Accountability Innovations We Love, No.3: “Venture Accountability”

Traditional aid models and organizations have often not managed to precipitate sustainable development, nor do they always have the incentives in place to report failure or adapt rapidly when plans go wrong. As a result, failing projects continue and results remain sub-optimal. One approach we have adopted at the Accountability Lab is to understand that in difficult contexts, the definition of success (or more accurately- progress) must be slightly different. Taking risks with new and more innovative tools may lead to problems and blockages more often, but it also creates the possibility for transformative change. “Failure” is also an important learning tool which should be embraced, and can be used to refine and modify ideas going forwards.

This is something that the excellent Open Society Foundations realized quite some time ago, and have been putting into practice through a Government Accountability Fund, for example- which supports public participation in, and oversight of, governmental activity at both the national and local levels. More recently in Pakistan, USAID has put in place a similar structure through its Citizens Voice Project, which identifies innovative models for strengthening public accountability.

DfID is now taking this model one step further towards “venture accountability” through support for the Chukua Hatua (‘Take Action’ in Swahili) initiative as part of its Accountability in Tanzania (ACT) program. As outlined on a useful World Bank blog here, the program essentially adopts a venture capital approach to accountability projects- through the provision of funding, measurement of success against agreed criteria, and cancellation of projects that do not meet standards.

The program supported a variety of approaches in the first round including efforts to track election promises, build student councils in schools and develop community radio. An emphasis has also been placed on learning what has not worked and what lessons can be internalized for the next phase of the initiative- particularly in terms of power dynamics and local relationships.

Use of the “evolutionary theory of change” as Duncan Green of Oxfam points out here, is having some really useful effects in practice. In one instance, Chukua Hatua facilitated student council elections which in turn precipitated dialogue and action with school management committees on issues affecting schools. In another, villagers complained about money owed by a local gold mine. A parliamentary committee was set up to investigate and a trust- connected to a village bank account- was put in place and publicized to ensure proper compensation.

With social innovation and social enterprise funds proliferating, it was perhaps only a matter of time before elements of the same approach were adapted more specifically to issues of accountability. Care needs to be taken in terms of design, however, to avoid the pitfalls that donors have fallen into in the past: How can we ensure that large amounts of funding through these structures does not lead to a supply-driven outcomes and distorted incentives for civil society? How best can we put in place clear and objective criteria for selection, success and failure? In what ways can we build the relevant relationships to facilitate implementation and sustainability? The model as a whole seems ripe for replication across even the most difficult contexts, however, if it can be designed appropriately. That’s why “venture accountability” is an accountability innovation we love!

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Making power-holders accountable in the developing world

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