Reimagining accountability in international development

Anna Martin
Good Thinking

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What if being accountable were a daily and relational practice?

The tools of evaluation are very often used for the purposes of accountability. In fact, the increased use of evaluation within international development has been driven largely by the frameworks of good governance and transparency. From this root a whole host of accountability lookalikes pop up. Accountability becomes technical and procedural, not ethical, political, or relational.

Accountability within international development is:

Donor-centric. A measurement against whatever standard and outcome has been set as desirous and necessary by the donor.

Control oriented. “Foreign assistance donors usually want more certainty.” Planning and assessing whether an implementing partner did what it said it would provide this perceived control.

Capitalistic. What international development is accountable for is the expenditure of money according to plans and in a transparent manner. This remains largely divorced from process, relationships, and certainly, from impact.

Procedural. The almighty work plan — accountability is assessed by comparing what you intended with what happened, and they should match.

Surface deep. Action to correct complaints and merely listening to feedback in the course of program implementation.

by Saad Murtadha

How could it look different?

In general, having accountability within any system is an important component of staying in right relationship. This goes for interpersonal interactions, as well as entire systems of governance and everything in between. When we are accountable to each other we are holding each other whole — in all the human messiness that might entail.

I’ve been avidly listening to the Finding Our Way podcast, hosted by somatics practitioner, political organizer, and writer Prentis Hemphill.

Prentis Hemphill (they/them)

On Season 2, episode 5 in which they are their own guest, Prentis pulled me into a conversation on accountability:

“Accountability is a way that we live in relationship to one another. It’s actually a component of the every day. That we are in the kind of relationship with ourselves first, where we know that we are changing, we are growing, we are making mistakes, and we live inside of communities that have that same knowledge.

I think that begins to have it be so that accountability doesn’t become an event, but as a daily practice of “oh I could have done this differently” “oh this isn’t actually in alignment with my values” or “I see you doing something that’s not in alignment with who you are”.

An every day practice of taking those small risks to change how we show up.”

As an evaluator within international development I am confronted with and invited into spaces on behalf of an idea of accountability. I am seeking alternative understandings and lived ways of being accountable, and imagining how they could be applied and activated within evaluation. To this end, there is much to learn from Indigenous cultures and scholars.

Author and researcher Shawn Wilson has written a beautiful book—Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods—in which puts forth relational accountability as fundamental to an Indigenous research paradigm. This sounds esoteric, but he eloquently explains things in plain terms:

“A paradigm is a set of underlying beliefs that guide our actions. So a research paradigm is the beliefs that guide our actions as researchers. These beliefs include the way that we view reality (ontology), how we think about or know this reality (epistemology), our ethics and morals (axiology) and how we go about gaining more knowledge about reality (methodology).” p.13

Throughout the book he warmly invites us into relationship with him, as he generously models the research paradigm he is simultaneously explaining.

“The shared aspect of an Indigenous ontology and epistemology is relationality (relationships do not merely shape reality, they are reality). The shared aspect of Indigenous axiology and methodology is accountability to relationships. . . [these] can be put into practice through choice of research topic, methods of data collection, form of analysis and presentation of information.” p.7

How might this show up in practice?

I am at the beginning of learning about relational accountability. I am aware of the many ways it is outside of the white culture in which I have been brought up and which holds power within international development. I can speak to my own current practice as a micro-business owner and consultant in evaluation, strategy, and design.

  • We try to do contracting in a more relational manner and leave room for learning, pivots in response to new information, mistakes, and moving more at the speed of trust. This means work plans and deliverables that include planned pauses for adjusting the timeline and methods. It also means at least two conversations before contracting so that shared expectations, priorities, and scope can be mutually agreed upon.
  • For now, we don’t very often bid on mid-term or final evaluations — the ones whose primary purpose is one of accountability as currently defined within international development. Many of these engagements leave such little room for relationship and who prioritize objectivity and impartiality.
  • We seek work that moves accountability to be much more upstream than just during program implementation. We want to be present for, hold space for, and advocate for bringing accountability into decisions of what gets funded, who gets funded, naming of priorities, etc. Items which need to be decided in relationship.

I’d love to hear from you. What does this spark for you?

In inquiry,

Anna

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Anna Martin
Good Thinking

Evaluator, Social Worker, Facilitator, Complexity Coach, curious mischief maker and co-founder of Picture Impact.