News from the initiative

Transparency and Accountability for real social change – Where do we go next?

12/03/2013

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Transparency & Accountability Initiative Director, Vanessa Herringshaw looks at the accomplishments of the transparency & accountability field and asks, where now from here?  This blog links to a workshop T/AI is hosting in New York on 13-14 March.   

Over two days, donors, civil society representatives, academics and development specialists will convene to reflect on progress made in the transparency & accountability field as a whole.  Discussions will surface where our efforts have been transformational, and where we have fallen short of our ambitions.  We’ll review how the field has shifted and how we can keep pace with the changes.  And looking to the future, we hope to identify priorities for collective action to help advance the transparency & accountability agenda. 

Please click here for more details about the workshop.  Please note that participation is by invitation only but you can follow the conversations on twitter: @TAInitiative & #TAFuture.  Discussions will also be captured and shared on this site post-event.  

Transparency and Accountability for real social change – Where do we go next?

If you have any kind of social aim – be it rights, services, development, sustainability – chances are you’ll soon find that two basic things are needed to achieve any kind of structural change. Firstly, access to information about what is really happening (transparency).  Secondly and most crucially, ways to hold decision-makers, especially the powerful ones, to account for what they do (accountability).

That’s how I got into the ‘Transparency and Accountability’ area.  Ten years ago I found myself in rural Nepal working with district health staff and local communities all battling to reduce child mortality. But we couldn’t get any information on where the drugs were actually disappearing to. And though management responsibility lay at the regional and national levels, we didn’t know how to hold the powerful to account for the mismanagement and corruption.  I’d go on to find these same information and accountability gaps again and again – emergency relief in Bangladesh, education support in Ethiopia, oil management in Nigeria, child protection in the UK…

My own examples are mirrored in the frustrations millions experience, and they cut across the ‘developing and developed world’, across sectors, across groups.

But the good news is this shared agenda is gaining ground.  In the last decade we have witnessed an explosion in levels of protest, action and funding, all aimed at increasing transparency and stepping up real accountability.

All of this is driven by people asking powerful questions: “Where is my money going?  My government’s budget, my taxes, revenues from the oil under my ground?  How can I make my voice heard in decisions that really affect me? How can I stop impunity for those above the rule of law?”

And these people are increasingly demanding powerful answers. On the ground, citizens are marching against corruption and pushing for real and constructive engagement with governments and corporates.  At the regional and international level, there are new laws and standards (against financial secrecy for banks and extractive companies for instance) and new initiatives to galvanise global action (such as the Open Government Partnership).

This Transparency and Accountability movement (T/A) has grown into a big, complex and dynamic field.  In 2010, the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (T/AI) was created to support action and learning across that field, in particular to link actors and issues, and increase shared thinking across sectors, groups and countries.

With so much activity going on, T/AI and its founders feel it’s an opportune time for the field to take stock of progress and ask ourselves some powerful questions: What as a field are we doing that’s working and what is not?  How has the field shifted? How are we learning from our experiences?  What are some key priorities for joint action over the next three years?

We’re convening a meeting on March 13-14 with key thinkers, activists and funders in the field.  T/AI is hosting the convening but the conversations are relevant for the field as a whole.

One of the burning issues we’ll explore starts from the bottom up: given the sheer complexity of all the factors needed to get tangible change on just one problem in one place, how do we line up work and support so there no there’s no break in the chain?  Going back to my child mortality challenge in Nepal – if I know that to get real change, I need to change citizens’ expectations about their leaders, improve information openness, and change the incentives that determine whether health managers and politician want to listen to citizens, how can I get such ‘joined up’ work across the whole T/A ‘ecosystem’?  Am I wasting my time if I work on only one area and there remain breaks in the chain?

The meeting will also centre on learning.  As this field enters its third decade, we’re increasingly asking how, when and where we can have impact, and how can we come together to apply our learning in the work we do.

Another key area will focus on the role of international initiatives.  What do we know about the impacts of initiatives like the Open Government Partnership?  Do governments treat them as a PR exercise or are there ways to support and leverage them for real impact?

Finally, as web and mobile technologies increasingly permeate all corners of the globe, how are T/A activists, governments and communities strategically harnessing the full potential of these new tools, whilst recognising the limitations and new dangers these can also bring?

The meeting in March is only the start and unfortunately we can’t get all key people in the same room at the same time. T/AI will summarise and share the discussions through a series of blogs on our and our partners’ sites after the meeting.  We’ll also capture and share out learnings through public webinars through our T/A Impact and Learning Community of Practice.

We invite all voices to weigh in on these questions as we move into our next phase.  As a field, we should never stop asking where do we go next!

Vanessa Herringshaw, Transparency & Accountability Initiative Director

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