The gap between theory and reality

In the governance arena, development assistance is typically underpinned by a number of “theories of change” or assumptions about how reform will happen. This was very much in evidence in the GOVNET case studies. Programme implementation necessarily involved a theory about “what might cause change”, even though that theory may not have been explicit (Pawson and Tilley, 1997). This provided the hypothesis for how, and for whom, a given programme might “work” - thus providing a legitimate basis or rationale for carrying out the planned assistance.

While the case studies all represented very different contexts, many of the key objectives and theories about how change was to happen - as a result of donor support - were quite consistent. For example, the rationale for support to demand-side accountability was that increasing citizens’ voices would make public institutions more responsive to citizen needs or demands and, in turn, make them more accountable. Common approaches to decentralisation assumed it would reduce the space between citizens and decision makers, enhance citizen voice and strengthen accountability relationships between the two groups of actors. Similarly, increased transparency in state decision making was assumed to facilitate greater accountability to citizens.

While these “theories of change” seem reasonable, the case studies reveal that programming assumptions were, at times, far removed from power and political realities on the ground, and which were not able to adequately address the interaction between formal and informal political processes. The overall emphasis was on technical, rather than political, engagement, and so did not relate to functional accountability dynamics in these countries. Local donor communities appeared to have had great difficulties in coming to terms with the overlay of politics, power relationships and incentive structures that affected governance and accountability and within which their development co-operation approaches and instruments needed to function and achieve results.

For example, the majority of support to parliament involved technical assistance to draft bills; expert analysis; and support to strengthen parliaments’ representational, legislative and oversight functions. In general, these generic forms of capacity development or technical assistance have not effectively engaged with the wider political context. At times, they have struggled to link support programmes to the realities of the wider political context or to the informal “rules of the game”. In Mali, for instance, support to parliament does little to engage with informal accountability systems or traditions of consensual politics that challenge some of the prescribed roles for parliament in the formal budget process (Box 2.1).

Over the past decade, Uganda has benefitted from support for budget monitoring (largely conducted by national CSOs) and for encouraging more participatory planning processes. However, a number of historical legacies and structural constraints contradict current assumptions about how accountability systems operate. For example, the dominance of neo-patrimonial practices in Uganda means that its political system is reliant on the generation and distribution of substantial patronage resources, which flow outward from the centre, but also reach down to local levels (Box 2.2; Booth and Golooba-Mutebi, 2009). Some have argued that attempts to build accountability mechanisms in Uganda therefore face particular challenges when they make “...over-optimistic and simplistic assumptions about the feasibility and utility of popular participation in the context of a weak state with a history of political oppression and poor service provision” (Golooba-Mutebi, 2005:168-169).

Box 2.1. Characteristics of consensual politics in Mali

Past experiences of colonialism and dictatorship, combined with ethnic and regional diversities, have contributed to a political culture in Mali which emphasises decision by consensus. This is reflected in the dominance of “cousinage” relations, in which patterns of political interaction are mediated through reference to familial relations, or the use of so-called “joking relationships” which allow conflict or tensions to be voiced in humorous rather than confrontational ways. These all potentially challenge models which assume that political competition is a part of decision making (for example as in many multi-party systems). Moreover, this culture of consensus creates strong informal accountability relationships within and between actors which can be overlooked by donors. Few aspects of donor support to parliament in Mali have engaged substantively with these realities.

Source: OECD (forthcoming), Donor Support to Domestic Accountability: Budget Processes and Service Delivery in Mali, OECD, Paris.

Box 2.2. The realities of citizen participation in Uganda’s budget monitoring arrangements

The GOVNET case study identified a number of historical and structural features which limited citizens’ substantive participation in planning and overseeing budgets. These included:

  • • practices of vote-buying and patronage, which complicated the ability of citizens to hold officials to account - instead, citizens reward politicians (with their votes) for the benefits they can expect to receive (in terms of preferential treatment or access to particular resources);
  • • political cultures and histories which reinforce obedience and deference to those in authority (see also Golooba-Mutebi, 2005); and
  • • widespread apathy and cynicism concerning public affairs, particularly the use of public resources.

This meant that budget conferences at district levels, for example, were mere “rituals” with little substantive space for citizens and civil society groups to contribute or influence planning decisions and little appetite on the part of citizens themselves to engage.

Furthermore, even though the weakness of political parties (particularly in relation to accountability) was readily evident across all the GOVNET case studies - characterised by poor links to citizens, weakly institutionalised structures, fragmented opposition and a lack of robust legal and regulatory frameworks - donors’ standard political party support (where it existed) often focused on technical assistance which did little to engage with these deeper, structural challenges.

The case studies also revealed weaknesses in donor “standard operating procedures” and “comfort zones” that often resulted in either potentially dysfunctional or ineffective support (Box 2.3):

  • • Donors tended to provide significant resources to some actors or institutions (CSOs) but relatively smaller amounts to other actors (parliaments and political parties). Such “unbalanced” support tends to further skew disparities in capacity and influence across the wider accountability system. In countries like Uganda and Mali, for example, support to formal CSOs may actually crowd out support to other organisations (including community-based groups, social movements, religious groups, trade unions, professional associations, etc.). This creates accountability systems in which some actors and institutions have growing capacity (such as state accountability institutions including national audit offices, CSOs), while other parts of that system remain chronically weak (such as grassroots organisations, parliamentarians, or judiciaries). Recent research reinforces case study conclusions by showing that similar imbalances inhibit the effectiveness of donor support for other accountability functions, such as gender-sensitive policy making (Castillejo, 2011: 14, DFID, 2011: 4-14).
  • • Donors can tend to overestimate the ability of one set of actors (such as CSOs) to affect change on their own. In Uganda, Mali and elsewhere, significant support has been directed to CSOs engaged in budget monitoring for service delivery - but rarely in ways which facilitated connections to other processes, such as formal audit processes, parliamentary investigations, or political parties’ policy development. Without this, these CSOs are constrained in their ability to gain traction and realise significant changes. Moreover, working with particular actors or institutions largely in isolation may in fact reinforce already weak links between institutions. For example, across the GOVNET case studies there was a common lack of sharing of relevant information among different accountability actors. This compromised scrutiny and oversight roles (e.g. audit institutions, parliaments, civil society, the media), undermining the accountability system as a whole.

Box 2.3. Dysfunctional versus joined-up donor support

In Uganda, national urban-based CSOs were found to be competing against one another for donor funding rather than co-operating to support change.

In Mozambique, a survey conducted by the Foundation for Community Development found that CSOs competed for the same donor funds, which discouraged co-ordination, collaboration and coalition-building - in turn weakening their individual and collective advocacy work.

In Mali, donors recognised a similar shortcoming in their funding mechanisms and launched a multi-donor fund in 2009, the Programme d’Appui aux Organisaions de la Societe Civile (PAOSC), designed to support networks and coalitions of CSOs around specific themes, rather than funding individual organisations.

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