Jeremy Mann, The Oncoming Fog

How context shapes pathways to scale in social accountability

Written with Florencia Guerzovich

How does scale happen in social accountability? We have argued that there are many pathways, zooming into three of those options: resonance, best practice, and resistance. In this fourth post in our series on the issue, we discuss context. We argue that context influences which pathways to scale are more likely to be effective at a particular point in time. We believe that, for selecting the preferred pathway, there are four especially important aspects/dimensions of context that are worth exploring further. We highlight these four factors in the table and discuss them at greater length below.

Actors and environment: key attributes for success, by pathway

Context matters, except, it seems, when it should matter most

We believe that at the core of disentangling the “scale” challenge is our inability as a field to move beyond a quest for one ideal path to Rome, despite the fact we have argued that “context matters” for close to a decade ago. Yet, when “context matters” most, i.e., when it can help us inform our strategic, operational, and evaluative decisions, it seems to drop by the wayside. Obviously “context matters,” but decision-makers need to know how it matters, and practically narrow in on a few key factors such as those above.

What are potential factors which might make different pathways a better fit?

We need to start figuring out what “context matters” means in a more concrete and practical way that allows us to consider and learn from patterns across “buckets” of cases. As our co-author Brian Levy put it: frameworks that help us understand how different types of contexts work, which one needs to “wear lightly,” give us a concrete point of departure to think and ask concrete questions from a practitioner’s point of view. Hence, this focus on transferability (which we have discussed elsewhere) holds more promise than generalization to link evidence to concrete and feasible action. It also gives us a path forward beyond identifying on average correlations, which do not help us identify contribution or causation.

We have mapped and started to narrow down contextual factors that may enable or constrain efforts to scale. One of us discussed these factors in a blog last year (Nancy Cartwright calls them “moderators”). The table above introduces the key actors, actors’ characteristics, and enabling environment that might potentially explain whether changes take place along the resistance, best practice and resonance pathways and whether they are reverted over time.

An important warning is in order. While we suspect the same key contextual factors matter for all pathways, their values and direction can vary across pathways. When someone argues that connectors, facilitators, or brokers play an important role in scaling social accountability, we should ask from what vantage point are they asserting this? In other words, what pathway do they have in mind, and what normative and causal assumptions underpin this pathway?

We prioritize these four contextual factors (identity, connectors, incentives of incumbents who are targeted to adopt change, and the state and experience of state-society relationships) because we suspect they may help to understand when and where a particular pathway might be more promising as an option to scale. In other words, given what we know today, if we had to recommend which limited set of contextual factors to invest dollars available for monitoring, evaluation and research to inform decisions, we would recommend others start with those in the table above.

1. Identity

Organizational/coalitional identity matters to pathway fit. For example, we have read evaluations of World Vision’s social accountability work in Indonesia, Bangladesh, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (forthcoming) and in all cases what stood out to evaluators was the role and qualities of World Vision to build bridges for problem solving, taking sector characteristics into account. Tulia Falleti also finds some of these characteristics in the trajectory of members of the Sanitarista movement that “infiltrated” Brazil’s past authoritarian state. Their organizational DNA is distinct from many other groups who stand in civil society ready to confront the state and bring to the table different competences and repertoires — among them Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in India. For many resistance activists, “purity tests” are a condition for entry, which can undermine their scale and effectiveness, including some very boisterous social movements.

Researchers who share identities can also embed these priors into their assumptions, assessments, and recommendations. A recent synthesis paper from the Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) project concluded that while working within existing practices and institutions “is the natural conclusion of our research findings” and “our research also suggests that parallel systems might not be very different in terms of power dynamics”, the costs of pursuing the latter approach might be too high for “rights-based principle(d)” groups. This may or may not have to do with rights-based principles per se, so much as how organizations prefer to view and present themselves publicly; as organizations that don’t make any compromises.

These organizations (and research associated with them) have different characteristics from others in the TPA field that have typically put their technocratic, supposedly non-partisan character and the production of evidence and data front and center, affecting their strategies as well as their staffing and partnerships. Abigail Bellows, for example, points to the professionalization of the anti-corruption field based on technical expertise to be watchdogs and its trade-offs. This cohort might also include CARE Malawi’s efforts, which as discussed in post 3, betted heavily on scorcards and RCTs, as well as the many local partners of global organizations which perch their TPA work on global rankings.

In many other cases, from the Dominican Republic, to Morocco, Nigeria, The Philippines, Peru, Slovakia, and Uganda, we see how normative, political, and technical characteristics can be either enablers or constraints for organizations trading their identity for an expedient strategy in a particular context at a particular moment in time. We hope to explore this issue further in the future.

2. Connectors

In terms of connectors, their role has been highlighted by the A4EA synthesis cited above as well as by a realist evaluation in Indonesia, mixed-methods studies combining RCTs and network analysis in India as well comparative research in Indonesia, Tanzania, Malawi, Sierra Leone and Ghana, among other studies. The Bangladesh case illustrates the importance of facilitators that have the legitimacy to convene actors from different places in the system to support a joint conversation and transform them into vehicles to “trickle up” lessons — brokering collective action in a typical resonance fashion. Conversely, in Guatemala, researcher-activists who frame their action chiefly in terms of the resistance pathway conclude that ‘participants’ social positions were a key resource in providing connection to a broad base of support for mobilizing collective action…. legitimacy as “representatives of the people” enabled them to engage with authorities from a bolstered position of power.’ In the Malawi case described in post 3, the civil society actors that tried to support the replication of best practice backed up the legitimacy of their claims on rigorous evidence, rather than their place as system conveners that can support social learning or “representatives of the people.” Who these connectors are and how they present themselves is thus key to their credibility and the kind of role they can play in supporting scale up.

3. Decision-makers’ incentives

The Nigeria case illustrates how the approach to work with the grain sought to tap into the short and medium term incentives of targeted public officials and politicians to find win-win compromises. Partly for this reason, it’s unlikely that you would see much in terms of public sector actors cutting ranks to confront their colleagues at potential career risk. We have also seen first hand in Peru how new leadership within the health movement Foro Salud were trying to force a window of opportunity, but their government counterparts (including Foro Salud allies) had few short term political incentives, and efforts to force the issue damaged Foro Salud’s standing in the national health committee.

In Malawi, while CARE Malawi was more than happy to produce data and evidence and work with counterparts to disseminate the results of their RCT, there seems to be little evidence to suggest that government counterparts (either nationally or locally) were much concerned with the evidence or the potential rate of return on investment. Given that the District Health Management team has very limited available resources, the hope expressed in both national and district plans was that someone else would pay for it, and the assumption is that they would care about results from an RCT. As this recent study from the Center for Global Development (CGD) in the education sector suggests, maybe simply saying a study was an RCT isn’t so convincing to all policymakers:

4. State-society relationships

And, in terms of enabling the environment, we see that history — how it’s constructed and perceived — matters for the viability of particular pathways. In Zimbabwe, the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust (SAPST) implemented social accountability with a focus on public financial management and parliament and has obtained some parliamentary wins working with the grain of the institution and the country context. Their bet in the national parliament has been to build relationships and trust with MPs, authorities and staffers alike. The organization recruits former parliamentary staffers that bring in social capital and know-how with them. When times got tough at home, SAPST reinvented itself and switched the focus to the regional level, where it continued nurturing their and MPs experience with dialogue.

Uganda’s HRH campaign managed to achieve a win through resistance. The problem, however, was that the precedent of pugilistic “my way or the highway” civil society approaches, triggered subsequent reactions by public officials. More powerful political incumbents had very limited incentives to follow through on commitments and punished both CSOs and opposition MPs for their perceived betrayal. In another project in Malawi, a political economy analysis ​​in UNICEF’s Social Accountability for Every Woman Every Child concluded that it was preferable to maintain parallel accountability structures while external funds were available, and the fact that ‘scalability and sustainability was tenuous’ was of less concern than civil society’s independence. As long as an external donor is prepared to fund it, who cares about scale and sustainability, right?

None of these approaches are prioritised when the key of the scale story is to support a state that acts based on evidence, such as when donors have invested in or encouraged large-scale replication of RCTs led by prestigious international researchers with the hope that the results would help them make the case for scale up.

What does it take?

In this post, we presented four priority enabling and constraining features which may help stakeholders to navigate pathways to scale: identity, connectors, incentives of incumbents who are targeted to adopt change and the state and experience of state society relationships.

We also argued that failing to unpack the different meanings attached to these priority contextual factors not only may lead to inappropriate choices for the available opportunities and constraints, but it contributes to a decision-making environment in which colleagues are talking past each other under the guise of apparent agreements. Failing to reflect on our assumptions will only lead to more dialogues of the deaf. It’s not an easy task, and we still have much more to discover.

In the next post, we’ll take a look at how we can better evidence pathways to scale and discuss the challenges of doing so.

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