Weekly Insights and Analysis

Locally Led and Politically Smart Routes to Accountable Governance in Pakistan

January 14, 2015

By Thomas Kirk

Commentators on citizen-led accountability programs in persistently underdeveloped and conflict-prone states frequently advocate approaches that “work with the grain” of local social norms and institutions. At the same time, it is argued that local ownership of such initiatives requires donors and outsiders to work at “arm’s length,” allowing citizens the freedom to identify their own issues and design context sensitive solutions. While I wholeheartedly agree with such calls, this blog introduces research from Pakistan that raises a number of considerations for those designing accountability programs that subscribe to these aims.

Moving beyond tools and training for social accountability

Following the work of Amartya Sen, many argue that accountable governance institutions matter for human development. They suggest that the powerlessness that stems from unaccountability is a constitutive element of poverty, and that citizens’ political participation is required to push equitable public goods provision, pro-poor policies, and the realization of their rights.

While many organizations work on the supply side of accountability by directly reforming governance institutions, demand-side programs often aim to help citizens find their “voice” to advocate for “responsive” governance. To do this, social accountability programs have traditionally included efforts to train citizens to “name and shame” unresponsive officials, politicians, and institutions. This training mixes the skills common to political activists such as protesting and conducting media campaigns, with more technical expertise like citizen scorecards and budget monitoring.

This approach to accountability, however, has not been without criticism. For instance, it is sometimes argued that such tools assume an adversarial relationship between civil society and the state. In some contexts, this may create or intensify animosities between these groups. Evidence from Pakistan has also found that donor funding to civil society organizations can cause them to lose local legitimacy as they re-orientate their activities to donor priorities. In turn, this can significantly reduce their ability to get things done. Perhaps most worryingly, these tools may be applied without accounting for the unique ideas, interests, histories, and political realities that shape governance in each context.

Emerging research suggests that responsive governance and desired reforms arise when coalitions of actors inside and outside of the state take up citizens’ demands and work together (see here, here, and here). In many contexts, successful coalitions for change often include people who do not traditionally fulfill governance roles in Western societies, such as businessmen or religious leaders, and those that may contravene liberal ideas of civil society, such as tribal elders or militia leaders. What is common among these leaders, though, is the power, social capital, and motivation to drive change.

This research also suggests that many of the obstacles to accountable governance are collective action problems. Thus they are unlikely to be solved by technical solutions offered or implemented by outsiders. Accepting this requires donors to work at arm’s length, allowing local coalitions to form, identify problems, and devise solutions in ways suitable to their contexts, while only offering technical advice when asked. Some describe such an approach as “politically smart and locally led.”

Working with the grain and building local coalitions for change in Pakistan

The Asia Foundation’s program, Supporting Transparency, Accountability, and Electoral Process in Pakistan (STAEP), implemented in collaboration with the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) and supported by United Kingdom’s Department of International Development (DFID) from 2011 to late 2014, is a good example of this approach in action. STAEP trained and supported 200 volunteer constituency relations groups (CRGs) that came together to identify 44,000 demands of citizens in their communities and brought them to the attention of power-holders. Of these demands, 26,214 were addressed by authorities. DFID’s evaluations marked the CRGs as a success and praised them for their inclusivity, volunteerism, and ability to advocate for constituency level issues against a background of acute need and weak state institutions.

CRG in Rawalpindi

A CRG in Rawalpindi comes together to discuss their community priorities. Photo/Sara Farid

Alongside including those from marginalized groups, STAEP’s managers were keen to recruit CRG members with local connections and influence. They also sought members with relevant skills and knowledge such as government employees, lawyers, social workers, and ex-union council members. It was hypothesized that this would allow the CRGs to draw on the support of existing citizens’ associations and quickly legitimize their work among local power-holders. Indeed, program staff argued that they saw this as a way of working with the grain of local politics.

In a recent paper for the London School of Economics and Political Science’s Justice and Security Research Programme, I present the findings from a 3-month field study of five of the CRGs that served peaceful and conflict-affected constituencies. The former consisted of CRGs in Multan and Lahore; the latter of CRGs in Karachi, Swat and Peshawar.

The paper’s first concern is with how the CRGs got things done. Knowing that power is dispersed in Pakistan and rarely solely in the hands of officials and politicians, the research sought to understand the CRGs’ routes to accountable governance. In some sense, this inquiry was undertaken to challenge the simplistic depiction of the short and long routes to accountability found in the World Development Report 2004 on which many social accountability programs are based.

The second concern is with how the drive to include both local power brokers and the marginalized affected the work of the CRGs. It was hypothesized that this would be a major tension as the patron-client based politics common to Pakistan means that local governance institutions often work in the favour of one group to the detriment of others. Thus the inclusion of the marginalized positioned the CRGs to challenge existing power structures and necessitated a close engagement with the everyday power and politics of Pakistan.

With respect to these aims, it was found that within the CRGs small core groups carried out the majority of the advocacy work, and these groups were most often dominated by wealthy, educated, and male CRG members.

I also found that, particularly in the conflict-affected constituencies, the CRGs struggled to engage power-holders. This meant that some groups choose to engage in activities outside of the program’s scope, including taking service delivery into their own hands and setting up local dispute resolution forums.

Many of the CRGs also looked beyond their own memberships and worked with local power-holders to access hard to reach communities or used their connections to local influencers, such as local landlords, religious leaders, and community elders, to mediate on their behalf with officials or politicians.

Politically smart and locally led?

Although the paper argues that the STAEP and the CRGs represent an encouraging effort to acknowledge the power and politics of Pakistan, these findings raise a number of considerations for those planning accountability programs in similar contexts:

Firstly, while practical, the de facto division of labor seen in the CRGs runs the risk that such groups will be captured by a small core group of members with the necessary money and skills. This may ultimately create another layer of powerbrokers between citizens and the state. With this in mind, donors must carefully consider how the voice of the marginalized can be assured throughout the group activities.

Second, where the ability of citizens’ groups to engage power-holders is severely limited by conflict or other factors, it may be worth exploring alternative ways that groups can work toward the resolution of local issues. It could be argued that the local innovations of the CRGs should be acknowledged by donors, supported and viewed as a useful second best to responsive governance. The example of citizens striking out on their own, getting things done, and governing themselves may prompt the state to re-examine what is possible in difficult contexts. However, there is also a real danger that such independence lets the state off its obligations or is viewed as too confrontational by local power-holders.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, while at first glance the CRGs’ practice of engaging local influencers to mediate on their behalf appears in accord with a “working with the grain” approach, it may also have unwittingly strengthened the networks and institutions that distance citizens from the state and allow governance institutions to remain unaccountable. This is especially a danger when and where local influencers occupy informal positions in oppressive or exclusionary local political settlements, and where they stand to gain legitimacy by helping citizens to engage the state.

While it is largely impossible to offer hard and fast answers for these types of challenges, these considerations demand further exploration of what it means to be politically smart, locally led, to work with the grain, and at arm’s length. It is important for donors wishing to follow such prescriptions to devise ways of supporting local organizations to find innovative solutions while assuring that they are not strengthening the very institutions they should seek to challenge. This will likely require honest conversations between donors and the groups and individuals they seek to support, with attention paid to where formal and informal power lies in each context, and the potential trade-offs between including the marginalized, getting things done, or holding off on desired goals until suitable opportunities arise.

Thomas Kirk is a researcher with the London School of Economics and Political Science’s Justice and Security Research Programme. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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