Why the Need for Accountability Education?

Last February 14, Valentine’s Day, G-Watch had its 3rd Ako, Ikaw, Tayo May Pananagutan (AIM-P) Awareness-Raising Campaign Day with the theme “Kabataan, Pusuan ang Pananagutan.” This year’s campaign focused on engaging young people in accountability conversations, especially officials of Sangguniang Kabataan (Youth Councils).

All over the world, today's youth are leading collective actions to address pressing issues such as social injustice, corruption, abuse and climate change. In the Philippines, participation of the youth is given so much recognition and importance that it has now been institutionalized in every barangay through the SKs. However, SK as an institution needs strengthening and support. G-Watch aims to contribute to this by engaging SKs in accountability work.

(For more on AIM-P backgrounder, see: https://www.g-watch.org/event/ako-ikaw-tayo-may-pananagutan-2020-kabataan-pusuan-ang-pananagutan)

Accountability Checks Power

I attended the Pasig activity that brought together some of the City's SK leaders. I asked them about their understanding of the concept accountability. Almost all of them referred to their accountability as SK officials and individuals.

I noticed this about citizens and officials whenever I ask them about accountability: They turn inward and think of their accountability. This is good because it shows the recognition and awareness of our responsibility, which is especially crucial for government officials.

However, there is very little recognition of prevailing power structure - who holds and wields power, who is more powerful and what are the sources of power. This idea is crucial in accountability because we believe in G-Watch that in a democratic system, accountability and the exercise of power are two sides of the same coin: every exercise of power has corresponding accountability and therefore the more power one has, the bigger should be his/ her accountability.

This idea of holding the powerful accountable, in a way that is aware of prevailing power structure and dynamics, needs to be discussed and internalized in order for it to inform accountability practices. There is a prevailing condition of impunity partly because the powerful have been left unchecked, able to do what they want without people ascribing a corresponding accountability to their power. Such a redirection of focus and target needs a long reorientation because culture could even be a culprit to a more inward-looking view of accountability.

Redirecting Pananagutan to the Powerful

The Filipino word for accountability is pananagutan. It is popularized in a church song:

“Walang sinuman ang nabubuhay para sa sarili lamang....Tayong lahat ay may pananagutan sa isa’t isa.”

It refers to a person’s accountability to the whole, to each one, to God. This is good because it means that for Filipinos, there is a recognition of not living for oneself alone, but for good of all.

However, personalizing accountability, instead of situating it in the exercise of public authority, has the danger of shifting the burden (and the blame) to individuals and citizens. Not grounding accountability on power relationship between people and government, the powerful and the affected, could leave it up to “good leaders” to be accountable for their power, instead of enabling accountability relationships, processes and interactions.

Filipino political culture is also described as patronage-based with strong patron-client ties further imbalanced by the prevalence of political dynasties and warlords. Such culture perpetuates a culture of dependency and disempowerment of people that undermines accountability system, processes and relationships. People are not the ‘boss.’ It is the other way around: people serve those in positions of authority to get services and benefits from the government. This deeply rooted perversion of accountability perpetuates the status quo of inequality and social injustice. Uprooting it demands massive structural change but also changing the hearts and minds of people.

In light of this aspect of Filipino culture, there is a need to redirect the focus of accountability to the powerful, to the exercise of authority, to relationships and interactions of power. Collective re-education and collective action is needed for that.

Role of Accountability Education in Vertical Integration

In its reboot, G-Watch has started to rethink of how it is advancing accountability. By studying campaigns that achieved substantive gains, including one of its own, Textbook Count, G-Watch looks into the accountability strategy called vertical integration (VI): the monitoring and advocacy engagement of civil society at different levels of decision-making using a wide variety of actions involving a broad set of actors to make public policies perform better.

The VI strategy has proven to have enabled powershifts in favor of citizens, civil society and social movements holding the government and the powerful accountable. The case we documented were all purposive, targeting specific policies.

Beyond the common goals and shared agenda, what needs to be additionally pointed out is the underlying principle that bounds the actors in the VI campaigns. The actors were not simply being purposive, they were taking a stand on accountability: what people are entitled to, what is expected from the government (to serve the people and not abuse their authority), that they have the right to demand because public office is public trust. This perspective on accountability foregrounds their actions and those who have this as a conviction are more resilient that they stay to continue to fight beyond any specific goal. In other words, for VI to be both effective and sustainable and to sustain a movement, accountability education is necessary. Accountability education transitions VI from a campaign strategy into a movement approach to accountability.

Post-truths and the Rethinking Project

The movement approach to accountability requires massive collective re-education that reclaims the power of the people to exact accountability from the powerful.

In the age of rising authoritarianism and right-wing politics, we need to rethink, as we reclaim, human rights, democracy, good governance and development. Such rethinking will need a social infrastructure capable of long and sustained conversation and dialogue. In the age of post-truth where fake news weakens the deliberative aspect of democracy, the truth from credible information must be fortified with trust built through broad and fluid collective action premised on identity, solidarity and camaraderie.

Accountability is an indispensable element of a democratic state and the government has to have the means and capacity to hold its officials accountable. Citizens need to remind and pressure the government to do its job, including being accountable to the people. This is not easy to learn because we need to also unlearn how we have been practicing and advancing accountability. Citizens need to influence development policy-making not as subjects and implementers but thinkers and leaders. To do so, people must be enabled to think and lead, not only follow and receive. Educating the people will enable them to reclaim that power to put authority at their proper places in development and accountability work.