By Matt Hagler, E-learning course participant
“Politics is about the structures, institutions and operation of power and how it is used in the competition, conflict and deliberation over ideas, interests, values and preferences.” Indeed, politics is the business of power and being preoccupied with the division of that power. Social Accountability (SAcc) practitioners must remain aware that the goal of intervention is to re-articulate existing balances of power within particular socio-economic contexts. Absent this re-articulation, intervention is of little value. SAcc efforts must carefully scrutinize and consider the entire scope under which agents operate in order to understand the incentives that drive them. Without a precise analysis of agency and context, practitioners remain unable to wed the needs of marginalized groups with the interests of governments, spelling failure for the “strategic” approach to SAcc which requires both “voice” and “teeth” to succeed.
Ultimately, SAcc measures are dependent on the inclusion of government, which will remain elusive without discerning “how the structures and institutions of power shape how agents behave” in order to determine where government interest and citizen need intersect. This article intends to analyze the purpose and usefulness of utilizing a strategic approach to SAcc in Mongolia’s education sector.
Mongolia is located in East Asia and is the second largest landlocked country in the world, bordered by Russia to the north and China to the south. It is also the least densely populated country in the world with a population of about three million people, nearly half of which live in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Mongolia only gained independence and established a constitution in 1992, after 68 years as a Soviet satellite state. Since then, the country has been in the process of transitioning to a market based economy and has experienced a meteoric rise in its GDP with the recent exploitation of its vast mineral wealth.
In the education sector, Mongolia boasts some favorable statistics such as its 90% net enrolment rate and a roughly 95% literacy rate. However, with an expected increase of school-aged children within the next few years, the Ministry of Education faces an increasingly difficult task in making education more accessible, especially to the rural nomadic population. Additionally, there is a lack of basic teaching materials and textbooks, internet access, qualified teachers, parental involvement and many school facilities and dormitories are of low quality, overcrowded and not sufficiently heated during the extreme winters. Also of important concern is the challenge posed by corruption in the education sector. Few mechanisms exist to hold officials and decision makers accountable and there is little dialogue between service providers and local citizens. Hence, the need to implement SAcc projects to improve accountability and transparency in the education sector, while also fostering communication between stakeholders. The project I am currently working on, Transparency and Accountability in Mongolian Education (TAME), seeks to improve the quality of education, increase accountability and oversight by monitoring education funds, involve citizens in the budgeting process and establish a national Parents Teacher Association (PTA) system.
However, a serious challenge to implementing SAcc measures in Mongolia is determining the incentives of its political actors as various forces influence their behaviour, such as political dependence on mining for economic stability, the government operating behind closed doors and the standard practice of nepotism. The incentive structure encourages citizens and politicians alike to act according to self-interest rather than public good, a process not obvious to the outside observer. Furthermore, dissimilar motivations amongst actors divide would-be coalitions along difficult to decipher political lines.
Citizen engagement in Mongolia requires detailing formal and informal processes in order to build enduring coalitions. Citizens are often indifferent due to a lack of information and awareness of other modes of action and there are few institutionalized spaces for citizen participation in formulating policy. The internal problems posed in citizen engagement include offering actionable information and presenting problems as heterogeneous to build inclusive coalitions. Mongolians must undergo the “construction of citizenship” experientially through interface with decision makers in order to “hold the state to account and to exercise their responsibilities effectively.”. Furthermore, this contact must prove beneficial as false starts could negatively impact citizen outlook on SAcc processes.
The strategic approach to SAcc is, then, key to consider in our project’s planning, implementation and advocacy. Due to Mongolia’s complicated network of actors, carefully delineating key, secondary and primary stakeholders is vital to ensuring success in improving education in Mongolia through SAcc initiatives. Key actors currently include the Ministry of Education and Science, the Ministry of Finance, provincial governors and school directors. These stakeholders hold the power necessary to advance or block the project’s goals of monitoring education funds, involving citizens in the budgeting process and establishing a PTA network. Additionally, Mongolia maintains a top-down approach in managing its institutions, hindering the development of effective feedback mechanisms and stifling communication between respective ministries. This creates friction between ministries as they compete for power at the expense of public good and makes their behavior more erratic and unpredictable. Here, it is important to think like a stakeholder in order to engineer a plan that is “technically feasible, politically acceptable and that advances the common good.” Satisfying key stakeholders while refusing to compromise project goals is the political art. Clearly stating the role of each stakeholder within the project and knowing the specific reasons for engaging those stakeholders will be decisive in managing their separate interests.
Ultimately, SAcc initiatives aim to re-articulate the balance of power to create public good. As we have been doing with the TAME project, SAcc practitioners must realize that stakeholders and agents do not operate “in a limitless, structureless and institution-free plane of open possibilities,” and, accordingly, those practitioners must strive to have an acute understanding of the “structure-agency” framework that determines the distribution and pursuit of power. Only through that understanding can strategic SAcc initiatives achieve success. Thus, the need to make an effort to incorporate a strategic approach to SAcc from the beginning of each project.
 David Hudson and Adrian Leftwich, From Political Economy to Political Analysis, (Development Leadership program, 2014), p. 5.
 Johnathan Fox, Social Accountability: What Does the Evidence Really Say?, (GPSA, 2014), p. 8.
 Hudson and Leftwich, From Political Economy, p. 7.
 John Gaventa and Gregory Barrett, So What Difference Does it Make? Mapping the Outcomes of Citizen Engagement, (Institute of Development Studies, 2010), p. 27.
 John Bryson, What To Do When Stakeholders Matter; Stakeholder Identification and Analysis Techniques, (Routledge, 2004), p. 1.
 Hudson and Leftwich, From Political Economy, p. 10.
Project Coordinator, Globe International Center (GIC) NGO, Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia
Matt is currently the project coordinator at GIC. He first arrived in Mongolia in June 2011 as a Peace Corps volunteer to serve for two years in the rural countryside as an English teacher and community development program assistant. He has worked at GIC since 2013, handling communication with international partners on a range of issues, developing project proposals and conducting cross-country comparative analyses for the World Bank GPSA project. GIC is one of the most experienced NGOs in Mongolia, founded in 1999 with the mission to sustain Mongolian democracy and civil society through the dissemination of information. GIC has played a key role in passing laws supporting Public Radio and Television, Information Transparency and the Right to Information. Matt holds a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of North Florida in English Literature with a concentration in Foreign Affairs.
Matt participated to the GPSA Knowledge Platform E-learning course on Fostering Strategic Social Accountability and completed the course among the most dedicated participants.