How can social protection practitioners become better at enabling citizens to raise grievances and hold government officials to account?
Development Pathways, DFID, Age International and HelpAge International last week brought together a group of experts to discuss recent research by Development Pathways on social accountability initiatives in social protection, writes Rasmus Schjoedt.
Presenting the key findings of the research, Tamsin Ayliffe, the team leader of the research project, emphasised the need to start thinking much more strategically about how to use social accountability mechanisms in social protection programmes.
First of all, social accountability should not be considered as a stand-alone, add-on activity. Rather, enabling social accountability needs to be an integrated part of social protection programme design. For example, for citizens to be able to hold officials to account, they need to know who is eligible for which benefits. This means that eligibility criteria and calculation of benefit levels have to be transparent.
Programme design also needs to consider how the institutional arrangements in a programme can facilitate accountability, for example by ensuring that officials have the capacity and incentives to respond to citizen grievances.
However, even if programmes are not well-designed, the research shows that social accountability initiatives can still make a positive difference in some cases.
Recommendations for developing social accountability strategies include that initiatives should: be grounded in contextual analysis, join up local and national-level actions, and incorporate specific measures to empower the most marginalised.
They should also integrate effective monitoring and evaluation to strengthen the evidence base, a point that was also emphasised by professor Maxine Molyneux from University College London in her comments on the presentation. Professor Molyneux noted that, to date, there has been remarkably little research on social accountability in social protection, despite its importance.
She also emphasised the importance of a strong legal framework of entitlements and a rule of law system. For social accountability to work, citizens need to feel that they can take part; that they have entitlements.
This is much more difficult for people who are socially excluded, and there is a need to consider much more how to include women, people with disabilities and other marginalised groups in social accountability initiatives.
Simple eligibility and flexibility on grievances key
Salum Rashid Mohamed, Head of the Social Protection Unit in Zanzibar – presenting the challenges and achievements of social accountability in Zanzibar’s Universal Pension Scheme (ZUPS) – said simple eligibility criteria and a flexible mechanism for grievances is key for successful social accountability.
In the case of Zanzibar, older people are able to complain at several different levels of government, and it was emphasised how simple eligibility criteria, the flat rate benefit level and the simple and easily accessible application process of the programme has helped ensure an effective grievance mechanism.
In addition, the Zanzibar Universal Pension Scheme’s monthly cash payment events are used by government officials to collect complaints and provide clarifications through face-to-face meetings with citizens.
The Zanzibar case also showed how older people’s organisations have played an important role in assisting people to use the complaints mechanism, as well as creating awareness of, and a sense of entitlement to, the transfer in a short period of time.
This has likely contributed to the programme’s coverage now reaching 99 per cent of the eligible population, according to Charles Knox-Vydmanov, Global Social Protection Advisor with HelpAge International (Figure 1).
The data comes from citizen monitoring of the Zanzibar pension facilitated by HelpAge International.
Figure 2 shows data on whether older people understand why they receive the transfer. From a relatively low level right after the introduction of the programme, the proportion of people with knowledge of the purpose of the programme increased rapidly during the first four months of implementation.
As the Figure also shows, awareness of the universal Zanzibar pension is much higher than of the poverty targeted programmes in Kenya and Mozambique, as well as of the Senior Citizens’ Grant in Uganda, which is universal in some districts, but not in others.
The survey data also identified the most common complaints, which include mostly issues related to payments.
According to Mr. Mohammed, there have been some positive responses from the government to these issues. For example, grievances about long distances to receive payments have now led to a doubling of the number of pay-points.
In general, he explained, the government of Zanzibar has been very active in addressing the main collective issues raised through the grievances mechanism and by older people’s organisations.
However, he also pointed out that local authorities have been less responsive in dealing with individual complaints, the majority of which are directed to the local level.
One of the key requirements in order to strengthen the grievance mechanism now is therefore strengthening the capacity of local officials to respond.
Taking the agenda forward
Going forward, there is clearly a need for more research on social accountability in the social protection sector. Practitioners need to engage in experiments and creative solutions, combined with strong documentation and learning.
Based on the experience in Zanzibar, capacity building of local governments to enable them to be responsive to grievances raised by citizens is a priority. A key finding from our research was also that state action is often the binding constraint for social accountability initiatives, and there is a need for more research on barriers to state responsiveness, both in the form of incentives and capacity.
There are clearly important roles to play for both civil society organisations and development partners in improving accountability in social protection programmes.
The experience of HelpAge International with citizens’ monitoring shows that civil society organisations can make important contributions to strengthening social accountability in social protection programmes.
The organisation has also been successful in linking local citizen monitoring initiatives to their national and international advocacy work to increase access to social pensions.
With the increasing importance of the social protection sector, it would be beneficial for more civil society organisations working on social accountability to engage with the sector.
Development partners also have a key role to play. However, one concern that was raised during the discussion was how the UK government, as outsiders, can get involved in this work, given that strengthening of social accountability and social protection systems are very much political processes, which should be grounded in national public debates.
One example of how this can be done was mentioned during the discussion: in Uganda, DFID has successfully navigated the very political process of introducing the Senior Citizens’ Grant, and have contributed positively to a national public debate about social protection.
But, as was also pointed out, this does require that agencies are able and willing to start thinking politically, and accept that it is not possible to control the outcome of a political process.