Knowledge Repository

Power to the people?: Learning from the case of Citizen Voice and Action

Bill Walker

Publisher: Monash University


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 improved.

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.

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