By Blair Read
As scholars and practitioners of social accountability (SAcc), we are aware that failure to govern accountably is a political problem. Interacting with, and learning from SAcc is inherently political, and local power holders have various political arrangements that extend beyond the design of nominally accountable institutions. While some institutions may be accountable on paper, discrimination against particular societal groups may diminish the accountability mechanisms for some citizens, but not for others.
In particular, when studying political institutions, we should examine how different citizens have varying levels of success holding political institutions and elite actors accountable. In other words, how might the identity of citizens affect the accountability of a particular institution? In partnership with CARE Bangladesh and through their GPSA-supported JATRA project, we are studying a citizen’s identity dictates his or her interaction with the accountability mechanisms of a political institution. Which power structures, citizen identities, and social arrangements allow social accountability mechanisms to function as intended?
JATRA is a social accountability project that aims to increase participation in and the effectiveness of Bangladesh’s open budget meetings. Under the Union Parishad Act of 2009, each ward in Bangladesh is required to hold annual budget meetings where citizens can articulate specific items that they would like included in the budget. Local politicians then finalize the budget, assumingly incorporating into it their constituents’ demands.
One goal of this project is to raise participation among women. In recent years, women’s community participation has increased, due to both NGO efforts to mobilize women, and changes in employment opportunities. In particular, as more men take jobs outside of the community, and migrate seasonally for work, there is more political and economic space for women to participate in their communities. This is not to say that women only have the right to participate in local politics when the men are absent; rather, Bangladeshi women typically have the right to participate, but migration patterns create more opportunities for participation because they create a power vacuum. CARE Bangladesh is seeking to leverage this change by incorporating more women into participatory government processes. Thus, this project seeks not only to utilize the open budget laws to make the government more accountable to its citizens’ fiscal demands, but also to broaden the base of citizens that participate in government processes.
However, one could easily see where this could go awry—if an external intervention encourages women’s participation but does not also work to change the attitudes of political leaders, having women actively push for certain government services might reduce the likelihood of a government providing those goods and services. If the change in the “who participates” aspect is a function of economic necessity, it may precede a change in “who should participate,” as this could precipitate a backlash against broadening the basis of political participation. Although women now have the space to attend community meetings, local leaders may not yet be willing to listen to and consider the demands raised by women.
This past March, CARE Bangladesh oversaw the first round of budget meetings under JATRA. During these meetings, CARE helped local leaders develop a list of budget requests, and help facilitate effective organization of the open budget meetings. We then sought to randomize who articulated the demand—a male or female member of the community. Furthermore, some individuals articulated their demand in ways that were in accordance with gender norms, and others in ways that defied gender norms. For example, when women made demands that endorsed gender norms, they framed their requests in terms of their role as a mother and caretaker to the community. When they made demands that defied gender norms, they framed their request in terms of wage opportunities. These findings —which should be available by the end of the summer— will help us understand if and when local officials consider the socio-political identity of the individual demanding a particular budget item when crafting the budget.
Our research is based on literature on how identity-based biases affect service provision; in this case, how gender and gender expectations affect delivery of budget items and the efficacy of accountable government institutions. Spanning continents and contexts, research has illustrated that Chinese local officials are less likely to respond to requests for information that ostensibly come from Muslim individuals; while black American citizens are less likely to receive official responses for requests related to voter registration; black American job-seekers are less likely to get interviews than comparable white candidates. Projects should then incorporate this dimension into their design; researchers should seek to identify when and how these biases play out in the field, while practitioners should be sure to incorporate requisite awareness-building and attitude-changing campaigns into SAcc projects.
In conclusion, when designing social accountability projects, we must be aware that the conditions under which institutions are accountable may vary between populations. When there is an institutional mechanism in place to increase levels of accountability, such as open budget meetings, we need to understand if this mechanism is susceptible to biases on the part of government officials, thus making accountability attainable for some citizens, but not for others. Before encouraging participation in open governance and SAcc, we must first explore the possible effects of such participation on public goods provision and governance efficacy. This is certainly not to say that we should limit participation in social accountability institutions so that only the power-holders in a society are able to participate. Rather, we must be aware of and able to identify differentiated effects of social accountability, fully understanding the context and power relationships between citizens of varying socio-political identities and the elite actors in a political sphere. Only by understanding the role of identities in social accountability can we increase the effectiveness of participation by historically excluded groups, and try to change political and social biases towards members of the communities in which we work.
 Greg Distelhost and Yue Hou, “Ingroup Bias in Official Behavior: A National Field Experiment in China,” Quarterly Journal of Political Science, 2014, 9: 203-230.
 Daniel Butler and David Brookman, “Do Politicians Racially Discriminate Against Constituents? A Field Experiment on State Legislators,” American Journal of Political Science 2013, 55 (3): 463-477.
 Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, “Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A field experiment on labor market discrimination. No. w9873. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2003.
About the Author
Blair Read is currently working as a field research associate for MIT’s GOV/LAB initiative. A graduate of Tufts University, she has conducted fieldwork in Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Tanzania, and will be pursuing a PhD in Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, beginning in the fall of 2016. Her research interests include local government institutions, informal political and social networks, and citizen/bureaucratic relations.