A Close Encounter with Global Social Accountability: Reflections on the Global Partners Forum 2017

By Francis Isaac, Government Watch (G-Watch) 

Growing up in a typical urban slum, I never thought that I would ever lay eyes on the World Bank Headquarters in Washington, DC. But there I was, standing before this massive infrastructure, dwarfed by its rectangular glass windows and passive concrete walls. Passing through a small revolving door, I soon found myself in a spacious square atrium, sheltered beneath a 46-meter high ceiling made up of numerous glass panels and interlocking metal bands.

After showing my passport to one of the security staff, I was ushered into a large conference hall that was bathed in ambient light. For three successive days, the building’s auditorium served as the venue of the Global Partners Forum—an annual gathering of government officials, civil society leaders and Bank professionals to discuss a range of issues all related to social accountability. First held in 2014, the Forum is organized by the Global Partnership for Social Accountability (GPSA), which is a program of the World Bank that aims to narrow the gap between governments and citizens through constructive engagement.

Shared Analyses

Though sceptical at first, I quickly realized that the ideas of most of the speakers were closely analogous to my own. Not only did the presenters emphasize the importance of better governance, but they also saw the need for greater civic engagement in major political processes. This was clearly underscored by GPSA’s Program Manager Jeff Thindwa who said that the goal of the Partnership is to “co-design a vision of open, inclusive and responsive societies.” A similar point was also made by Sanjay Pradhan, CEO of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), noting that, “civic space is essential for development effectiveness.”

The Forum also underscored the contested nature of the accountability terrain, which is shaped by power and by the interaction of various forces and interests. This prompted Thuli Madonsela (who helped draft South Africa’s post-apartheid Constitution) to declare that, “the poverty that we experience today is the unintended consequence of good policies that do not take into account existing inequalities.” Her insight is also reflected in the Bank’s World Development Report 2017, which asserts that poverty and underdevelopment are due to deep-seated power asymmetries that are manifested through (1) exclusion, (2) state capture, and (3) clientelism.

In addition, the GPSA Forum provided a more nuanced approach to “civic tech,” refuting earlier assumptions that the spread of online tools would automatically compel governments to become more open, accessible and responsive. Suneeta Kaimal of the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI) pointed this out by insisting that, “technology (alone) cannot overturn repressive political norms.” Joy Aceron of Government Watch (G-Watch), on the other hand, extended the argument even further, stating that tech solutions that have the most impact on social accountability are those that are able to facilitate collective action.

Bearing all these in mind, I have identified three important takeaways from the Global Partners Forum:

  • First, that civic engagement is needed in the attainment of development goals.
  • Second, that accountability work is enmeshed in complex power relations.
  • And third, that technology can bolster accountability if it enables collective action.

Concerns Moving Forward

But in spite of the rich discourse that the Forum had generated, one concern is how much influence does the GPSA has within the World Bank itself. For instance, while World Bank President Jim Yong Kim delivered a pre-recorded video Address, he did not personally take part in any of the sessions, even though the Forum was held in the very same building where his office is located.

Equally troubling is the apparent disconnect between the analyses of the GPSA with its proposed solutions. During the Forum, for example, a number of speakers pointed out that the present global context is marked by the shrinking of civic space and by the diminishing trust of people in their governments. Though agreeing with these observations, there has been no apparent significant shift in the Program’s overall thrust of pursuing constructive engagement. If this is so, then the GPSA (in all likelihood) will continue to assist their partner-governments—even those that have very low trust among citizens because of their incessant assault on civic spaces.

Of course, the potential of GPSA should not be discounted; but it would have to address these challenges sooner rather than later. And it would have to do so with the help of its allies in civil society. For only then will it become truly relevant for poor people around the world who never imagined ever laying eyes on the World Bank building, let alone entering its premises.