Reflections on the Global Partnership for Social Accountability Partners Forum Held at the World Bank in Washington D.C – 14th – 15th May 2014

Published By UNNGOF |  May 22, 2014

The Global Forum kicked off very well with full house attendance.  The 22 grantees of the 2014 cycle of funding had just finished 2 days of intensive training and orientation with the GPSA secretariat. Everyone was upbeat, no less the bubbly Roby Senderowitsch, Program Manager of the GPSA.  With the temperatures at 29 Celsius for the first day it was indeed an indication of good things to come in the two days. 

The first day kicked off with a well delivered and motivational opening speech by Sanjay Pradhan, Vice President, Change, Leadership and Innovation at the World Bank who started off by underscoring that the acceleration to reach the poorest of the poor comes from working and using citizen centered strategies and resources that should ensure that development outcomes benefit the public and governments are responsive to citizen demands. 

He outlined four frontiers that would lead to the achievement of this vision and these were; one – that governments should become more transparent and more accessible, second that citizen should be at the center of all policy processes, third that it is not sufficient to make governments only open but increase the capacity of citizens to amplify their voice and ensure that governments are responsive and last was the need to build coalitions.

The session was then followed up with a professorial keynote by Professor Jonathan Fox of the American University, Washington DC.  His keynote was based on an analysis of several evaluations by the World Bank debunking some of the overarching assumptions that we hold in social accountability.  The major one being that information alone leads to change.  He also introduced a fine distinction between a tactical approach and what he termed the strategic approach to social accountability.  His definition being that tactical social accountability is about society side efforts – which I presume is what we refer to as citizen-led efforts and strategic approach being one that focuses on working in collectives and building alliances and influence.  While the presentation was loaded with detailed analysis of several World Bank evaluations, in some ways it came off as a professorial reading of social accountability that delivered well on academic content and may not have spoken to the hearts of the over 120 civil society activists in the room. 

I was looking forward to a keynote that outlined the generational challenge in social accountability and what institutions like the Bank can achieve in the evolving world order where citizen-state relationships are being reconfigured daily – by social movement that point to the fact the enough is a enough with rouge governments and the price for non-accountability governments quite as exemplified by situations in Libya, Tunisia, Syria by conflict or Ukraine and India by changes in government that are unprecedented.  But all those thoughts stayed in my mind when I realized that we were meeting in the underground floor of the World Bank next to an impressive tunnel that links that buildings occupied by the World Bank.

The day then moved on to a plenary discussion were some questions were put to the presenters – my question was about a major concern I had, that it was the first time I had sat in a talk on social accountability and the word ‘power’ did not come up.  Both presenters (Vice President and Professor) went on to make the point that everything that they talked about was about power. Okay.

This was followed up with a two interesting sessions – one was a carrousel format (where facilitators move and participants stay) that was based on three breakout groups that addressed questions like how do we bolster state-citizen synergy? What kinds of transparency lead to accountability and how do public oversight strategies take scale into account? We said many thing but what stayed in my mind were that tips that emerged from the discussed.  These included things like, it is important to have a clear focus when building citizen-state synergy, identification of quick wins is key and trust is important but it needs to be ‘bounded’ trust.  One the last I thought that for me a should be able to trust my government because indeed my I pay for the existence of my government.

We then ‘moved’ on to a session on the Moving from Theory of Change.  The session was quite deep, very insightful and moderated by certainly a very knowledgeable moderator: Helene Grandvoinnet, Lead Specialist, World Bank.  Speakers included Courtney Tolmie, Senior Program Director, Results for Development Institute, Lily Tsai, Associate Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who is also an Advisor to Twaweza in East Africa and Marcio Vasconcelos of Fundación AVINA who hot the knowledge portal of GPSA.  The session did help discuss what is a theory of change and how to functionally utilize the concept.  The questions that followed did say a lot about the limits of theory of change and the answer that came was not comforting also when did indicate that the differences with log frames are not significant although theory of change approach explores more systematically the assumptions of an intervention beyond just creating a logical sequence of activities as in a log frame.

We then went into a lunch was supposed to be eaten with Executive Directors of the Bank but on my table our own Executive Director did not turn up or even offer any apology – talk about accountability.  Coming from a country where absenteeism is an issue we did not take issue with this absenteeism – of course they must have been busy with other things especially the visit by Hillary Clinton was scheduled to speak at the World Bank that same day.  The afternoon sessions kicked off with an interesting group work session that considered how social accountability can thrive in adverse environments.  Well, as we pondered the questions of adversity and in our group we decided to categorize adversities in two different ways – from those related to outright armed conflict to those related to legal and policy constraints.  We then proceeded to discuss the question from both of these perspectives.  We were rudely interrupted by an alarm that told us that there was a practice fire drill that required all of us to vacate the building and stand in the streets around the building for about 15 minutes.  Indeed it was a very good reminder of the different adversities that face the world even in allegedly safe environments.   We proceeded to finish the group work but did not get to present any of our thoughts but the plenary that followed allowed for us to share these thoughts generally in the discussions that followed. We ended the day with a reception in honor of the 22 grantees.

We kicked off the second day with a roundtable focusing on ‘constructive engagement’ (that word!) with panelists from government, donor organization, civil society and private sector.  While the session was interesting and informative it also had a downside.  It seemed as if the GPSA was on the defensive and apologetic about including private sector.  In my submission in plenary I did point out that we should be careful not to apologize for the absence of private sector in CSO spaces because the private sector has been around at the World Bank and even has an institution supporting it like the IFC and they have never recognized civil society as an important actor in its own right – why should we be the ones to be apologetic?

This was followed with an interesting session where we attempted to generate issues that we would raise with the President of the World Bank.  That went well with one of the important emerging issues being – what will be the place and space of social accountability in the new and reformed World Bank.  Many participants were quick to add the question should not be so much framed as one about money but as a question about political support and ensuring that social accountability is mainstreamed.

The session with the President of the World Bank was interesting and in many ways left a sweet and sour test in my mouth.  His opening statement (obviously prepared by the GPSA team) was loaded with very many interesting soundbytes that made it to my 160 character tweets. What was surprising was the Q&A that followed.  He talked about several issues at some point getting very pensive and in a combative mood questioning the interviewer – asking what do mean more than 5 time! The interviewer then started to fidget on some questions bringing an anti-climax to what should have been a great session.  He then went on to throw some pretty hard jabs at civil society when he said that when he looked around the room he saw people with ‘dollar signs in their eyes’ and saying CSOs credibility depended on the impact that CSOs created.  True but the ‘dollar sign’ talk rubbed some of us the wrong way.  In a sense he seemed to be dismissing the whole notion of the GPSA being some kind of IFC-for-CSOs which Robert Zoellick the former President of the World Bank saw it as. 

He then went on to say he was part of civil society for long and in my mind I kept wondering which part he was part of.  His speech did not help me decipher that.  It was also clear from his speech that the ongoing reforms that may affect nearly half the World Bank directors were very much on his mind.  He then made some swipes at Uganda and the Anti-Homosexuality Law saying that the suspension of the Health project was a demonstration that the Bank cannot fund projects that discriminate people. 

I am not sure what kind of political analysis he uses but it seems like the Bank needs some better political economy analysis of this whole issue.  The fact that they fail to see this law as part of a larger scheme of legislation that is chipping away on citizens’ rights is surprising.  He then went off very quickly leaving an atmosphere circulated with all kinds of emotions – but the Bank being a bureaucracy, these were not issues we could discuss in the room but talking to many people in the corridors they were on many people’s minds.

We then closed off the day with interesting group work that focused on some really exciting stuff like; Political Economy Analysis, Citizen Feedback Mechanisms, CSO Accountability, ICT for Transparency, Citizen Engagement and Accountability, Research and Applied Research, Organizational Sustainability, GPSA Operations (Resource Mobilization, Knowledge and Learning, Partnerships).  I went to the political economy group and in the 30 minutes we had it was clear that many people in the group were grappling with how to infuse political economy analysis into their work.  Two organizations were already doing something and had attempted to put a toolkit together and this was exciting.  But the group also noted that political economy analysis is very important to the work that we do as civil society.  This kind of analysis should not be restricted to situational analysis work only but can also be infused in other parts of the project cycle including project monitoring – where obstacles and successes can be analyzed in a manner that understands the incentives and drivers of different actors.  The session ended with a short plenary and a quick closing was conducted.

We all went away with good energy.  It was clear that that there are several opportunities that will emerge in the work that the Bank was doing on social accountability. 

The fact that even the financing of the process allowed the Bank to work with other partners like the Ford Foundation and Open Society did indeed show that these were elements of progress on the part of the Bank.  The networking and building of solidarity that happened over the two days was also something to applaud, the team at GPSA clearly cared about the issues of social accountability but it was also clear that there are limits in terms of what they can do considering they are located at the World Bank. 

The projects that have been financed were all advertised in the corridors and most of them were dealing social accountability governance challenges that focused on improving processes of governments to deliver but not challenging the status quo.  While there were some who thought the grants were too big – (approximately $1 million for 5 years) in actual fact most grantees of them were financed in the range of $0.5 m-$0.8m each for five years which may end up being a small amount if you work with several partners.  Since it is a new way of working and a lot of learning needs to happen we shall continue to give our full support to GPSA since the Bank is taking a bold steps in the right direction.