Need an overview of the key founding principles of American government? Find it here in this episode from Founding Principles: American Governance in Action, a civics video series produced by Bowdoin College. Through a study of foundational documents like the Federalist Papers (#10, #37, and #85), students learn about the most important principles at the core of American democracy. The episode covers the separation of powers, checks and balances, public participation, public policy, public opinion, political gridlock, the role of status quo, and the difference between a republic and a pure democracy.
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Four key principles—accountability, transparency, participation, and inclusion—have in recent years become nearly universal features of the policy statements and programs of international development organizations. Yet this apparently widespread new consensus is deceptive: behind the ringing declarations lie fundamental fissures over the value and application of these concepts. Understanding and addressing these divisions is crucial to ensuring that the four principles become fully embedded in international development work.
An Incomplete Bridge
- Accountability, transparency, participation, and inclusion represent vital embodiments of the opening to politics that occurred in development work in the 1990s. They bridge three distinct practitioner communities that emerged from this new direction—those focusing on governance, on democracy, and on human rights.
- But consensus remains elusive. Democracy and human rights practitioners generally embrace an explicitly political understanding of the four concepts and fear technocratic or purely instrumentalist approaches. Governance specialists often follow a narrower approach, applying the core principles primarily to the quest for greater public sector effectiveness.
- Aid providers frequently present the four concepts as a unified agenda. Yet in actual programming they may only pursue or prioritize selective parts of the set, engendering tensions among the different principles.
Inconsistencies and Uncertainties
- Shallow practice. Aid organizations often treat the four principles as programmatic boxes to be ticked rather than fundamental elements of their work. Although these concepts evoke potentially transformative notions of citizen empowerment, they risk being reduced in practice to limited forms of citizen consultation or technocratic reforms that rely on simplistic theories of developmental change.
- Debates about the place of the principles. Many aid practitioners remain skeptical of treating accountability, transparency, participation, and inclusion as intrinsic to their conception of development. They worry that broadening the development agenda on normative grounds will dilute the core focus on poverty reduction and growth.
- Questions about impact. Evidence for the developmental impact of the four principles is limited and inconclusive to date. Uncertainty about their instrumental value is compounded by the unresolved broader debate over the relationship between governance and economic development.
- Resistance on the recipient side. Many developing country governments have rhetorically embraced the value of accountability, transparency, participation, and inclusion and joined international initiatives aimed at furthering these principles. However, the political will to translate such commitments into substantive political reform is often lacking. Some governments remain fiercely opposed to incorporating these principles into the international development agenda, viewing them as entry points for illegitimate political meddling.
If you are an unfamiliar visitor to an organization engaged in international development assistance and unsure of the reception you will receive, there is a surefire way to win over your hosts: tell them you believe that four key principles are crucial for development—accountability, transparency, participation, and inclusion. Your hosts will almost certainly nod enthusiastically, and declare that their organization in fact prioritizes these very concepts as key tools in the larger battle to eradicate extreme poverty and achieve sustained development. This holds true no matter whether you are visiting a major bilateral or multilateral aid agency, a foreign ministry engaged in development work, a transnational nongovernmental organization, a private foundation, or any other of the many groups that now make up the tremendously heterogeneous world of international development aid.
These four concepts have become a ubiquitous feature of the policy statements of countless aid organizations over the past few years. For example, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)’s recent strategy on democracy, human rights, and governance frames “greater citizen participation and inclusion, and more accountable institutions and leaders” as its primary high-level objectives, arguing that this framework will help “empower reformers and citizens from the bottom up.”1 The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee affirms that “there is growing consensus on the value of human rights principles—such as participation, non-discrimination and accountability—for good and sustainable development practice,” and defines effective states as “those that . . . have open, transparent, accountable and inclusive political institutions.”2 Similarly, in its 2007 Governance and Anti-Corruption Strategy, the World Bank asserts that “engaged local communities, a vibrant civil society, and a transparent flow of information . . . support poverty reduction by helping to hold governments accountable for delivering better services, creating jobs, and improving living standards.”3 The Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) goes as far as putting nondiscrimination, participation, openness and transparency, and accountability forward as fundamental principles that “must be applied consistently throughout Swedish aid.”4
The four concepts do not only exist in policy documents. They are at the heart of many recent high-profile initiatives, ranging from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) and the Open Government Partnership (OGP) to the World Bank’s Global Partnership for Social Accountability and the Making All Voices Count “grand challenge for development” funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, USAID, the Swedish government, the Open Society Foundations, and the Omidyar Network, among others. And they are central elements of countless individual aid programs and projects around the world, both as core objectives—such as efforts to facilitate greater participation by women in political parties—and as contributing elements to programs that have other primary goals, such as adding a participatory component to a health reform program.
Besides serving as both means and ends of development programs, the four principles also represent mainstays in the international discourse over relations between donors and aid recipients as well as other stakeholders. In the course of the past decade, the aid community has increasingly emphasized the importance of expanding recipient country ownership over development processes through greater donor accountability, transparency, and multi-stakeholder engagement. The 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness launched this agenda by advocating for more inclusive partnerships between developed and developing countries to better incorporate civil society and private sector actors, and stressing the need to enhance “mutual accountability and transparency in the use of development resources.”5 Successor declarations at subsequent high-level forums on aid effectiveness in Accra and Busan further affirmed that donors should engage in an “open and inclusive dialogue on development policies” in recipient countries, allow greater participation of local stakeholders in planning processes, and ensure that aid is transparent and accountable to all citizens.6
In the course of the past decade, the aid community has increasingly emphasized the importance of expanding recipient country ownership over development processes through greater donor accountability, transparency, and multi-stakeholder engagement.
In short, an apparently powerful consensus has emerged in the international development community around incorporating accountability, transparency, participation, and inclusion into work at the macro as well as micro level. These principles enjoy strong appeal as inherently, even unquestionably good things—basic ways of respecting human dignity and individual autonomy. How could anyone mount a principled objection to activities aimed at achieving greater accountability by governments toward their people, greater transparency by state institutions in their handling of public finances, active participation by citizens in development processes that affect their well-being, or meaningful inclusion of disadvantaged groups in socioeconomic life?
Contributing to this sense of intrinsic goodness is the post-ideological nature of these concepts. They rise above the burgeoning arguments around the world about the value of liberal democracy and whether it is the most effective and desirable political system for every country. Chinese officials sparring ideologically with their Western counterparts do not hesitate to question democratic processes and institutions. But they are unlikely to argue that Chinese citizens and businesses are better served by a government that is fundamentally unaccountable to their interests and needs. Transparency and public participation have in fact become popular themes in Chinese political discourse, with former general secretary Hu Jintao himself stressing “the growing enthusiasm of the people for participation in political affairs” and affirming the intent to “improve the open administrative system in various areas and increase transparency in government work.”7
The four concepts also transcend ongoing debates within the development community between conservative and left-of-center philosophies. Accountability, for example, easily aligns with the emphasis that conservatives place on anticorruption and the rule of law. Yet at the same time, it attracts developmentalists on the left who underline the need to make government more responsive to disadvantaged and marginalized groups. Similarly, conservatives may see greater participation as an integral component of small-government approaches in which citizens take up roles that pared-down states no longer play. Those on the left, on the other hand, often use participation as a synonym for the grassroots mobilization of ordinary citizens against entrenched power holders.
The four concepts catch the zeitgeist of an aid world struggling to adjust to a fundamental rebalancing of power between “the West and the rest,” and the growing effacement of the traditional line between donor and recipient countries as well as state and nonstate actors.
Proponents find in these four concepts not just intrinsic value but, just as importantly, a natural instrumental logic. State institutions that are accountable to their people will use their resources constructively rather than misspend or steal them. Greater governmental transparency will allow citizens to determine where their political leaders are going astray and exert well-targeted pressure to put them back on track. Increased public participation in governance processes on the local and national levels will provide those institutions with direct input on how to best respond to citizen needs and bring additional information about blockages and inefficiencies into decisionmaking processes.
Moreover, the four concepts catch the zeitgeist of an aid world struggling to adjust to a fundamental rebalancing of power between “the West and the rest,” and the growing effacement of the traditional line between donor and recipient countries as well as state and nonstate actors. The issues they encapsulate affect not only developing societies; they are subjects of fierce debate and contestation within the developed world as well—whether it is over the inadequate economic and social inclusion of immigrant groups in the United States and Europe, shortcomings of governmental transparency concerning electronic surveillance of citizen communication, or declining rates of electoral and other forms of political participation.
Of course, these are not the only enthusiasms to have blossomed in the international aid world during the past several decades. But the agreement around them appears to be unusually broad and its implications far reaching. Rather than simply adding new elements to the international development agenda, the consensus calls on donors to revise their approach to all areas of assistance. The four principles together in effect form a new conventional wisdom about development, one with interlinked normative and instrumental rationales and one that promises to bridge long-standing divides both within aid organizations as well as between donors and recipients.
Yet behind the ringing policy declarations and the ubiquitous presence of these concepts in programming lie a number of significant fissures. They concern fundamental aspects of the agenda defined by these four concepts: whether they really bridge longstanding ideological and operational divides within the aid community, whether or not they represent a unified and coherent agenda, and how deep the donor commitment to these concepts truly is in practice. Moreover, uncertainty and disagreement persist both over whether these principles are intrinsically valuable elements of aid policy and practice and whether they do in fact help achieve economic development—a question that remains closely tied to the larger debate surrounding the role of governance in nurturing and sustaining economic growth. Lastly, despite a seeming convergence around these values at the global level, many developing country governments remain only superficially committed to their application, and traditional rifts between donors and recipients over outside interventions in domestic governance matters live on.
Identifying and understanding these fissures makes clear that the apparently wide-reaching new consensus in development cooperation around the normative and instrumental value of accountability, transparency, participation, and inclusion remains less solid than enthusiasts of these concepts might wish. Much more work lies ahead to turn these theoretically attractive principles into consistent and effective practice.
Bridging the Three Rivers of Politics in Development
Accountability, transparency, participation, and inclusion have emerged as crucial aid priorities and principles as part of the broader opening of the door to politics in development work over the past twenty-five years. This opening was driven by a change in thinking about development that occurred at major aid institutions in the late 1980s—the realization that bad governance is often a key driver of chronic underdevelopment, and that the donor emphasis on market reform would only succeed if developing countries built capable, effective state institutions. Developmentalists at the time framed this insight in politically neutral-sounding terms as “good governance.” Yet by incorporating this concept into mainstream development work, they inevitably recognized the pressing need for greater donor attention to political institutions and processes.
The dramatically changed international political landscape opened the door to politics in aid work in several additional ways. The end of the superpower rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union weakened some of the political constraints that had characterized much development work in the second half of the twentieth century—chiefly the need for major Western donors to maintain friendships with strategically useful partners in the developing world in spite of their records of domestic repression. The U.S. and European governments of course retained close military and trade relations with various authoritarian governments for the sake of security and economic interests—including, for example, with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Yet in a number of places no longer ensnared in a global ideological contest, such as sub-Saharan Africa, they proved increasingly willing to raise problematic domestic political issues with aid-receiving governments. In addition, the onset of a startling global wave of democratization, which Western governments generally perceived to be in their political and economic interest, prompted Western aid actors to find new ways to support this trend. Providing politically related assistance quickly emerged as a crucial tool in this regard.
The end of the global ideological schism as well as rapidly growing civil society activism in many countries attempting democratic transitions also brought about a greater international consensus on human rights frameworks and their role as tools for social and political change. Some Western donor governments that had previously emphasized only the political and civil sides of human rights began giving greater attention to socioeconomic rights. This emerging agreement in turn triggered heightened attention to human rights issues and approaches as an integral part of development work. Human rights advocates argued for disempowerment and exclusion to be understood both as root causes and consequences of chronic poverty, and stressed that economic growth should serve as a means rather than the end goal of human development.8 Reflecting this emerging perspective, the Vienna Declaration issued at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights emphasized that “democracy, development, and human rights . . . are interdependent” and affirmed that development efforts themselves should respect and enhance human rights, rather than pursue economic prosperity at the expense of the latter.9
As a result of these varied drivers of change, the development community started to shed the apolitical mindset and technocratic habits that had characterized it since the 1950s. Three new streams of assistance took hold, reflecting the impetus toward a greater integration of politics into development: aid to strengthen governance, to support democracy, and to advance human rights. Governance quickly became a focus at many mainstream development organizations. Democracy was taken on as a priority area by a smaller number, initially USAID and several more specialized political aid organizations that were funded by governments but at arm’s length from them, such as the National Endowment for Democracy and various European political foundations. Rights-based development became a growing preoccupation of several northern European donors as well as a number of multilateral institutions, especially within the United Nations family.
Although these three different streams all grew out of a greater attention to political methods and goals in development work, they took shape as somewhat separate areas of aid. Governance assistance aimed at strengthening core institutions of public administration and financial management, and gradually expanded to also cover service delivery. Democracy aid concentrated primarily on assisting the formal processes and institutions regulating and shaping political competition, such as elections, political parties, and parliaments. And rights-based programming tried to define core socioeconomic areas—like food, shelter, and education—in terms of rights-holders and duty-bearers and to translate this conception into more forceful policy attention to the power inequalities underlying core development problems.
Public sector accountability and transparency emerged as crucial concepts in the effort to reduce opportunities for corruption and strengthen internal and external monitoring mechanisms.
These three new rivers of international aid were separated not only by different programming foci, but also by different philosophies of development and some degree of mutual distrust among their respective communities. Governance practitioners were often wary of emphasizing rapid democratization in developing countries with weak state institutions, afraid that premature political liberalization might pave the way for fragmentation and populist pressures that would undermine efforts to foster governance efficiency and effectiveness. Democracy promoters in turn worried that governance programs emphasizing the strengthening of central state institutions might reinforce anti-democratic governments resistant to the distribution or alternation of power. The human rights community, for its part, viewed the new democracy promotion cause with considerable suspicion, worried that it might be the handmaiden of ideologically driven political interventionism serving interests far removed from development. And rights specialists were equally wary of governance assistance, which they thought too often involved uncritical, supportive partnerships between aid actors and abusive governments seeking to improve their economic performance without addressing human rights concerns.
Governance work initially concentrated on public sector efficiency and competence, with a programmatic focus on public expenditure management, civil service reform, and privatization. Yet this narrow conception steadily broadened to take on board the principles of accountability, transparency, participation, and inclusion. This change occurred for multiple reasons. Starting in the mid-1990s, the World Bank and other major donors began concentrating on corruption—which many aid providers had traditionally avoided confronting head on, viewing it as too politically sensitive—as a key obstacle to poverty reduction. Public sector accountability and transparency emerged as crucial concepts in the effort to reduce opportunities for corruption and strengthen internal and external monitoring mechanisms.
The emergence in those years of transnational advocacy movements that were focused on government transparency and accountability further pushed the aid community to begin tackling these issues in their work. Transparency International and other groups helped push anticorruption onto the agenda. Nongovernmental groups in developed as well as developing countries led a widening campaign for freedom of information that in many places produced new laws and regulation guaranteeing citizens’ right of access to government information. More recently, the global civil society push for open government has further solidified attention to public sector transparency in domestic and international policy circles.
The gradual shift from project aid toward budget support also reinforced donor interest in accountability and transparency as prerequisites for aid effectiveness. As donors channeled more assistance directly to central governments to strengthen state capacity and country ownership, they put greater emphasis on governance reforms that would ensure the responsible use of these resources.
In addition, frustration with the meager impact of the first wave of technical assistance to improve government effectiveness pushed donors to broaden their thinking about how institutional change might be achieved. Faced with the recognition that technocratic inputs were not enough to overcome entrenched resistance to reforms, they began to look for ways to encourage greater citizen engagement, hoping that those groups suffering from the consequences of poor governance might constitute a more effective driver of positive change.
The rising emphasis on the citizen side of the equation therefore naturally prompted greater attention to accountability and participation. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was a leader in this area in the early 2000s, pushing for the concept of democratic governance—by which it meant the infusion of elements of accountability, transparency, participation, and inclusion—as a fruitful formulation of a broadened governance agenda. The 2004 World Development Report, Making Services Work for Poor People, further specifically highlighted the importance of accountability in addressing the catastrophic failure of service delivery to the world’s poorest people, and pointed to citizen engagement and direct interaction with service providers as a crucial part of the solution. It recommended, for example, that donors should not only focus on channeling resources and technical assistance to underperforming public education systems, but also support citizens in addressing local challenges such as teacher absenteeism and bribery by monitoring performance and directly engaging with responsible providers and officials.
This broadening created a bridge across some of the divisions between the governance community on the one hand and the democracy and human rights communities on the other. Democracy aid practitioners embraced accountability, transparency, participation, and inclusion as intrinsic democratic values, viewing their work on democratic elections, political parties, and parliaments as support for these very same principles. The democracy community therefore felt that developmentalists who were giving greater attention to the four principles were simply catching up with progress it had already achieved. Similarly, those aid practitioners pushing for greater donor attention to human rights frameworks and instruments viewed the four concepts as core operational principles of a human-rights-based approach to development. They supported their adoption by mainstream aid organizations as crucial elements of good aid practice to be included in aid planning, implementation, and evaluation. In particular, they focused on reaching the most marginalized groups, deepening participation and local control over development processes, and enhancing accountability structures by drawing on international human rights norms and instruments.
An Incomplete Bridge
The apparent convergence among the governance, democracy, and human rights communities is striking. Yet general agreement on the importance of accountability, transparency, participation, and inclusion has not fully bridged the underlying divisions between these camps.
Ask governance specialists at one of the multilateral development banks or major bilateral aid agencies whether they are engaged in aiding democracy and they will likely insist that they are not. They will emphasize that they are pursuing greater participation, transparency, accountability, and inclusion for developmental rather than politically normative purposes and are not in the business of trying to shape the political life of other countries. Democracy promotion, in their view, remains a separate terrain, more ideological than governance work, more about changing overall political systems than improving the performance of state institutions and delivering economic growth. They may note that they often carry out governance programs for decades in undemocratic contexts such as Kazakhstan, Ethiopia, or Vietnam, without any intention of changing the larger political direction of the country.
Democracy practitioners, meanwhile, highlight the political dimension of each of the four concepts. Rather than focusing on social accountability mechanisms that target the relationship between citizens and service providers, they attempt to strengthen broader institutions and processes of political accountability, such as regular and competitive elections and effective, independent parliaments. When they work on participation, their focus is on citizen involvement in local and national political processes rather than development planning and programming. Similarly, they frame issues of inclusion mostly in terms of political empowerment and representation rather than social or economic marginalization. In other words, for this group, democratic institutions such as well-functioning political parties, responsive parliaments, and a legal framework that guarantees basic political and civil rights are the central pistons of accountability, participation, and inclusion.
As a result, democracy practitioners are skeptical of governance programming that skirts the political dimensions of these concepts. They worry that their governance counterparts are inescapably inclined toward narrow and technocratic interpretations of these principles that fail to take into account the broader distribution of power in a society (although some aid programs billed as pro-democratic fall into the same rut of technocratic efforts to improve the functioning of state institutions, without challenging underlying power inequalities).
Most major aid organizations working on governance reform remain wary of casting accountability, transparency, participation, and inclusion as rights rather than desirable programming attributes or principles.
Divisions also persist between the governance and human rights communities. Most major aid organizations working on governance reform remain wary of casting accountability, transparency, participation, and inclusion as rights rather than desirable programming attributes or principles. Doing so, they believe, would create rigidities in their own programmatic frameworks or in their consultations with recipient governments. Rights entail legal claims and commitments that may hinder tactical decisions about modulating their pursuit of these principles based on other priorities. The human rights community, on the other hand, generally rejects the instrumental view of the four concepts that dominates governance approaches. They fault governance practitioners for interpreting principles such as participation and inclusion in limited or partial ways, or deemphasizing them for the sake of other development priorities. Some further dismiss the donor focus on governance as just one part of the broader neoliberal agenda promoted by major development organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in alliance with local power holders—an agenda that, in their view, further marginalizes the poor in the service of international economic and financial interests.
One Agenda or Several?
There is also disagreement over the extent to which the four principles actually constitute a unified agenda. Aid providers typically present them as such, grouping them together in policy documents as an apparently mutually reinforcing set. And these principles do share a certain common ground—all of them pertain to the interaction of states and their people, pointing toward a greater role for citizens in the functioning of the state. Moreover, some natural links do exist among them in practice. Accountability programs for example often incorporate transparency as a constituent element while also relying on citizen participation, such as support for local groups that seek to press a particular government institution to be more responsive to public concerns. Similarly, efforts to foster greater inclusion naturally connect to increased participation by the targeted group.
Yet the links among the four principles are only partial. Some accountability work consists of efforts to upgrade the technical capacity of selected government agencies without attempting to improve participation or inclusion. Some transparency programs are narrowly designed to make government data more easily accessible to private sector and other stakeholders and do not attempt to consciously link these transparency mechanisms to accountability or participatory processes. Participatory development, on the other hand, often seeks to make participation itself the driver of change by helping citizens take charge of their communities’ development, without fostering any particular ties to formal accountability mechanisms. And accountability programs or participatory development efforts sometimes fail to include marginalized groups and take their needs into account, though efforts in this respect have gradually improved.
In short, what is presented to the outside world as a unified agenda instead appears from within the development community to be a set of goals that compete with each other for attention and resources. Different aid organizations or groups within them pursue very different relative emphases on the four principles. For example, enthusiastic proponents of the growing transnational movement for accountability and transparency view these issues as a potentially transformative advance of the governance agenda and one that naturally connects to burgeoning efforts to harness new Internet and communication technologies for development ends. Other practitioners have a long-standing commitment to participatory development and/or socioeconomic inclusion—two domains of assistance that predate the more recent rush of attention to accountability and transparency and that have undergone various permutations over the past decades.
The four principles are not only frequently pursued at least somewhat independently of each other: they can also at times be in tension. For example, an effort to push a government emerging out of civil war to pursue accountability for past rights violations may limit the inclusion of some groups in the post-conflict political system. Accountability programs that seek to reduce state capture may actually try to limit participation in the workings of certain institutions, such as central banks, in order to isolate them from political pressure or improve efficiency. Certain attempts to strengthen public sector accountability by increasing provider competition in service delivery may perpetuate patterns of marginalization, and poorly conceived participatory projects can exacerbate rather than alleviate the exclusion of disadvantaged groups. These tensions are rarely acknowledged, and remain buried beneath the continual references to the four principles as a shared agenda.
The Problem of Superficial Application
Another fissure arising in the application of the four principles centers on the actual depth of donor commitment to transparency, accountability, participation, and inclusion in programming and implementation. Despite their stated devotion to these principles, aid organizations sometimes treat them as boxes to be ticked rather than genuinely significant or even transformative elements to be pursued in substantial, sustained ways.
This problem partly stems from the fact that despite their suggestive and appealing nature, the four concepts are sufficiently broad that agreeing on them in theory does not necessarily translate into agreement about them in practice. References to principles such as participation and accountability in aid programming have become so frequent and widespread that pinning down with any precision what is meant by those terms often proves difficult. At times the terms appear to have the quality of an elixir that aid providers sprinkle—at least rhetorically—on everything they do, in the hopes of giving their activities an appealing extra shine. Participation, for example, is generally used to refer to input by citizens into governmental processes, including, for example, in the planning, design, implementation, or review of policies that affect them. Yet such input varies widely in type, duration, and intensity—it can be formal or informal, sporadic or continuous, limited or far-reaching, local or national, and so forth. Participatory measures can be part of broader vertical accountability efforts relating to public financial management and service delivery, forming an integral element of citizen attempts to exert a disciplinary role vis-à-vis the state. Yet the term is also used to describe broader consultations and public input into decisionmaking processes that remain firmly in the hands of governments or other stakeholders. A similar degree of variation holds for the other three concepts as well.
References to principles such as participation and accountability in aid programming have become so frequent and widespread that pinning down with any precision what is meant by those terms often proves difficult.
As a result of this variation in definitions, very different things can be carried out in the name of apparently common principles. Seemingly transformative concepts and approaches in reality often translate into superficial or limited applications. In the realm of participation, all major aid providers have during the last two decades committed—at least rhetorically—to facilitating greater citizen participation in development work and have built participatory elements into many of their programs. More often than not, they directly linked these efforts to powerful claims that participation would help advance capacity-building, local ownership, and citizen empowerment. But as numerous critics have detailed in extensive review studies, such elements often fall short of their transformative aspirations, resulting instead in superficial forms of public consultation that do not give poor people substantive input into development decisions or change the balance of power between citizens and states.10
For example, the move to make the World Bank’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSP) more participatory through the implementation of Participatory Poverty Assessments was, in the eyes of some critics, a long and corrosive study in the superficiality of donor commitment to participation. Although there is evidence that in some countries, civil society involvement in these processes helped shape a more multidimensional understanding of poverty and its causes, it generally fell short of achieving genuine inclusion. Instead, such efforts too often remained “poorly-conceived, rushed, exclusive and badly-organised” exercises in information extraction.”11 Crucial macroeconomic policy decisions were still made before soliciting citizen input, and developing country governments often saw the PRSP process as nothing but a requirement imposed by international financial institutions that they had limited capacity to meet.12 Critics have therefore emphasized the need to tie participation within specific development programs to broader methods of citizen empowerment.13 Of course there were other attempts that proved more meaningful and successful: for example, the participation of civil society representatives in the writing of shadow reports to the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council as well as in official discussions of the review has helped strengthen civil society capacity and facilitated networking between different citizen organizations and movements.
Efforts to bolster the inclusion of marginalized groups also often suffer from the problem of superficial application. For many mainstream donor organizations, inclusion emerged as a priority issue on the international aid agenda due to the efforts of women’s activists who argued that the economic, social, and political marginalization of women—for example through their exclusion from education and political decisionmaking—perpetuated chronic poverty. However, the domain of gender inclusion is nevertheless littered with examples of aid providers who have professed their commitment to gender awareness in their program design without in fact attempting to address the systemic and structural exclusion of women from development processes.14
Similarly, a first wave of efforts to foster transparency in different arenas of state action is quickly giving way to the realization that achieving meaningful developmental impact this way is a considerably more complex and uncertain process than many aid providers had initially realized. Scholars have warned of the frequent conflation of open data technologies and the politics of open government, emphasizing that a government can “provide ‘open data’ on politically neutral topics even as it remains deeply opaque and unaccountable.”15 In a recent review of transparency’s impact on governance and public services in particular, Stephen Kosack and Archon Fung further draw attention to the ways in which different governance contexts account for variations in the effectiveness of transparency initiatives. They argue that reforms can face obstacles of collective action, political resistance, and long implementation chains, and are most likely to succeed in situations marked by competitive service delivery that poses fewer of these hurdles.16
The Unsettled Intrinsic Case
Beyond divisions among various practitioner communities and difficulties in implementation persists a broader debate about the appropriate role of the four principles in development work. The intrinsic case for making accountability, transparency, participation, and inclusion major pillars of development aid seems straightforward to enthusiasts of these principles: the four concepts describe a relationship between governments and their citizens that honors and reinforces basic human dignity. As such, they are good things in and of themselves that should be understood as intrinsic elements of development. In other words, a society is more developed when its people are treated in accordance with these values and less developed when they are not.
But within most aid organizations, skepticism over the intrinsic case persists. The debate is not over whether participation, accountability, transparency, and inclusion are good things. Instead, the question is whether the primarily socioeconomic conception of development—on which the field of development aid has rested since its origins in the 1950s—should be expanded to include these principles as objectives. Many developmentalists worry that moving away from the core socioeconomic conception risks diluting the focus on poverty reduction and economic growth. They fear that opening the door to what they see as politically normative claims on the development agenda will lead to even greater disagreements both within aid organizations and between donors and recipients over basic purposes. They are not necessarily against incorporating concepts such as participation and accountability if they can be shown to yield better developmental outcomes—but they are uncomfortable with the normative argument as a stand-alone rationale. This division also exists within some of the various practitioner subcommunities that have emerged around the four concepts: for example, between those that view open data and access to information as an intrinsic human right and those that see it primarily as a tool for economic development, greater public sector efficiency, and anticorruption efforts.
It is impossible to assess with any precision the degree to which the intrinsic case is accepted within the many aid organizations putting forward these four concepts as important priorities. Official policy statements affirming donor commitment to inclusive, participatory, accountable, and transparent governance often do not explicitly state whether this commitment is primarily normative or based on an assumed instrumental case, and only provide vague or incomplete theories of change relating to these issues. The World Bank, for example, argues that social accountability initiatives, besides facilitating better governance and improved public policies and services, can also serve to “empower those social groups that are systematically under-represented in formal political institutions” and to “ensure that less powerful societal groups also have the ability to express and act upon their choices. . . .”17 Yet the World Bank does not specify whether empowerment—another ubiquitous, yet conceptually ambiguous term—is advanced as a normative end goal or as a means to achieve better socioeconomic outcomes.
However, it is clear that many mainstream developmentalists remain strongly attached to a traditional socioeconomic conception of development and are reluctant to embrace normative principles for their own sake. Few donors clearly state the normative argument in their policy statements. The Swedish government is a notable exception in this regard: its core aid strategy seeks to operationalize Amartya Sen’s argument that a lack of freedom is a form of poverty, thereby merging normative political principles with a traditionally socioeconomic definition of development. Rights-based approaches to development take participation, accountability, and inclusion as inalienable rights that should be integral to both development processes and outcomes and thus represent an embodiment of the normative case. But they have gained only partial ground over the past twenty years, and even the minority of major aid organizations that embrace a human-rights-based approach are still struggling to incorporate it substantially into development practice and make a difference in programming beyond appealing statements of intent. One at least partial exception is the UNDP, which since the early 2000s has advanced a rights-based conception of development in its Human Development Reports and pushed for a convergence between human rights and development agencies in the UN system. UNDP has invested in efforts to develop clear indicators for this approach to aid programming and assist donors in assessing human rights standards and principles in project design, implementation, and monitoring.18
Divisions Over the Instrumental Case
Not only is the intrinsic case for the four concepts unsettled, so too is the instrumental one—the argument that building the four principles into development assistance will help produce better socioeconomic outcomes in aid-receiving countries. A limited and generally inconclusive evidence base to date exacerbates this problem. Despite the rapid increase of aid programming relating to accountability, transparency, participation, and inclusion in the course of the past fifteen years, relatively little time and funding have been invested in examining the long-term socioeconomic and political impact of these initiatives. Only in the past several years have a substantial number of researchers and aid organizations attempted to address this shortcoming by systematically investing in evidence collection. This emerging body of work—which is still in its incipient phase—consists both of evaluations of specific programs or projects and larger reviews that attempt to extract, code, and synthesize the findings from existing studies and cases. The Overseas Development Institute for example in 2008 carried out a major review of “citizens’ voice and accountability” interventions based on an analysis of 90 such projects in ten countries and seven detailed country case studies.19 A comprehensive 2013 report by World Bank researchers Ghazala Mansuri and Vijayendra Rao similarly attempted to systematically assess the socioeconomic impact of decentralization and local-level participatory development in aid recipient countries.20
Despite the rapid increase of aid programming relating to accountability, transparency, participation, and inclusion in the course of the past fifteen years, relatively little time and funding have been invested in examining the long-term socioeconomic and political impact of these initiatives.
Yet trying to distill this emerging area of research into a coherent set of findings that would convince skeptical policymakers of the merits of the instrumental case is difficult. First, the endemic conceptual imprecision of practitioners using the four concepts results in a jumbled array of interventions that cannot be neatly sorted into categories. The ever-changing but often overlapping application of the terms also makes it difficult to isolate any one element of programming and measure its specific impact on development outcomes. Moreover, the unusually complex and often indirect causal chains that connect work on the four concepts to socioeconomic outcomes (compared, for example, to the direct causal link between a vaccination delivery program and a reduction in the incidence of the targeted disease) pose significant challenges to researchers looking to trace development impact. A third impediment is the difficulty of drawing generalizable lessons from highly context-specific interventions. Programming that relates to the four principles seeks to make changes in sociopolitical relations (as opposed to technical inputs or the infusion of capital) the driver of developmental progress. This means that any successful strategy for change will heavily depend on local power constellations and broader state-society relations, as well as citizen capacity for collective action, among other factors.
However, one overarching message does emerge from the existing evidence: the need for a strong dose of realism and caution regarding donor expectations of developmental impact. Many studies show that programs targeting accountability, participation, transparency, or inclusion are at least somewhat successful at achieving their intermediate goals—such as establishing a social audit process, strengthening the transparency of a particular ministry, or improving citizen input into a national planning process. However, translating such achievements into longer-term socioeconomic progress is much less common, or, at the very least, much harder to detect.
Of course, few studies suggest that incorporating these concepts into programs has no developmental effect at all. Success stories do exist: In Uganda, community monitoring has contributed to improvements in public service delivery, such as increased student and teacher attendance in schools and better education outcomes.21 Similarly, community monitoring of health services using citizen report cards to facilitate regular dialogue with health workers about problems and expectations led to an increase in the use of outpatient services as well as overall improvements in medical treatments and a significant reduction in infant mortality.22 Participatory governance councils in Brazil have improved the access to and quality of healthcare services, and participatory budgeting in cities such as Porto Alegre has stimulated citizen participation in local politics and increased public funding for housing, health, and education. However, these initiatives have also been criticized for failing to ensure inclusion of the poorest or perpetuating clientelistic politics in certain contexts.23
A central challenge for the aid community is how to move from these scattered, often small-scale successes to greater socioeconomic impact. Aid providers eager to make progress on this question are increasingly trying to move beyond isolated bottom-up or top-down approaches, instead working to tackle both sides of the state-society relationship at once. Various analysts have highlighted the importance of such integrative approaches. For example, in an insightful analysis of the empirical basis for social accountability work, Jonathan Fox criticizes what he calls tactical approaches that rely on bounded interventions, neglect the role of the state, and rest on flawed assumptions about the power of information. Instead, he praises strategic approaches that attempt to coordinate citizen action with governmental reforms to bolster public sector responsiveness. While the impact of tactical approaches has been minimal, Fox suggests that the evidence base for strategic approaches “driven by coalitions of pro-accountability forces across the state-society divide” is considerably more promising.24
Yet despite these advances, practitioners still know very little about the types of interventions and the broader governance structures and power dynamics needed for work on these four concepts to have a lasting developmental impact. Behind the clear affirmations by aid organizations of the importance of accountability, participation, transparency, and inclusion lie considerable doubts and disagreements about the validity of the instrumental case.
The Larger Developmental Debate
The debate over the evidence base for the four principles is rooted in the larger, often fierce debate about the overall relationship between governance regimes and economic development. In recent years this debate has focused extensively on whether a clear empirical case exists for the proposition that Western-style governance (which is seen as including the four principles as well as other elements such as the rule of law) is good for development, whether as a contributing factor in achieving socioeconomic success or in sustaining it. Three main (and overlapping) camps contend with each other in this debate.
The optimists believe that mounting evidence from both historical analysis and more specific empirical studies indicates that inclusive or democratic governance is the key to generating and sustaining high levels of socioeconomic development. Driven by the hopefulness of the immediate post–Cold War years, policymakers in the 1990s initially embraced this argument primarily axiomatically rather than on a firm empirical basis. Scholars have since assembled a significant body of research pointing to a positive correlation between various aspects of a country’s governance—including transparent, accountable, and participative institutions—and its economic progress. Daniel Kaufmann and other World Bank economists built an influential set of aggregate Worldwide Governance Indicators to measure changes in governance quality over time, and found a positive correlation between a country’s performance on these measures and its economic development.25 Their work generated numerous efforts that relied on those indicators as well as comparable measures to tease out the relationship between particular aspects of governance—such as property rights, transparency, and the rule of law—and global variations in income levels.26 This research points to the overarching conclusion that open and inclusive polities and economies ultimately tend to be more successful at sustaining economic growth.
Another influential line of work attempts to trace the historical relationship between institutions and economic growth. In their widely discussed book, Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson find that countries that develop inclusive rather than extractive political and economic institutions produce better socioeconomic outcomes in the long run.27 Similarly, Douglass North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast juxtapose “open access orders,” characterized by political and economic competition, impersonal governance, and a shared commitment to equality and inclusion, and “limited access orders” in which elites engage in rent-seeking and pursue their personal interests. They argue that historically, the former have been more successful at sustaining economic growth than the latter.28
The UK government’s recent statements regarding a “golden thread” of development draw on this line of argument. British Prime Minister David Cameron has repeatedly spoken about property rights, the rule of law, strong institutions, and the absence of conflict and corruption as an interlinked set of crucial conditions that “enable open economies and open societies to thrive,” and argued that “eradicating poverty requires the growth that is fueled by open economies, and open economies are themselves best ensured by open societies.”29
Most scholars who embrace this optimistic view acknowledge that larger historical and statistical relationships between participatory, open, and inclusive societies and economic growth do not translate neatly into specific policy recommendations. They therefore caution against attempts to impose generic institutional templates on wildly differing contexts. Skeptics go a step further and push back against the inclusive governance orthodoxy by arguing that a number of governments have made significant developmental progress without embracing these principles. Some de-emphasize the importance of governance in general, stressing instead the centrality of structural factors—including geography, natural resources, geopolitics, disease, and the development of technology—in determining developmental failure and success.30
A perhaps more prominent line of research on the skeptical side acknowledges the centrality of governance, but disagrees that democratic or inclusive institutions are key to prosperity. Scholars embracing this view argue instead for a capable and effective developmental state, a model that gained prominence following the remarkable economic rise of the Asian Tigers in the early 1990s. Countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore did not institutionalize Western-style democratic governance, yet rapidly grew their economies by centralizing state power, developing autonomous and effective bureaucracies, and actively intervening in the market process. In fact, scholars have argued that the success of these efforts specifically depended on limiting citizen participation in the political process and isolating state institutions from popular pressure and accountability mechanisms.
Focusing on governance challenges in Sub-Saharan Africa, David Booth and the Africa Power and Politics Programme argue that fragmented, clientelistic governance systems often pose bigger obstacles to economic growth than various forms of “developmental patrimonialism” that effectively centralize economic decisionmaking.31 They therefore stress the importance of state capacity and cohesion, while rejecting a normative insistence on bottom-up pressure and accountability as a means to better government performance. Following a similar line, Mushtaq Khan criticizes the good governance agenda for prioritizing market-enhancing measures such as transparency, rule of law, and anticorruption in contexts with limited governance capabilities. Instead, he argues for a greater focus on growth-enhancing aspects of governance, such as the capacity to strategically attract new investment.32 Linking these scholars is an overarching concern that a premature opening of political institutions and decisionmaking processes can exacerbate existing collective action problems, and a wariness of good governance approaches that assume state capacity and political will for reform where both are lacking.
In the third camp, a number of recent approaches have argued for a more eclectic view that tries to build on these different schools of thought by highlighting the ways in which they interact with and complement each other. This emerging “multiple path philosophy” posits that very different governance models can produce development success in different contexts. Kunal Sen, for example, distinguishes between phases of growth acceleration and growth maintenance. He argues that the informal institutions of credible commitment and patron-client networks highlighted by scholars in the second camp often play a crucial role in growth acceleration. In contrast, the formal institutions and effective, inclusive governance structures described by Acemoglu and Robinson may take on increasing importance in growth maintenance.33
Merilee Grindle uses the term “good enough governance” to highlight the need for greater realism regarding the types of reforms achievable in a given country context, and advises donors to tackle only the most crucial blockages to socioeconomic progress rather than imposing standard templates or reform sequences.34 In his new book, Working With the Grain, Brian Levy also highlights the need to avoid what he calls “governance maximalism,” and to instead recognize different political and institutional pathways that can lead countries to sustainable development.35 The same concept of working with rather than against the grain of local contexts runs through the work of Sue Unsworth and others at the Center for the Future State, who in a recent report stress the crucial role of informal institutions and personalized relationships in many developing countries. The authors call on donors to move beyond a singular focus on formal, rule-based institutions toward more “indirect strategies to shift or influence the behavior of local actors.”36 Yet even arguments for more pragmatic and locally grounded approaches do not necessarily translate into clear policy prescriptions or a powerful case for incorporating the four principles into development policy.
The ongoing, fiercely contested research debate over the relationship between governance and development exacerbates the continued fissures within the aid community over the value of incorporating accountability, transparency, participation, and inclusion into development work. The arguments for their developmental impact are strong enough to give at least some comfort to their devoted proponents. Yet the strengths of the arguments on the other side give those aid practitioners skeptical of the concepts’ instrumental value a foundation for their doubts. Given the fact that this decades-old research debate does not appear to be headed soon toward any definite resolution, these deep-seated splits over the instrumental case are likely to continue for some time.
Uncertain Commitment to International Initiatives
The apparent consensus around the four concepts extends to governments on all sides of the aid equation—donors and recipients alike. Part of the strong appeal of recent transnational initiatives that have taken up the four concepts—such as the Open Government Partnership, which now counts 65 member governments committed to improving government transparency—lies precisely in the fact that they put developed and developing countries on the same plane and acknowledge that they face many of the same core problems.
Yet here too, fissures persist. The problem of superficial application identified with regard to aid programming around the four concepts to some extent also affects international initiatives centered on issues such as government accountability and transparency, which struggle with the question of how to best translate international commitments by participating governments into meaningful domestic reforms.
This challenge arises with regard to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, a voluntary international regime that aims to expose revenue streams to citizen scrutiny in order to expose resource theft and increase public and private sector responsiveness to citizen demands. EITI-compliant governments regularly publish their revenues from the extractive sector and require private industry actors to do the same.37 Developing countries have strong incentives to join EITI, as membership is tied to not only reputation but also improved performance on various international ratings, such as the World Bank “Doing Business” Index, which in turn influence aid flows and investment.38 However, critics argue that corrupt regimes can reap these benefits while at the same time maintaining kleptocratic governance structures.
EITI’s compliance standards remain relatively weak and narrow in scope, despite the introduction of additional disclosure and reporting requirements in 2013. This allows poorly performing governments to be rated as compliant or “in progress,” while insufficiently rewarding those that are truly reform minded. EITI has so far also been poorly linked to broader processes of public sector reform or citizen empowerment, with local civil society organizations in countries such as Nigeria often ill-equipped to use newly available information to push for greater accountability.39 A 2011 evaluation argued that while EITI had boosted transparency at the country level, “accountability does not appear to have changed much, in part because necessary political, legal and institutional improvements have in most cases not been put in place,” and concluded that “little impact at the societal level can be discerned.”40
The initiative has thus been criticized for providing legitimacy to a number of questionable regimes—including Ethiopia and Azerbaijan—without posing a real threat to their repressive governance structures and rent-seeking elite behavior.41 Although its fifth criterion requires that “civil society is actively engaged as a participant in the design, monitoring and evaluation” of the EITI process, these governments have routinely come under fire for systematically restricting basic civil and political rights, including freedom of assembly, association, and expression.42
The Open Government Partnership, founded in 2011, represents another interesting case study of an international initiative attempting to trigger domestic reforms on transparency and accountability issues. The OGP is open to all countries that meet a set of eligibility criteria, and it compels participating governments to implement regularly monitored open government action plans developed in consultation with civil society. Some observers have criticized the initiative for allowing governments to present themselves via their OGP membership as reform minded and transparent while committing to few specific, measurable, or genuinely transformative reform proposals.43 The OGP’s Independent Reporting Mechanism for example found that up to two-thirds of the existing partnership commitments “do not pass the three hurdles of being relevant, having the potential to have a major impact, and being implemented.”44 Yet the initiative has also been praised for achieving considerable success in a very short period of time, with 194 ambitious reform commitments in 35 countries mostly or fully implemented and completed within three years.45 Moreover, the OGP is still a relatively new initiative and deserves time to gain traction and fine-tune its approach.
For international initiatives such as EITI or the OGP, there may of course also be value in including governments with bad track records on accountability, transparency, and citizen participation in order to encourage a “race to the top,” as Western proponents of these sorts of endeavors like to argue. The inclusion of governments with chronically poor governance records may indeed serve to gradually socialize them into a different outlook. Yet research on the European Union and other multilateral initiatives shows that governments are often most likely to reform before joining an initiative, suggesting that both entry and compliance criteria should be carefully designed and reviewed to maximize leverage.46
A second finding relates to the interaction between such initiatives and broader domestic reform efforts. Governments repeatedly sign up to reform projects in one domain while backtracking in another. The example of EITI shows that meaningful citizen participation needs to be an integral rather than a secondary part of such initiatives, in order to avoid formalistic processes that give citizens little or no control while providing a facade of credibility for repressive regimes. If it becomes clear over time that some member states are milking the benefits without fulfilling their responsibilities, the international agreement or initiative in question inevitably suffers.
The Continuing Donor-Recipient Divide
The four concepts also appear as a potential bridge across the donor-recipient divide in a second sense—they are not only widely embraced by aid organizations as programmatic principles and objectives, but have also been agreed on by both donor and recipient governments as a means to achieve greater aid effectiveness. Yet here too the consensus is less solid than the rhetoric may indicate. A number of developing country governments remain fiercely opposed to incorporating these principles into the international development agenda as universal characteristics of good governance. While they advocate for their application to international partnerships, they reject donor attempts to promote them in aid recipient societies as illegitimate political meddling. In other words, donors embrace the four concepts as things that they hope recipient governments will do, while recipient governments embrace them as things that they hope donor governments will do.
Skepticism on the side of recipient country governments about the four concepts first emerged when the World Bank and other major aid organizations began pushing the accountability and anticorruption agenda in the 1990s. Developing country power holders were unconvinced by the instrumental case for anticorruption work, fully aware that many developed countries had in fact experienced substantial corruption throughout their own histories, yet still managed to reach prosperity. They also doubted the intentions of Western donors, seeing the new agenda as a cover for political interventionism, an excuse to embarrass or even delegitimize governments that the West happened not to favor.
These initial suspicions have continued to fester throughout the expansion of the governance agenda over the past two decades. The argument that concepts such as accountability, participation, inclusion, and transparency are post-ideological is not persuasive to some developing country officials and observers, especially as they are often presented as core elements of “democratic governance.” With sensitivities over Western political interventionism having risen dramatically across the international political landscape over the last ten years, movements by the aid community toward more normative approaches to governance inevitably encounter rough terrain on the recipient side. Moreover, power holders in nondemocratic societies such as China, Vietnam, Rwanda, and Ethiopia often present their own developmental success as counterarguments to the instrumental case.