By Isatou Batonon, E-learning course participant
Organizations working on large-scale and complex recovery programs in post-conflict contexts tend to latch on to the tangible and the predictable whenever they can. This has been International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) experience implementing the Tuungane program in eastern Democratic Republic (DR) Congo, one of the largest community-driven reconstruction programs in the world. The UK government-funded program empowers communities by giving them greater voice and control over their own development and the ability to hold local government and service providers accountable for the provision of basic services (health, education, water and sanitation, transport), using social accountability (SAcc) approaches like the community scorecard. Since 2007, it has reached more than 2.25 million people in over 1,900 communities.
When the community scorecard process was introduced in 2011, the program’s approach was tool-based, prescriptive and focused almost exclusively on the demand side –a classic tactical approach to SAcc. This was, to some extent, driven by our operation’s scale and the inevitable tension between ensuring that our staff of over 400 was able to implement consistently across all sites and the need to adopt a more contextually adaptive approach in individual sites. Through experience gained, the current focus on fewer communities and a better understanding of what a strategic approach is and what it can achieve, we have begun to transition the program towards a more politically aware approach. Now, we devote greater attention to supply-side actors and institutions, better align the scorecard with pre-existing local decision-making spaces and make efforts to engage a wider range of stakeholders that can support state responsiveness to citizen voice.
The program’s evolution has been influenced by a number of socio-political factors. These include poor state-society relationships, characterized by an absent culture of accountability to citizens and a lack of trust in state-run services, all of which stems from years of conflict, state predation and poor service delivery. Low education levels and socio-cultural norms constraining civic participation impact our SAcc efforts. Hence, ensuring meaningful citizen engagement, particular of women and vulnerable groups, is an ongoing challenge, which has both internal and external dimensions. Attitudes among some national program staff reflect the same biases regarding gender norms, the participation of minority groups and citizen engagement with the state as can be found in the communities we serve . The use of ‘Champions of Change’, a small team of experienced staff deployed across program sites to support, challenge these attitudes and reinforce their colleagues’ facilitation skills, was an effective strategy adopted by the program to tackle this reality. However, as is often the case with many deep-rooted norms, attempts to shift attitudes have been rewarding, yet humbling. For example, the program has had success in supporting the emergence and influence of women in leadership positions who already demonstrate a degree of empowerment (widows and divorcees who are not subjugated by their partners, those who have been to school and/or whose status in the community is established). Nonetheless, we still struggle to encourage participation of less empowered women.
In a context of limited technical capacity and local revenue from state agents, political will at the local level, is not always enough to drive through reforms. Over time, we have developed a keener understanding of our context realities and have identified strategies for stimulating change within existing frameworks. Some examples include program efforts to revitalize mandated citizen participation structures such as school and health development committees, which are often dormant or co-opted. By supporting these committees’ elections and providing members with training and mentoring so they can facilitate the community scorecard process, they have been able to strengthen their role in the management of local schools and health clinics, particularly regarding budgeting and expenditure tracking. In Tuungane, like in many other programs using community scorecard approaches, the main output of the exercise is the development of an action plan called a joint service improvement plan (JSIP). However, rarely do such programs include financial resources to support the implementation of these plans, which may limit opportunities to stimulate citizen trust and constructive engagement with duty bearers. By injecting targeted resources to implement the JSIP, Tuungane has been able to support learning-by-doing, strengthen investment in the SAcc process by both community members and frontline service providers and build trust, while providing concrete and tangible outcomes for citizens.
As the program enters its final phase, we are trying to broaden the range of stakeholders with which it interacts to go beyond those with an immediate stake in improving local service delivery (service users, user committee members and frontline service providers), towards actors that, while outside the local service delivery space, have significant influence over it. They include faith-based organizations implementing service delivery functions of the state, NGOs and CSO networks some of which play a watchdog role vis-à-vis the state, district and provincial ministry staff, as well as local government officials. The challenge ahead is to ensure that we have a strong understanding of the interests and incentives of all these stakeholders, and that we are able to meaningfully engage them in SAcc processes being supported by the program, such that they become better proponents of SAcc and advocates for the communities they serve.
While the environment in which we implement the Tuungane program remains complex, our experience has shown that, through better understanding of the challenges and opportunities for greater citizen and stakeholder engagement and a stronger investment in our national staff, it is possible to adopt a more strategic approach to SAcc; one that holds the promise of producing better outcomes for those with the greatest stake in these processes, citizens themselves.
You can read more about IRC’s SAcc experience in DR Congo by going to the following web page: http://www.rescue.org/resource-file/irc-briefing-paper-local-accountability-service-delivery-may-2014
 Tuungane means “Let’s unite” in the local Kiswahili language.
 Tactical social accountability approaches tend to be focused on the use of specific tools, prioritize investments on the demand-side and rely heavily on information as a means of stimulating collective action. See Fox, J. 2014. Social Accountability: What does the evidence really say? Global Partnership for Social Accountability, Working Paper No. 1, available here.
 A review of the mixed evidence to date on social accountability suggests that strategic approaches (those that make use of multiple and coordinated strategies, that create an enabling environment for collective action and that coordinate efforts to mobilize civic voice with those aimed at bolstering public sector responsiveness) are more successful than tactical approaches in terms of producing evidence of impact. See Fox, J. 2014. Social Accountability: What does the evidence really say? Global Partnership for Social Accountability, Working Paper No. 1, available here.
Governance Technical Advisor, Governance & Rights Technical Unit, International Rescue Committee
Isatou is a Governance Technical Advisor with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a non-profit organization that responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises and helps people to survive and rebuild their lives. She supports a number of conflict-affected countries in Africa to design and implement effective governance programs, with a particular focus on social accountability and participatory governance initiatives. Prior to joining the Governance & Rights Technical Unit she occupied field positions with the IRC in DR Congo and Burundi and has also worked for a variety of international NGOs including Handicap International in Gabon and International Service in Burkina Faso. Originally from The Gambia, she is currently based in Nairobi, Kenya. She holds a Master’s Degree in Public Health from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in the US.
Isatou participated to the GPSA Knowledge Platform E-learning course on Fostering Strategic Social Accountability and completed the course among the most dedicated participants.