Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Innovations: The AccountAbility Story

Dec 19, 2006

People championing social justice confront something of a paradox. Mainstream institutions responsible for addressing the challenges of development, human rights, health, education, security, and sustainability have never seemed more paralyzed and ineffective. As a consequence, each year ushers in social breakdowns leading to war, persecution, disease, and environmental catastrophes.

At the same time, we are witnessing a growing wellspring of innovative solutions—from the application of market-driven principles to social justice, to the creation of new performance standards, to the formation of multi-sector partnerships designed to combine the best of what business, government, and NGOs can offer.

Each of these innovative ideas addresses the symptoms of disintegrating social justice, but they often skirt root causes. At the root of many social justice challenges are gaps in the definition, design, and implementation of accountability.

Anwar Ibrahim, former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia and Honorary President of AccountAbility, states:

The world is awash with accountability. And yet some of our greatest achievements in [accountability] are now characterized by bureaucratic excess and decay, if not outright greed and corruption. The crisis of legitimacy facing governments and multilateral institutions places us in a unique but not unfamiliar historical moment. Just as yesterday’s innovations were once a sign of great hope, we must reinvent accountability for the 21st century.

AccountAbility’s mission is to advance innovations in accountability in order to promote sustainable development. Now in our 11th year, our approach rests on working collaboratively on several levels. We strive to build the definitions and requirements for accountability and sustainable development in the 21st century. As AccountAbility CEO Simon Zadek characterizes it, "In its widest sense… accountability is about civilizing power for the preservation of freedom and justice."

A definition of accountability starts by holding institutions and their leaders accountable, building mechanisms to comply with the terms of accountability, and transparently reporting on performance. These are the bedrock principles. But delivering social justice demands more.

New forms of participation are needed to give a voice to citizens over the decisions that impact on their lives. This means building explicit compacts and related stakeholder engagement mechanisms that establish mutual accountability among leaders, institutions, and citizens. Forming mutual accountability helps create the constraints that ensure freedom, rather than the constraints that bind freedom.

Institutions and stakeholders should identify collaboratively the social justice goals and measurable objectives that institutions must strive to deliver. In this way, accountability becomes a performance driver rather than a constraint. The goal is what Zadek calls dynamic accountability: The terms must adapt as engaged stakeholders respond to progress and setbacks.

An example is Petrotesting, S.A., an oil exploration and production company based in Colombia. Working in rural areas suffering from high levels of poverty and civil strife, Petrotesting faces security challenges and confronts expectations of support for local community development. But Petrotesting decided against following the typical path of most extractive companies that work in conflict zones.

Most follow a three-part strategy of making philanthropic investments for schools, roads, and hospitals, hiring paramilitary security forces, and pressuring the government to provide insulation. This strategy has failed in numerous cases, often with devastating results for communities and companies.

Petrotesting has taken a different approach. It has built mechanisms to create dialogue with community and village leaders. Petrotesting holds itself accountable to respond to community concerns, and builds community investment initiatives that respond to needs and goals to create sustainable livelihoods. One such initiative is working with the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation and local farmers to create bio-diesel from yucca.

In addition, Petrotesting uses its influence to work with local governments. The company commits to supporting local government initiatives and training civil servants. In return, it asks the local government to publish how it uses tax revenue received by the company. A final step is to convene company and community leaders to plan development strategies.

As a result, communities are experiencing better job growth and fewer health problems. The company has experienced a marked decrease in security incidents and lost production days. This is but one example. Companies such as CEMEX, Diageo, GE, IBM, Levi’s, and Nike have all begun to experiment, using accountability with societal stakeholders as a means to shape strategy, innovation, and community development.

Over the years AccountAbility has focused on a core set of tactics. We endeavor to influence the public policies that form the global accountability architecture and generate incentives. We support and influence leading standards in the field of accountability practice—providing innovative tools and frameworks for leaders, be they government officials, CEOs, or NGOs.

Early on, AccountAbility developed radical yet practical standards that make a difference in how organizations behave and to whom they are accountable. As more corporations and NGOs and their intermediaries adopted AccountAbility’s standards and frameworks, it became increasingly apparent that focusing on one sector was insufficient.

Our second generation of work has focused on broader strategy and policy frameworks, such as responsible competitiveness. Responsible Competitiveness catalyzes governments to create incentives for markets that internalize social and environmental costs into products and services. Competing responsibly should help enhance competitiveness and development.

Our third generation of work extends to other types of organizations, crucially public-private partnerships and civil society organizations. Partnership Governance & Accountability derives from a proposition that today’s multi-stakeholder partnerships are the prototypes of tomorrow’s institutional norms, so the manner in which they are held to account is critical.

One example is the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a British Government–sponsored initiative to promote transparent government reporting of revenues derived from mineral resource extraction. EITI is a multi-stakeholder initiative. Through partnerships between government, companies, and civil society, EITI seeks to ensure the transparency of payments by companies to government, and of revenues received by those governments.

Another is Stop TB Partnership, established in 2000 to realize the goal of eliminating tuberculosis as a public health problem. It comprises a network of international organizations, countries, donors from the public and private sectors, governments, and nongovernmental organizations. The partnership aims to provide global leadership, strategy, and coordinating mechanisms. Its priorities are to expand, adapt, and improve strategies to control and eliminate TB.

AccountAbility’s research finds that often partnerships acquire many of the same governance and accountability deficiencies as their progenitors. The most successful partnerships build governance and accountability along certain principles. They support the qualities and goals of the partnership; they establish clear strategic targets; they acknowledge the individuals objectives of each partner; and they build in strong mechanisms to hold themselves accountable to stakeholders.

Meeting the growing challenges of social justice with the policy of "more"—more aid, more projects, more calls for democracy—will ensure only that resources get expended. Without a development strategy that views accountability as the core strategic driver of change, we can expect that despite the best of intentions progress will move sporadically and stagnate.

"Our challenge," says Anwar Ibrahim, "is to reinvent accountability in order to create a 21st Century that we can be proud of, and not merely a century through which we are able to survive."

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