies and actions’ and hold it to account.

Afrobarometer concluded:

This finding raised questions about how Africans understand the very concept of ‘opposition.’ There seems to be something of a paradox. Africans clearly support elections as a way of choosing their leaders, and they want to have real choices when they go to the polls. Yet they appear to be uncomfortable with what this means on a daily basis, with the push and pull of politics that is part and parcel of a competitive party system.23

Parties and women

To do a decent job of representing citizens, political parties need to reflect their societies, yet the workings of social norms and ‘invisible power’ meant that they seldom do so. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of women, who have traditionally been marginalized both in internal party power structures, and places in parliaments. As of 2016, women occupied only 22 per cent of parliamentary seats worldwide. Only two countries in the world (Rwanda and Bolivia) had a majority of women in parliament.24,25

(p.122) Driven by changing social norms on the roles and rights of women, backed by dedicated activism, that picture has started to change in recent decades. Electoral quotas to try and even up the balance have been introduced in half the countries in the world, with knock-on effects on the internal procedures of many political parties.26

One of the pioneers has been India, where in 1992 the Government ruled that at least a third of the seats of all local councils (panchayats) and a third of panchayat leadership seats would be reserved for women. Research a decade later showed that panchayats headed by women were spending more on issues that women had identified as a priority, such as drinking water.27

Once elected, women representatives can face isolation and marginalization in male-dominated systems, and can benefit from support and the establishment of networks with other women in similar positions. In Cambodia, Oxfam persuaded a mobile phone operator to equip women community leaders with mobile phones so they could stay in touch with each other (the few women leaders felt very isolated). The neat touch was making sure the phones were pink, so the men wouldn’t ‘borrow’ them.28

The Aurat Foundation in Pakistan convenes ‘Women’s Leadership Groups’ in thirty districts across the country, with a total membership of 1,500 women activists. Part of their mandate is to encourage these women to become active in political parties, and in May 2013 six WLG women were elected to provincial assemblies (five in Punjab and one in Sindh), while one became a member of the National Assembly. Working with other civil society organizations, the WLGs and Aurat Foundation developed a ‘women’s manifesto’ for those elections, (p.123) listing the minimum acceptable requirements of political party engagement on women’s empowerment. The manifesto and accompanying campaign reached both national media and inner circles of influence, achieving a high level of ‘buy in’ from political parties.29

Parties in non-democratic systems

In one party states, parties are part of the apparatus of command and control, but they are also the eyes and ears of governments that, in the absence of open elections, need alternative feedback systems about their effectiveness (or otherwise) and potential threats to social cohesion or political legitimacy.

Parties thus play an active and constantly evolving role in many non-democracies. The best known is the Chinese Communist Party’s role in China’s extraordinary transition to ‘state capitalism’ over the last forty years, but East Asia has other examples. The Communist Party of Viet Nam (CPV) has been the ruling party in the north of the country since 1954 and the only party in power in Viet Nam since unification in 1976.

Since the late 1980s turn towards a market economy, the CPV has gone through significant internal changes, including more open elections for senior members of its leadership. These changes were influenced by an emerging civil society and by the rise of a new social class of wealthy entrepreneurs linked to a segment of high-ranking party officials.

Vietnamese scholar Hai Hong Nguyen argues that ‘the CPV is ‘motivated more by the desire to survive and avoid Tahrir Square-type events than by a true belief in democratic reform’.30 Yet party (p.124) reform has opened opportunities for activists to exert influence, even if Viet Nam remains a one-party state.

The Provincial Governance and Public Administration Performance Index (PAPI)31 ranks local government performance all over Viet Nam, using local researchers to interview a large, carefully selected sample on their experience in areas such as health and education, the level of petty corruption, and participation. In the words of one of the organizers, Giang Dang, ‘When VietNam opened up, the two things that arrived first were beauty contests and Coca Cola. So we decided to organize beauty contests. Most opposition came from the contestants in the beauty contest—the public servants.’32

According to Giang Dang, ‘higher ranking provinces are keen to keep their position and feature their ranking in all their documents. Some of the lower ranking provinces are starting to set up task forces, and asking us for advice on how to improve performance.’

The secret of PAPI’s success lies in the way it actively recruits champions inside the system. Its advisory board has representatives from the National Assembly, ministries, government inspectorates and academia. The Vietnam Fatherland Front (VFF), a mass organization of the CPV, supports the project and opens doors all the way down to commune level.

The CPV’s attitude to PAPI underlines the importance of legitimacy and social cohesion in one-party systems. Like most governments, dictatorships are keenly aware of the ups and downs of their legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens and especially their economic elites, and are willing to consider change when loss of legitimacy could threaten their survival. In the case of the CPV, the party knows the poor performance of local government is a threat to its dominance, so (p.125) it supports improved accountability via the index, even though it occurs outside party channels.

Party platforms as venues for change

Activists often seek to have their issues incorporated into party platforms, so that if the party is elected they can push for government action. The kinds of questions set out in the power and systems approach, exploring issues of power, precedent, possible strategies, and critical junctures, can be useful in shaping our influencing efforts, as this example from India shows.

India’s landmark 2005 National Rural Employee Guarantee Act (NREGA), which guarantees all rural citizens 100 days of unskilled employment per year on public works programmes, came about due to a combination of determined citizen activism and the fortunes of the Congress Party.

In response to drought and rural distress, civil society networks in the state of Rajasthan submitted a petition to the Supreme Court in 2001 on the ‘Right to Food’, which received favourable interim directives. Encouraged, they drafted a Rajasthan State Employment Guarantee Act in 2003, though it did not garner support from Congress or other parties.

The 2003 legislative assembly elections opened a political window of opportunity, because the Congress Party suffered a demoralizing loss in Rajasthan and other states, leading most to believe it had no chance in the 2004 general election. Impending political defeat weakened the resistance of fiscal conservatives in the Congress leadership and the employment guarantee was included in the 2004 Congress national manifesto.

When the party won a surprise victory that year, the leadership needed to rapidly cobble together a programme. The employment guarantee was not only ready to go, but removing it would have endangered its coalition with Left-wing parties. Still, getting agreement on such a far-reaching initiative still took a determined campaign, (p.126) involving a fifty-day march across the country’s poorest districts, sit-in protests, direct contacts with politicians, and public hearings.33

Despite the Congress Party’s subsequent loss of power in 2014, the scheme has continued to expand. In 2015, according to the NREGA website, it gave employment to 122 million poor people across India.34

The story of the NREGA offers some lessons about working with and through political parties. Activists saw that political travails had made the Congress Party open to new ideas. They developed their proposals well in advance of the critical juncture and they combined insider and outsider tactics to get it onto the platform and finally implemented. The story also demonstrates the importance of accident and luck: if the 2004 elections had gone as expected, Congress would have lost, and NREGA might well have joined the ranks of good, but failed, civil society initiatives.

The media and accountability

States may see the world through the eyes of the law, but politicians often see it through the eyes of the media, and not just any media. During my brief spell working on trade policy at the British aid ministry, DFID, whenever something appeared in the Financial Times about the WTO negotiations the minister would send down his special adviser to find out what was going on. Another minister reportedly set a performance target for DFID’s long suffering media team for how many photos of himself they were able to place in his favourite (party aligned) newspaper. Rather more honourably, Thomas Jefferson once said (even though he was regularly vilified by the press), ‘If I had to choose between government without (p.127) newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter’.35

The media can echo, amplify, or substitute for citizens’ voices. Governments monitor (often obsessively) their popularity, detecting unrest and threats to their legitimacy and, eventually, rule. That can be hard to achieve when cocooned in the corridors of power, and the media provides one form of feedback loop to ‘what the people are thinking’ (as of course does the proliferation of polls and focus groups that inform government decisions). My boss at DFID was using the Financial Times partly as a proxy for what was significant in the unfolding global trade talks. The lesson for me as an activist was that I needed to get better at ‘using the media’ (the title of one indispensable 1980s guide for activists36). In other words, find out what paper the minister reads, and try and get it to pick up your press release.

Governments and politicians are often rather better at this than activists, since they wield a lot more formal power and cash and fewer scruples. In the 1990s, Peru’s secret-police chief Ivan Montesinos systematically bribed all the democratic checks and balances in the country—the opposition, the judiciary, a free press. Once he had fallen from power, some enterprising scholars managed to get hold of and compare the bribes he paid for different targets. They found that bribing a television channel owner cost about 100 times more than a judge or a politician. One single television channel’s bribe was five times larger than the total of all opposition politicians’ bribes. By revealed preference, the strongest check on the government’s power was the news media (and by some distance).37

Since Montesinos’ time, the media landscape has been transformed by technology, and with it the role of the media in accountability. In the majority of countries (there are still a few hold-outs like Eritrea and (p.128) Zimbabwe), old media has fragmented and escaped the cruder forms of state ownership. Fragile states have seen the rise of ‘warlord radio’, media that are controlled by particular political, ethnic, religious, or military leaders and used for factionalist ends. In other fragmented societies local radio has stoked hatred, as in Kenya’s post-election violence in 2008 that claimed 1,200 lives, and in the Rwandan genocide fourteen years earlier.38

Many activists place huge hopes in the power of ‘new media’ and its role in building accountability. For the optimists, information ‘wants to be free’ and will unleash a wave of citizen activism to wash away elite control of institutions and wealth on a tide of transparency and online campaigning. But tech-savvy activists often overestimate social media’s importance. Old fashioned radio remains the main information source for adult Kenyans, for example, 89 per cent of whom use the radio weekly for news and information.39

However, nasty elites and oppressive states are rather good at monitoring social media activity and using it to track dissidents.40 Moreover, the fragmentation of both old and new media is leading to an echo chamber effect, producing separate and parallel worlds of information, news, and analysis that can reinforce prejudice, weaken dialogue among groups, and play into the hands of those who use hate and division to consolidate their power.

I may be a tech sceptic, but I am also a compulsive blogger and tweeter, and have seen the strengths and weaknesses of social media for myself. My blog, ‘From Poverty to Power’,41 gets about 300,000 (p.129) ‘unique visitors’ a year. That’s good for a blog, but tiny compared to audiences for old media. Blogs and Twitter are essentially elitist conversations with ‘people like you’, but they can exert influence, both directly via the readership (mainly made up of people in the government, political parties, academia, and activist organizations) and indirectly, by influencing old media journalists who trawl blogs and Twitter in search of ideas for their next piece. For activists, social media provides a new and additional link in the web of accountability.

Overall, the evidence supports both optimists and sceptics. A study of the role of the media in four countries—Kenya, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq—concluded that, in all four countries, parts of the media have strengthened ethnic and sectarian identity, especially at key moments such as elections. But some of the vernacular media in Kenya so implicated in fuelling the 2007–8 violence was also instrumental in calling for calm when the violence escalated. Somalis value only those media they can trust, and prove it by switching on or off accordingly. When the Islamist Al-Shabaab group seized power and either operated radio stations or intimidated them into broadcasting their propaganda, it struggled to attract significant audiences.42

The media is a complex system, whose behaviour varies over time and place, according to politics, history, culture, technology, and individuals. For activists learning to ‘dance’ with that system means finding out how the media works in any given setting, learning its language, timetable, and incentives. (I am in awe of Oxfam’s media team’s ability to put its stories into the public domain at big global moments like the annual Davos meeting of the World Economic Forum.43)

As noted in Chapter 3, activists have used old media reality shows and soap operas to go beyond issues of short-term accountability to try and influence the underlying system of attitudes and norms. (p.130) In Tanzania, a reality TV show, Female Food Heroes, raises awareness of the important, but often overlooked, role of its women food producers. Contestants spend three weeks on the programme, which has become an unlikely national hit, to see which female farmer is chosen as the winner by viewers and others. Fans reportedly include the agriculture minister.44

Understanding the role of the media in boosting accountability also means understanding power. Patterns of ownership and party allegiance heavily influence the message in many old media. New media are less obviously subject to such bias, but are hardly a power-free zone either. The most widely read bloggers on aid and development are almost all white Western men (and I’m guilty as charged).

Transparency and accountability initiatives

Most of this chapter has been about what the World Bank calls the ‘long route’ to accountability:45 citizens delegate authority to political representatives, usually via political parties, who then govern bureaucracies that deliver services. Long route accountability comes from citizens trying to make sure those politicians are doing their job. But there is also a ‘short route’ to accountability: rather than asking your MP or local councillor to improve your child’s school, why not lobby the headmaster directly?

Attempts to build this short route, often called ‘social accountability’, have spread like wildfire in recent years, driven both by new technology and the need for solutions when states are weak or unresponsive. These efforts, widely known as ‘transparency and accountability initiatives’ rely on access to information, citizen monitoring of government performance, and citizen activism to hold officials to account.

(p.131) In South Africa, the Public Sector Accountability Monitor analysed and publicized budget and service delivery information produced by the health department of one of the weakest provincial governments, the Eastern Cape. While its efforts initially had limited impact, the national government took note and intervened. As a result, the provincial health minister and head of department were replaced, thirty-one officials were criminally charged, and a further 800 officials were dismissed.46 Needless to say, financial management improved substantially.

The promise of such initiatives is real, but has been oversold. Some talked ‘as if all one had to do was to sprinkle mobile phones or internet and the persistent, structural imbalances and power asymmetries that had dogged us for decades would melt away’, in the words of one of the movement’s most charismatic leaders, Rakesh Rajani of Tanzania.47

Rakesh invited me to take part in a soul-searching exercise at Twaweza, the pioneering NGO he founded. Twaweza believed that boosting poor people’s access to information could make government more accountable on things like poor schools across East Africa.48 They took the idea to scale, providing social content for top TV soap operas or radio satire, and advertising on the back page of 40 million school notebooks. It was a challenging, large-scale innovation and donors loved it.

Accountability, Political Parties, and the Media

Figure 6.1 Then a miracle occurs

Source: Sidney Harris, Science Cartoons Plus.com

The trouble was it wasn’t working. None of the evaluations led by eminent academics from around the world had uncovered evidence that Twaweza’s information was registering with citizens on any scale, (p.132) still less triggering increased citizen action. One of the evaluators (echoed by Rakesh) called it a ‘bucket of cold water’ on the original concept. Hence the invitation because, true to its courageous approach, Twaweza published the findings of its (non) impact and invited people to come and discuss them.

The ensuing three days brought home to me the importance of examining the assumptions and conditions that underlie all theories of change—‘looking at the arrows’. My all-time favourite cartoon49 on how change happens shows two boffins in front of a blackboard, with equations to the left and right and in between the words ‘then a miracle occurs’ (see Figure 6.1). Twaweza’s theory of change was: ‘citizens get (p.133) information about services → citizens take action to improve them’; in between lay the unexplored ‘miracle’ of accountability.

As one of the evaluators of the programme pointed out, inside that simple a → b theory of change, lay a whole sequence of assumptions and conditions: Do I understand the information? → Is it new information to me? → Do I care? → Do I think that it is my responsibility to do something about it? → Do I have the skills to make a difference? → Do I have the sense of efficacy to think that my efforts will have an impact? → Are the kinds of actions I am inspired to take different from what I am already doing? → Do I believe my own individual action will have an impact? → Do I expect fellow community members to join me in taking action?50 Unless we have a much fuller analysis of the systems through which power works to achieve accountability, we are essentially crossing our fingers and hoping for ‘a miracle to occur’.

Twaweza’s degree of openness may be exceptional, but the problems it identified were not. Unless we have a much fuller analysis of the systems through which power works to achieve accountability, we are essentially crossing our fingers and hoping for a miracle to occur. What is needed instead is to look at the system as a whole, including political parties and the media, combining demand from activists, access to information, and a better understanding of how those in power make decisions and could become allies in change—what I call a power and systems approach.51 For the moment, that approach looks like a better bet than waiting for miracles, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we are back in Dar es Salaam in a few years examining another set of depressing evaluations, because that’s the nature of working in complex systems. (p.134)


All too often a gulf divides the words of those in positions of power and responsibility from their subsequent deeds. The gulf is partly the result of the workings of ideas, interests, and institutions, and a reflection of the way power is distributed in society. The gap between words and deeds often engenders cynicism about those in power among the public (‘all politicians are the same’).

However tempting, I think activists who simply endorse that scepticism will miss valuable opportunities for change. Political parties, the media, and social accountability initiatives are vital parts of systems of accountability that can be used, and strengthened, to close the gap.

Countries with stagnant or corrupt party systems do not remain so forever. Instead, they constitute an ever-evolving system, driven by pressure from below, changing norms, new leaders, and critical junctures. Activists need to learn to dance with that system, using the media, and ‘short route’ approaches, but also working with parties by building alliances, identifying and working with champions, and seizing moments of opportunity, because parties carry the potential to achieve changes on an otherwise impossible scale.

Further Reading

Bibliography references:

R. Cordenillo and S. van der Staak (eds.) Political Parties and Citizen Movements in Asia and Europe (Singapore: Asia-Europe Foundation, Hanns Seidel Foundation and International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2014).

J. Deane, Fragile States: The Role of Media and Communication, BBC Media Action Policy Briefing No. 10 (London: BBC Media Action, 2013).

F. Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).

V. Randall, Political Parties in the Third World (London: SAGE Publications, 1988).

A. Rocha Menocal, Ten things to know about democracy and elections (London: Overseas Development Institute, 2013).


(1) Duncan Green, ‘Active Citizens Holding Britain’s Politicians to Account—Why Can’t the Rest of the UK Election Campaign be More Like This?’, From Poverty to Power blog, 6 May 2015, http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/active-citizens-holding-britains-politicians-to-account-why-isnt-the-rest-of-the-uk-election-campaign-more-like-this/.

(2) Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), p. 321.

(3) Transparency Initiative website, ‘Accountability—Definitions’, www.transparency-initiative.org/about/definitions.

(4) Vicky Randall, ‘Political Parties and Democratic Developmental States’, Development Policy Review 25, no. 5 (2007): pp. 633–52, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-7679.2007.00389.x/pdf.

(5) Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), p. 140.

(6) Arch Puddington, ‘Discarding Democracy: A Return to the Iron Fist’, Freedom House website, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world-2015/discarding-democracy-return-iron-fist.

(7) Duncan Green, ‘10 Killer Facts on Democracy and Elections’, From Poverty to Power blog, 12 July 2013, https://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/10-killer-facts-on-democracy-and-elections/.

(8) Thomas Carothers, Confronting the Weakest Link: Aiding Political Parties in New Democracies (Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2006).

(9) Vicky Randall, ‘Political Parties and Democratic Developmental States’, Development Policy Review 25, no. 5 (2007): pp. 633–52, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-7679.2007.00389.x/pdf.

(10) Prashant Sharma, ‘From India Against Corruption to the Aam Aadmi Party: Social Movements, Political Parties and Citizen Engagement in India’, in Political Parties and Citizen Movements in Asia and Europe, edited by Raul Cordenillo and Sam van der Staak (Singapore: Asia-Europe Foundation, Hanns Seidel Foundation and International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2014).

(11) Sue Branford and Jan Rocha, Brazil Under the Workers’ Party: From Euphoria to Despair (Rugby, UK: Practical Action Publishing, 2015).

(12) Mathew M. Taylor, ‘Police detained Brazil’s ex-president on Friday. Here’s what you need to know’, Washington Post, Monkey Cage blog, 5 March 2016.

(13) Duncan Green, Faces of Latin America (London: Latin America Bureau, 1991), p. 104.

(14) Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).

(15) Matthew Lockwood, however, argues that rapid decolonization meant that the new generation of independence leaders did not have time to build more programmatic parties. Matthew Lockwood, The State They’re in: An Agenda for International Action on Poverty in Africa (London: ITDG Publishing, 2005).

(16) Vicky Randall, ‘Political Parties and Democratic Developmental States’, Development Policy Review 25, no. 5 (2007): pp. 633–52, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-7679.2007.00389.x/pdf.

(17) Vicky Randall, ‘Political Parties and Democratic Developmental States’, Development Policy Review 25, no. 5 (2007): pp. 633–52, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-7679.2007.00389.x/pdf.

(18) Michela Wrong, It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009).

(19) Prashant Sharma, ‘From India Against Corruption to the Aam Aadmi Party: Social Movements, Political Parties and Citizen Engagement in India’, in Political Parties and Citizen Movements in Asia and Europe, edited by Raul Cordenillo and Sam van der Staak (Singapore: Asia-Europe Foundation, Hanns Seidel Foundation and International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2014).

(20) Vera Songwe, ‘From Strong Men to Strong Institutions: An Assessment of Africa’s Transition Towards More Political Contestability’, Africa in Focus, Brookings, 4 August 2015, www.brookings.edu/blogs/africa-in-focus/posts/2015/08/04-africa-transitions-songwe.

(21) Aditya Tejas, ‘Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev Reelected with 98% Majority Vote’, International Business Times, 27 April 2015, www.ibtimes.com/kazakhstan-president-nursultan-nazarbayev-reelected-98-majority-vote-1897642.

(22) Alina Rocha Menocal, ‘Ten things to know about democracy and elections’, ODI, 2013.

(23) Carolyn Logan, ‘What Ails the Opposition in Africa?’, Afrobarometer blog, 4 September 2015, http://afrobarometer.org/blogs/blog-what-ails-opposition-africa.

(24) ‘Women in National Parliaments’, Situation as of 1 December 2015, Inter-Parliamentary Union website, www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm.

(25) ‘Latest News’, Inter-Parliamentary Union website, www.ipu.org/wmn-e/world.htm.

(26) Quota Project, ‘About Quotas’, Global Database of Quotas for Women, www.quotaproject.org/aboutQuotas.cfm.

(27) Lori Beaman, Raghabendra Chattopadhyay, Esther Duflo, Rohini Pande and Petia Topalova, The Impact of Women Policy Makers on Public Goods in India (Cambridge, MA: J-PAL, Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab), www.povertyactionlab.org/evaluation/impact-women-policy-makers-public-goods-india.

(28) The Pink Phone Project, ‘Empowering Cambodian Women Through Mobile Technology’, 14 September 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=MPEmDXsakBk.

(29) Duncan Green, ‘The Raising Her Voice Pakistan Programme’ (Oxford: Oxfam International, 2015).

(30) Hai Hong Nguyen, ‘Political Parties, Civil Society and Citizen Movements in Viet Nam’, in Political Parties and Citizen Movements in Asia and Europe, edited by Raul Cordenillo and Sam van der Staak (Singapore: Asia-Europe Foundation, Hanns Seidel Foundation and International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2014).

(31) The Viet Nam Provincial Governance and Public Administration Performance Index, http://papi.vn/en/index.html.

(32) Presentation to seminar on ‘Active Citizenship in Asia’, Bangkok, September 2012, http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/building-active-citizenship-and-accountability-in-asia-case-studies-from-vietnam-and-india/.

(33) Ian MacAuslan, ‘India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act: A Case Study for How Change Happens’ (Oxford: Oxfam International, 2008).

(34) Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act website, http://mnregaweb4.nic.in/netnrega/dynamic2/ReportGenerated.aspx.

(35) Thomas Jefferson, letter to Edward Carrington, Paris, 16 January 1787.

(36) Denis MacShane, Using the Media: How to Deal with the Press, Television and Radio (London: Pluto Press, 1979).

(37) John McMillan and Pablo Zoido, ‘How to Subvert Democracy: Montesinos in Peru’, Journal of Economic Perspectives 18, no. 4 (2004): pp. 69–92.

(38) James Deane, Fragile States: The Role of Media and Communication, BBC Media Action Policy Briefing No. 10, (London: BBC Media Action, 2013).

(39) Paddy Coulter and Cathy Baldwin, ‘Digital Deprivation: New Media, Civil Society and Sustainability’, in Civil Society in the Age of Monitory Democracy, edited by Lars Trägårdh, Nina Witoszek, and Bron Taylor (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2013).

(40) Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World (London: Allen Lane, 2011). Malcolm Gladwell, ‘Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted’, The New Yorker, 4 October 2010, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/10/04/small-change-malcolm-gladwell.

(41) Duncan Green, From Poverty to Power blog, http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/.

(42) James Deane, Fragile States: The Role of Media and Communication, BBC Media Action Policy Briefing No. 10, (London: BBC Media Action, 2013).

(44) Oxfam website, ‘Bahati Muriga Jacob: Female Food Hero 2014, Tanzania’, www.oxfam.org/en/tanzania/bahati-muriga-jacob-female-food-hero-2014.

(45) World Bank, ‘World Development Report 2004. Making Services Work for Poor People’ (Washington DC: The World Bank, 2003).

(46) Duncan Green, ‘Ups and Downs in the Struggle for Accountability—Four New Real Time Studies’, From Poverty to Power blog, 5 September 2013, https://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/watching-the-ups-and-downs-of-accountability-work-four-new-real-time-studies/.

(47) Rakesh Rajani, ‘Why Transparency and Technology Won’t Drive Accountability’, in Duncan Green, ‘What are the Limits of Transparency and Technology? From Three Gurus of the Openness Movement (Eigen, Rajani, McGee)’, From Poverty to Power blog, 7 April 2014, http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/what-are-the-limits-of-transparency-and-technology-the-thoughts-of-three-gurus-of-the-openness-movement/.

(50) Duncan Green, ‘So What Should Twaweza Do Differently? How Accountability Work is Evolving’, From Poverty to Power blog, 9 October 2013, http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/so-what-should-twaweza-do-differently-how-accountability-work-is-evolving/.

(51) Jonathan Fox, ‘Social accountability: what does the evidence really say?’, GPSA Working Paper Series No. 1, September 2014.