How do we ensure social accountability in water, sanitation and hygiene services? Our top ten takeaways.

5 min read

What is social accountability, why is it important to sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services, and how do we support its practice? We joined with practitioners from other organisations working in WASH in a learning workshop (co-convened by Water Witness International, Shahidi wa Maji, University of Glasgow, University of Dar es Salaam, Oxfam, and Water Integrity Network) to find out more. Avinash Kumar from WaterAid India and Hannah Crichton-Smith from WaterAid UK share some of our lessons.  

At WaterAid, we know that for everyone, everywhere to have water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services for good, people must feel empowered to hold leaders to account, and governments must feel responsible for realising their citizens' human rights. This brings the issues of accountability and good governance clearly into focus. To learn more about how we can strengthen our work on accountability to make sure WASH services are sustainable, we joined with practitioners from other organisations working in WASH to share experiences in a 'think shop'.

The social contract between states and societies is constantly evolving. According to the international convention on human rights, the state is now the acknowledged duty-bearer, responsible for ensuring access to water and sanitation for all. So what does this mean, in practical terms, for the social contract? Does it simply mean citizens should have an organised delivery of services, overseen by the state? Or does it also mean that citizens should play a role in provision of that service? If the latter is true, then how do we – organisations working towards the realisation of WASH rights – ensure that this is fulfilled? What kind of institutional structures, tools and practices need to be in place? And what language should we, as NGOs, use, especially when we face political resistance?

With these questions in mind, more than 80 practitioners and researchers from 20 countries attended a three-day 'think shop' – a learning workshop – in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. Water Witness International, Shahidi wa Maji, University of Glasgow, University of Dar-es-Salaam, Oxfam, WaterAid and Water Integrity Network co-hosted the think shop, and WaterAid’s Binesh Roy (Nepal), Rindra Rakotojoelimaria (Madagascar), Chaka Uzondu (Ghana), and Tseguereda Abraham (Ethiopia), among others, attended and shared the lessons with us.

WaterAid participants at the social accountability think shop.
WaterAid participants at the social accountability think shop.
Image: Lotte Feuerstein

Social accountability

We framed discussions using the term 'social accountability'– defined by the World Bank as an approach to governance that involves citizens and civil society organisations (CSOs) in public decision-making. Social accountability interventions can enable citizens and civil society actors to articulate their needs to governments and service-providers, and bring the perspective of citizens and CSOs to government activities such as policy-making, management of public finances and resources, and service delivery. It enables civil society to participate in monitoring the public sector and give feedback on government performance. 

The theory is that social accountability will empower citizens by: a) enabling disadvantaged and marginalised people to express their opinions and claim their rights; and b) balancing power relationships. This, it is hoped, will improve governance, development and democracy, and, ultimately, transparency and integrity in public institutions, and the efficient 'last mile' delivery of quality services to the communities and people who are hardest to reach. 

At the think shop participants shared many thought-provoking examples of social accountability measures, and lessons from implementing them. Here are our top ten takeaways:

  1. The combination of people’s participation in budgeting with a strong audit process can increase governments’ transparency and responsiveness to people’s needs. For example, in Kenya the Government has issued formal guidelines for public participation in the budgeting process, and for public sharing of quarterly budget spends.  
  2. Digital feedback systems can improve accountability. In Kenya, an app-based, real-time feedback mechanism on the quality and availability of water services, which people in Nairobi feed into directly, is leading to positive responses from the public service authorities in real time too. Government agencies monitor the data while the local CSO acts as a third-party monitor.  
  3. The ‘citizens report card’ can be an effective accountability tool for consumers to ‘score’ or rate the quality of the water and sanitation services they receive. Recent citizen score card exercises in Tamil Nadu and Odisha, India have helped to identify critical gaps in the framework and implementation of the Swachh Bharat Mission. 
  4. We must not ignore the role of culture and power in how people demand their rights. As organisations working to strengthen accountability, we must be mindful of this and seek to understand the culture and power relations at play. 
  5. Linked to the above, we need to mitigate the risk of creating ‘a monster’ – whereby only a few people are represented in accountability platforms – we must identify who is not in the room or adequately represented, and find ways to include them.
  6. We must support community-led action research to identify the real challenges individuals face, and stay longer to build the critical mass required to bring about transformative change.
  7. There is often disconnect between governments’ willingness and ability to respond to user feedback/complaints – we must understand government motivations, incentives and capacities.
  8. We must engage at multiple levels of government and use multiple methods of engagement, from written requests to public petitions (see The Ladder of Escalating Accountability Engagement, by Water Witness International, 2016).  
  9. We must capitalise on ongoing initiatives and the reformulation or creation of new policies at local and national levels to institutionalise and embed social accountability mechanisms and processes. For example, the Ethiopia Social Accountability Programme – a Government-led initiative implemented nationally at regional, woreda and kebele levels, and the WASH Ethiopia Movement and Water and Sanitation Forum.
  10. Finally, as we expand our work in this area, we must improve how we monitor changes in social accountability at the community and government levels. We must be able to identify and measure both the material changes citizens experience and the systemic changes within institutions.

The health and education sectors have been experimenting with citizen report cards and social audits for some time now; the WASH sector is now starting to catch up. We look forward to sharing our experience here on WASHMatters! Share your experiences with us on Twitter @WaterAid 

You can read the full report from the think shop here.

Avinash Kumar is Director of Programmes and Policy at WaterAid India. @Avinashkoomar Hannah Crichton-Smith is Sustainable WASH Officer at WaterAid UK. @hcrichtonsmith