Saturday, 16 October 2010


Jargon can be deadening. If it ends in ‘-ility’, I notice a lot of eyes begin to glaze over (sustainab-, accountab-, irritab- leading to early sen-). But of course big concepts like this are important. Accountability is a much-loved word in development circles because it makes donors feel safe. It holds together ideals of responsibility, attentiveness, honesty, organisation and relationship. So don’t get me wrong, I’m all for accountability. However.

It’s a salutary experience for a development worker to try to describe what accountability is, and why it matters, to a group of intelligent but semi-literate villagers. Intellectually I agree that accountability is vital. If we are not accountable, it is much harder to distinguish between dishonesty and incompetence. Bad records look like attempted fraud (and embezzlement can be disguised as disorganisation). Without it we get sloppy if we’re lazy, and carried away if we’re idealist. Accountability keeps our feet on the ground. But emotionally, it provokes very different reactions in the requester and the justifier. I see an oily shimmer, a certain oleaginous expression on the faces of funders (and donors in other kinds) that makes me yearn for a good scrub or some strigils. I find myself remembering that expression, later, and questioning their motives. Conversely, on the faces of those accounting for themselves the concentration, obsequiousness and anxiety form an uneasy alliance that is no more reassuring.

Any agency that prides itself on solidarity should be very good at keeping a respectful balance. If the receiver and the giver are both equal in value as humans, accountability should surely work both ways? Just because you the donor are accountable to the Almighty at judgement day doesn’t mean you’ve got no reporting responsibilities in the meantime. It’s an act of profound respect, equality and solidarity to give account of your work, or yourself, to people who are less powerful than you. (It also tends to be illuminating and startling, as any parent who has genuinely tried to give an honest rationale for something unwelcome to a small child will know). To expect them to be accountable to you and not to account to anyone in return may be carelessness, but it’s going to come across as arrogance.

As I tie up loose ends here in Georgetown, I’m spending a lot of time on funding and budgets. And it strikes me afresh that when funders require accountability, they should be examining themselves about what it is that they want exactly. What do they really need to know, and how will they use it? Is the information they are requesting helpful to the recipient in understanding the value of what they are doing with the money? Forms are very deadening if there is no clear reason for them.

Bid-writing, and the report-writing that follows, are so alien to any people who did not grow up hedged about with text. And when they are done, what do they prove? Apparently our Aishalton village library lends out more books than it owns, without fail every single month. Paper is no guarantee of truth, although the lies written on it can be a very useful guide as to what those reporting back THINK the donor wants. Good accountability teaches people about honesty, responsibility and the satisfaction that comes with being organised. It leaves people with a maturer organisation, or a better personal understanding of what it means to work in relationship with strangers, respecting their right to know and your own responsibility to tell the whole truth. Bad accountability is a cheap, inaccurate and inadequate substitute for spending quality, generous listening time with people, actually understanding their reality and then getting valuable feedback from them in a way that teaches everybody something. I see villagers baffled, humiliated, and often failing to get support for the real, valuable, locally-originating initiatives because they can’t articulate their way through the shiny international hoops.

Of course, if what a funder WANTS is a chance to flex their muscles, an abuse of power tidily called ‘keeping people on their toes’, then this is exactly what they will do. A funder like this will be utterly unaccountable in return. How can you tell?- ask them what accountability means and they will give you some dreck about universal standards of good practice (translation- ‘someone else says I can demand this so I haven’t stopped to think about what that means, which suits me nicely thanks’). The questions asked will be the same in Tajikistan, Trinidad, Tamil Nadu, Turkey and Tuvalu. There will be no spaces built into the process for the donor to learn anything. Their structures of accountability will be arbitrary, undiscussable and will maintain the balance of power between giver and receiver exactly as it is.

These kind of donors are the goalpost shifters. They require one set of forms and information and then add another as the previous ones have just become obsolete, sorry. They change their minds and their standards and their measuring tools; disappear, reappear and pretend everything is fine; insist on ownership and local people drawing up their own project plans, and then after months of local effort reject them because they’re not right (too old fashioned, too cheap, too expensive, too local, too international; not ‘appropriate’, which seems like a pretty fruity outsider’s oxymoron to me). This is ironic, considering that many of these funds are blood money, acquired by extremely sharp business practice or even directly from colonialism or slavery, and now being offered back (naturally in some vastly reduced proportion) as a conscience-offsetting tool. Seems rather skewed that the donors aren’t the ones on the defensive. But we all have our justifying to do, so here are your completed forms- can we please get on with the actual work now?


  1. Sarah! Points wells made, I'm totally with you. The goalpost shifters, do they know what they want? I experience at work everyday, I become so disappointed (not strong enough) at times of what I'm asked to be accountable, to fulfill a wider picture of which the reality is so far from what happens at the ground level. This makes me so disgusted and it totally defects the positive objects.

  2. Ouch! I like accountability as much as the next person, it's necessary but intrusive, and like you the question that matters is "why?"
    Some things are self-evident, but others are just so mind-boggling that we often figure that its above our paygrade and we probably won't understand the reason :-)