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Separating the wax from the gold: social accountability in Ethiopia

This post was written by Helen Epstein, author of The Invisible Cure: Why We Are Losing the Fight Against AIDS.

I was heartened to see that Shanta Devarajan, the World Bank’s Chief Economist for Africa, blogged about my article Cruel Ethiopia in the New York Review of Books.

The article—and Dr. Devarajan’s blog—deal with the extremely delicate and complex relationship between economic and social development and human rights. He and I agree that there is no simple formula to explain this relationship. However, in order to help the poorest people realize their basic right to development, and to ensure our aid dollars are spent as effectively as possible, we need to try to understand it. That’s why I was troubled by this section of Dr. Devarajan’s blog.

Ethiopia has done well in reducing poverty and child mortality, and increasing primary completion rates because their system of delivering basic services has various elements of this accountability built in.  Local districts receive resources based on clear, data-driven formulae that can be independently verified (by third-party civil society groups). The allocation of these resources within the district is decided in community meetings, with the final budget posted on a central bulletin board for the community to see.

If only this were true.

Dr. Devarajan is describing the “social accountability” component of a World Bank-Ethiopia program to support health, education and other social services. In general, social accountability programs train community groups or NGOs to carry out surveys of local government budgets, monitor the quality of services such as clinics and schools, and publicize problems such as corruption or absenteeism among teachers and health workers. In an ideal world, these groups then work constructively and openly with local government officials to find feasible solutions to these problems.

Social accountability programs can be an extremely powerful mechanism for holding local authorities to account, building local democratic mechanisms, improving education and access to safe water, and even saving lives. A World Bank-sponsored evaluation of two such programs in Uganda found that one increased the amount of public education funding that actually reached schools nearly four-fold, and another increased the survival of children under five by one third, with no additional direct funding for health services.

When I first visited Ethiopia in late 2008, I was eager to see how the social accountability program that Dr. Devarajan refers to was working. But during the four visits I made to the country over the next 12 months, World Bank and other officials repeatedly told me the program had been only a small scale pilot program, that it had ended in 2008, and that an expanded program was planned, but would not start until after the elections in May 2010. So I am not sure what program Dr. Devarajan visited. Even in the pilot projects, the monitoring was not, by and large, done by “third party civil society” groups. Nearly all the NGOs were ruling party affiliates.

There is no automatic relationship between development and human rights. But it’s worth asking whether development can ever occur in a society where a government is deaf to its people. It seems to me that development takes root in societies that listen, either because the people truly have power, as in a democracy, or because the government is afraid of what would happen if they demanded it.

This entry was posted in Accountability and transparency, Aid policies and approaches, Books and book reviews, Democracy and freedom, Human rights and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. fundamentalist wrote:

    “There is no automatic relationship between development and human rights.”

    There may be no empirical evidence of such a link in existing development programs, but there is an historical and logical link in property rights. Property is the foundation of all human rights. If property rights are valued and respected, so will all other rights be respected. And if property rights are respected and enforced, investment will follow and development will follow investment.

    Posted July 13, 2010 at 10:41 am | Permalink
  2. fundamentalist wrote:

    PS, I think that’s the main take home pay from the works of the New Institutional School of Douglass North.

    Posted July 13, 2010 at 10:42 am | Permalink
  3. Kot wrote:

    thanks for this great article….

    Posted July 13, 2010 at 1:27 pm | Permalink
  4. Ana wrote:

    Really interesting post, and article.

    Posted July 13, 2010 at 5:13 pm | Permalink
  5. Stephen Jones wrote:

    If property rights are valued and respected, so will all other rights be respected.

    So 18th century Britain was paradise on earth?

    Posted July 13, 2010 at 7:56 pm | Permalink
  6. fundamentalist wrote:

    18th century England was far better than 17th century England, largely due to better protection for property rights that came with the Glorious Revolution. The prosperity and freedom England enjoys today is largely based on the prosperity of the past, which was based on improved property rights.

    Posted July 14, 2010 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

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    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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