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May 27, 2020

Accountability and policies - Part II


May 27, 2020

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

In the previous part of this series we discussed how a policy can be disastrous if it has no accountability mechanism with it. So when and where should this accountability start? For that we need to look at the policy cycle and some types of policy.

Not getting into academic rigmarole, we define policy as a line of action and decisions, resulting from a certain thought process. A defence policy is a line of action and decisions a country takes, based on some thinking. If China annexes Tibet; India takes over Kashmir; the US invades Afghanistan, Iraq, or Vietnam; or Pakistan follows a certain policy in Balochistan or adopts a policy of strategic depth in Afghanistan, these are all actions and decisions based on some thinking. Now, where does that thinking come from? We need to understand that nearly all states have been traditionally expansionist, highly possessive, and suppressive.

A development policy is also a line of actions and decisions based on some thinking. If China under Mao launched the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s, it was a certain development policy. When Indira Gandhi in India imposed strict family planning in the mid-1970s that was also development policy and so was Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, though they were different in focus and scope. We can see that the level of accountability in all these examples was not the same, depending on the system and the thinking behind them.

To be effective, accountability – which is an obligation to justify your actions and decisions – must be incorporated at the entire policy cycle. Though in academic literature you will find at least half a dozen steps in policy cycle, here for simple understanding we present just two steps: initiation and implementation. For accountability purposes, the first question should be who initiated the policy, meaning whose thought process triggered that policy; how many groups, institutions, and persons were involved in it; and which group, institution, or person was obliged or duty-bound to explain and justify the policy.

Behind most failed policies you will see a certain group, institution, or person initiating the policy in exclusion to others, and the initiators of that policy had no obligation to explain or justify their policies. Second, no matter how many people are involved in policymaking, if the people who are affected by the policy disown or dislike it, surely the policy will fail – though it may give the state a temporary feeling of success in its policy. Be it the Great Leap Forward, imposed family planning, nationalization or privatization of public assets, or the World Bank-funded outfall drains in Sindh, the examples are too many to cite here.

Accountability also means that the thought process behind a policy must be discussed in detail, involving not only the experts of that field but also the representatives of the people who will be affected by that policy, and those who will be implementing the policy. Let’s take education policy in Pakistan. Pakistan has had nearly a dozen education policies and policy papers circulated and passed by various cabinets and committees. Not even a single education policy in the history of Pakistan has been successful in achieving what it set out to do.

Moreover, no education policy has been allowed to complete its term, meaning most policies were terminated in the middle of their implementation and a new policy process started with some new faces. There are hardly qualified professionals in education policymaking in Pakistan, and there is no accountability of those who make the policy which fails. Most policies regurgitate the same platitudes found in all previous policies such as to make students ‘good Muslims’ and ‘patriotic Pakistanis’ without explaining what these terms actually mean and how these tasks will be achieved other than by forcing students to memorise slogans and verses.

After accountability of the initiators of policies, we must have accountability at the implementation stage which involves overseeing, and keeping in check those entrusted with public responsibilities to put the policy in practice. Again, taking an example from the education sector in Pakistan we see a quick succession of education ministers and secretaries at both federal and provincial levels. Go to any education secretary’s office in any province and you will see a long list showing that education secretaries file in and out every few months. So, who will you hold responsible? None.

Accountability normally involves at least two stages: first is a calling to account to provide an explanation of what has or not has been done; and second, holding to account or being sanctioned and putting remedial measures if something went wrong. Accountability may involve both blame and praise; that’s why an impartial, people-friendly and transparent accountability is needed.

In countries such as Pakistan, most policies and projects – including the development ones – do not have such accountability mechanisms. Accountability is taken as just monitoring and developing a database of excel sheets and number crunching. Many donor-funded projects fail because the donors themselves do not have proper accountability mechanisms.

Starting with the donors themselves, most of them have good development policies but when it comes to their implementation there emerge serious issues. Due to a project-oriented approach, institution building does not take place. Then there are project management issues such as frequent changes in project management resulting in lack of accountability. In a five-year development project, it is not unusual to see three to four project managers or team leaders in quick succession. In many donor-funded projects, accountants and finance managers have supreme say over technical experts, so accountability is also mostly confined to finances only.

Accountability is also about controlling the exercise of power. Be it the top most leaders of a country or project chiefs and heads, there must be some checks on them. But for that you need a well-defined policy with an accountability mechanism embedded in it. Accountability fails for at least two major causes. One is to keep policy a loose and vague document so that the bearings are difficult to hold. Second, for the entire duration of a policy or a project under it, you make so many changes of implementers and managers that you can’t hold anyone responsible.

In public policies, the state and its functionaries must be accountable and duty-bound to explain and justify their actions and decisions. But that rarely happens; in most cases it is the government and not the state officials who are targeted in the name of accountability. Most states have an inbuilt tendency or unwritten policy to defend and protect their own functionaries. Governments come and go and they do not have deep-rooted connections and tentacles as state institutions do. The same applies to development policies; a person with state links is more likely to be less accountable than a person without such links.

It is easy to write reports and discuss terms such as ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical’ accountabilities, ‘hierarchical relationships’, ‘stakeholders’, ‘society-driven change’, and ‘diagonal mechanisms’. Policy literature is full of such jargon; the point is to go beyond such mumbo-jumbo and focus on institution building rather than operationalizing various projects just to show some progress, and as soon as the project ends, the operation stops, because there was no institutional backup for that. Donor guidance often uses its own terminology. Blaming governments is easy, but unless the donors themselves practise what they preach, accountability will remain a mirage.

Multilateral agencies such as the UN and World Bank appear to have better accountability mechanisms that help them in their development policy implementation.


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