Six things you need to know about social accountability and WASH

6 min read
Image: WaterAid/Habibul Haque

Social accountability is an essential part of efforts to achieve universal access to water and sanitation. Louisa Gosling, WaterAid’s Quality Programmes Manager, reports on key lessons heard at the Global Partnership for Social Accountability forum in Washington, DC.

The Global Partnership for Social Accountability (GPSA) forum at the World Bank, on 19-20 May, was a fascinating opportunity to learn from the experience of civil society and government representatives from around the world. Social accountability means empowering citizens and making governments more accountable, closing the gap between what citizens want and what governments actually do. There are many ways to do this, and there’s much to be learned from the experiences of the forum participants.

So here are six things I think you should know about social accountability and WASH.

1. Social accountability is critical to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – including Goal 6 on water and sanitation

The voice of citizens is essential to make service delivery equitable and sustainable, as well as being a democratic imperative. In fact, accountability was described in the keynote speech as ‘...the defining idea in 21st century politics; the most profound driver for change in the world today’. Citizens everywhere are calling for greater integrity and to clamp down on corruption in governments.

…but a few words of realism from the forum: 

  • There are also strong global trends against accountability and towards more autocratic leaders, diminishing space for civil society.  
  • Social accountability is all about power and power relations.  
  • Beware of tokenistic participation, or ‘insultation’, or, in the words of a French graffiti artist in Paris: “Je participe, tu participes, il participe, elle participe, nous participons, vous participez, ils profitent”. 
  • There was also a direct challenge from one participant from civil society who said 'If you want governments to listen to us, shut down the World Bank. The reason corrupt governments don’t listen to citizens is because they get money from the World Bank and are on its Board.' This highlights the risks associated with large investments from outside the country, which can undermine domestic accountability. 

2. Some specific lessons on accountability in the water sector 

WaterAid’s experiences of the human rights-based approach and governance and transparency have shown the relevance and effectiveness of working with communities to understand their rights, supporting them to hold duty bearers to account, while working with the duty bearers to develop their capability and willingness to respond to communities. Discussions at the forum about constructive engagement between civil society organisations and government were very relevant for this work.

Helvetas and Water Integrity Network shared experiences of context-specific efforts to fight corruption and increase accountability, transparency and participation. These organisations have helped improve citizens’ interactions with authorities, public service delivery and budget control. Research from the Universidad de los Andes emphasised that context is critical – ideas of governance and incentives are very different in different models.

Discussions exposed complexities in the water sector when it comes to making service providers more accountable to citizens: 

  • The complex mixture of stakeholders in the water sector makes it hard to unravel unclear and overlapping responsibilities. 
  • The low level of knowledge and capacities of citizens in relation to their rights to water and sanitation, their responsibilities, and in many contexts the very low capacity of government and service providers to respond to demands to deliver services. 
  • Competing demands for water from private, public and domestic users, for industrial and agricultural purposes. Competition between water as an economic or social good. 
  • The importance of vertical accountability at every level between citizens and local government upwards to line ministries and ministries of finance. Champions for universal WASH access exist at all layers of government and service provision (like the procurement superhero in this RWSN video), but are often impeded by lack of political will, resources, and accountability from levels above them. The challenge is to create an enabling environment, reinforcing mechanisms and cultures for accountability.

3. Human rights can strengthen accountability 

WaterAid has found that in many situations raising awareness of water and sanitation as human rights closely links to other rights such as education, health, child rights and women’s rights, and has helped to deepen commitment from service providers and service users. It can also generate a deeper sense of WASH as an entitlement for all, irrespective of who you are. Human rights is a powerful idea that focusses on reaching the most marginalised, and seeks to address the power relationships between communities and duty bearers. WASH organisations are increasingly recognising this. For example End Water Poverty is a global civil society coalition of 350 members working together to hold governments accountable to realise the human rights to water and sanitation. 

4. Move from transparency to accountability 

Increasing transparency on its own does not ensure accountability, but it does play an important role. There have been several examples of good use of data in the education sector – such as civil society organisations using government data to show where resources went missing, and parents texting digital platforms when teachers don’t turn up at school. In the water sector, WASHwatch plays an important role using data to coordinate monitoring of national commitments, and waterpoint mapping and sector monitoring are ways in which WaterAid supports better access to information. But we can learn more from others about how to sharpen our use of data to have more influence; ‘Find out what the government priorities are and find the data to fit’ was a good tip from the forum.

5. Learn and adapt – context is everything, and it changes 

‘Adaptive management’ was a hot topic. It means learning as you go and changing what you do if necessary, and is essential to fit social accountability work to the context. Experiences shared from Mexico, South Africa and Ethiopia showed the need to adapt approaches to address the specific cultural values, social norms and varying levels of democratic practice and impunity in different countries. In many cases there are huge challenges, but participants shared inspiring examples of progress.

6. Integrate and collaborate for accountability

Social accountability is not sector specific, but requires a change in culture and practice across all areas of public service and rights. 

There is huge potential for better integration between social accountability activities in WASH and other sectors like education, health, climate change, extractives, and the decentralisation of services. WASH is a critical issue in, for example, education, but the priorities for education activists are text books and teachers. We need to understand each other’s priorities and push together for more accountable and inclusive institutions and the realisation of human rights. 


The WASH sector has traditionally focussed more on technical solutions, service delivery and governance. It is clear we can do much more to fill the accountability gap, and we need to. WaterAid’s strategy recognises that reaching everyone everywhere depends on governments and other service providers fulfilling their duties, and communities holding them to account. 

The GPSA offers a great opportunity to develop stronger understanding and practice of social accountability in the WASH sector. It is a funding stream to develop capacity on social accountability and good governance, a knowledge, learning and sharing platform on social accountability experiences, and a partnership of more than 283 global partners exchanging knowledge, research, and technical assistance. 

Louisa Gosling tweets as @LouisaGosling1