Power to the people?: Learning from the case of Citizen Voice and Action
Failures in essential public services persist where citizens
cannot influence layers of policy decision-making and implementation needed for
functioning services. Resigned to low policy influence, citizens disengage.
Disengagement enables politicians and service providers to neglect core duties
to fund and provide acceptable services. Repeated cycles of these processes
destroy constructive relationships and expectations essential for mutual
accountability, eventually producing accountability traps. To advance our
understanding of these real-world traps, this thesis investigates instances of
such traps in health and education systems in rural Uganda, using the case of
Citizen Voice and Action (CV&A), a social accountability intervention
introduced by World Vision. It studies circumstances under which such
interventions empower citizens to improve public primary health and education
systems in low- and middle-income countries, and asks how CV&A can be
By explaining which capabilities enable citizens to contest
and collaborate with various duty-bearing agents in collective action conducive
to accountability, the thesis bridges competing normative theories of
accountability. These theories emphasize the expected relationships between
actors and the collective action these relationships should produce. Using
evidence from diverse low-accountability settings from eleven other countries
where CV&A is practiced, the thesis also geographically generalizes and
broadens findings beyond rural Uganda.
It concludes that embodying diverse forms of knowledge
empowers citizens to increase accountability. Freedoms to contest knowledge
arise by subjecting each other to local law, sharing awareness of policy gaps
and mobilizing inclusively. When marginalized groups are free to mobilize each
other, set their own agendas, vote, diagnose public-system performance and
systematize knowledge they generate, in dialogue with duty-bearers and other
mediating agents, they can socially enforce accountability, locally and beyond.
Learning about policy gaps increases shared confidence, political will and
action to democratically resolve policy failures. Actionable knowledge
catalyzed and systematized by dialogue and feedback sustains cycles of
collective action. Collaboration between citizens and allied intermediaries
extends emancipatory knowledge-generating processes beyond local communities.
Together, they advocate to change policies, and the rules by which policies are
decided and implemented. Improving practice requires understanding what causes
low accountability, appropriating context-sensitive cultural capabilities,
civic education which mobilizes marginalized groups, flexible longer-term
funding and adaptive programming.