Achieving development results - and openly accounting for them - must be at the heart of all we do.
- Accra Agenda for Action on Development Effectiveness, September 2008
The development system knows that it will fail unless it makes dramatic advances in accountability. Making developing country governments more accountable to their citizens, making international aid providers more accountable to those meant to benefit from it - these are central components of current attempts to make aid more effective. Those providing development assistance, those arguing for more of it and, to an extent, those countries receiving it, know that the system cannot sustain itself unless it is held to proper account.
There are a slew of new accountability initiatives designed to transform principle into reality. There are those aimed at governments, such as numerous budget monitoring initiatives, designed to enable citizens to understand what public money is being spent on what services with what expected benefit to them; and similar access to information movements, campaigning for laws enabling citizens to find out better how governments spend money on their account.
And there are excellent and innovative research efforts such as the Citizenship, Participation and Accountability Development Research Centre. Add to that the many new national and local initiatives, many of them featured on the Communication Initiative site.
For some of us who have been involved in development for a long time, these are really fresh and exciting initiatives conceived and run by seriously smart people. The calibre of brains and the wealth of imagination being applied to solving development challenges seem to me to improve month by month, year by year. There are, however, big challenges in getting all these efforts designed to publish more and better information to improve government and donor policy to work.
One of the greatest is that while there is a steady expansion in the supply of information - statistics, budget data, policy explanation, and so on - it is not clear that there is a corresponding increase in demand for it. There are many stories of access to information movements, and compelling examples of citizens using budget and other information to expose corruption and improve service delivery. Nevertheless, these efforts fundamentally depend on increased hunger for such information from citizens and from those - such as the media - who inform them.
I think there are two main challenges in generating such demand.
The first is that, historically, this is a vast unprecedented experiment. Political accountability has over the centuries generally been demand, not supply driven. The principal driver for accountability has been the need for states to tax their citizens, initially to provide them with security and defence, and later to meet education, health and other needs. "No taxation without representation" has been the rallying cry for democrats throughout modern history. The iconic document of democratic accountability in my own country, the Magna Carta, was in essence a demand from barons (warlords in current speak) for greater accountability from their King if they were to continue to fund his wars. If citizens are to see their governments take and spend their money, they have demanded to see how that money is being spent and insisted they have a say in how much of it is taken.
This is not the case with development assistance. In development assistance, the accountability mechanism has nearly always been in another direction - for donors to justify to their own citizens how they are spending their money, not to those the money is designed to benefit. There is currently a concerted international development effort to change that dynamic, to do something new.
Last year, nearly all bilateral and multilateral donors came to an agreement with nearly all developing countries that they would use a clear framework about how aid would be organised. At the core of the Accra Agenda for Action on Aid Effectiveness was a new deal on accountability. It recognised that aid would never be effective unless the accountability relationship is a two way one - from aid supplier (government or donor) to beneficiary as well as beneficiary to aid supplier.
Which is a long way of saying that current efforts to ensure that aid is accountable to beneficiaries, not just to the donor, are new, and that these new mechanisms had better work or it's unlikely that the aid system will be sustainable.
The second big problem is that the beneficiaries of development assistance have special problems in demanding accountability for the obvious reason that they are time and resource poor. These problems have been recognised by development practitioners over many years - a lack of voice, their political as well as economic marginalisation, their fundamental lack of power. Providing more information on measures that are designed to benefit them is explicitly designed to overcome some of these barriers. If an education ministry has allocated a district so many thousands of dollars for schools, and people know what that figure is, they can organise to demand how it is being spent. This is happening more and more.
But in reality much of the information is available in forms that people cannot easily make sense of and use. A blizzard of statistics, legalistic and jargonistic government documents, and spreadsheets are not necessarily going to be very useful to people who may not only be time and resource poor, but may not have the skills to interpret data developed for very different audiences. This is another key reason why while there may be an increasing supply of this information, there may not be a corresponding demand for it.
So who is actually going to make sense of this information in ways that create public accountability? Many institutions, including the World Bank, are working to address these problems strategically, sometimes with a heavy emphasis on communication.
It is the media, however, who might logically be expected to be central actors in this effort. The job of a journalist is to find disparate, often complex information and present it in forms that publics can make sense of. Journalists both meet and generate demand for information, and when done well, some of the best journalism provides information people didn't know they needed.
There is an increasingly sophisticated international accountability movement determined to ensure that development money is being used in ways it is intended. An independent media that sees its task as speaking truth to power and holding authority to account might be expected to be a central component of this international accountability movement. Investigative journalism and the increased provision of information and data on how public money is being spent should be a marriage made in heaven.
There are examples where media has been a significant component of budget monitoring and other accountability initiatives. In general, though, my sense is that the marriage has yet to be consummated and the romance is an uncomfortable one. There will be many reasons for this but let me suggest just three.
The first is that internationally media organisations, and those that support them, have difficulty in joining civil society networks. Such networks - which have become astonishingly effective and sophisticated in recent years - aim to change public policy. Media and media development organisations have different objectives which include reporting, explaining, and debating such efforts. At country level, journalists are often reluctant to team up with civil society or development organisations because they think it compromises their independence. Accountability organisations themselves want to work with the media, but it is often also not clear to them how this can be part of a partnership or a joined up strategy.
The second reason is that investigative journalism itself is in trouble in most countries. In the West, development has rarely been a subject that has attracted the attention of investigative news reporters at the best of times. With a historic economic and technological crisis affecting mainstream media in the West, generally causing major cuts in investigative news budgets, this is the worst of times. In most developing countries, the disincentives to investigative reporting are political (murder, intimidation) and economic (it's rarely attractive to advertisers) and such disincentives tend to be on the increase. Journalism as a profession is poorly paid and generally has a poor status and development stories in particular are not seen as a fast track to promotion or professional prominence. In most developing countries, markets are simply too small to support the kind of investigative journalism that would cover development issues.
Even in the West, media organisations - both traditional and web-based - may become increasingly dependent on philanthropy to finance their investigative journalism efforts. Developing country media have more experience of this kind of public philanthropic subsidy (much training, for example, has been subsidised by donors).
Which leads to the final reason why there is an uncomfortable relationship between accountability efforts and media. Some journalists are, I think, increasingly concerned that the media faces the risk of being engineered by the development sector. Media in developing countries has over recent years been seen by development organisations principally as a conduit for their campaigns and concerns, rather than as an intrinsic component of the democratic fabric of often fragile societies. Is there a risk now that they will be used as proxy evaluators of how development funding is being spent? This function of holding to account how governments and other authorities spend money should be a core journalistic mission, but journalists prefer to identify the subjects of their investigation themselves rather than have external actors do this for them.
More money can be expected to be offered to the media to carry out investigative journalism around development issues. Spending from philanthropic and development organisations on the media can be expected to increase in the future to ensure development aid is well spent. I would argue that such funding is probably necessary to sustain investigative journalism and could have huge advantages for the public interest.
But a balance needs to be carefully struck that ensures that it is the journalist as part of an independent media organisation who determines the subject and parameters of what s/he is investigating rather than the source of the funding. It is, after all, their neck (sometimes literally) that is on the line.
All of these challenges can be overcome. Ultimately, however, the development system could better recognise the importance of the role of media as a fundamental component of the democratic architecture of societies they work in, and that media markets are not providing sufficient incentive for media to play the accountability function they need to. As Professor Paul Collier said last year in relation to the accountability function of elections,
"There is a really good case for public money to go into this effort. Public effort went into spreading elections, and we now recognise that they did not work. Not because they were not the right idea of accountability, but they were not enough. What makes elections work? An informed society. How do we get one? The public good aspects of the media. Is that public good aspect adequately supplied at the moment? No it isn't. Is there money available to supply it? Yes there is. We just need an architecture to match money with need."
I'd argue there needs to be a more coherent strategy that draws on all actors engaged in enhancing accountability of development spending. We don't, however, have an accountability architecture that strategically matches money - or perhaps more accurately policy focus - with need in ways that include a media dimension. We need one.