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Exploring the dynamics of collaborative accountability in South Africa's municipalities: the case of the Accounting for Basic Services project

Written by Isandla Institute, Chapter 4 of the State of Local Governance publication encompasses a paper that attempts to reflect on and learn from the experience of utilising accountability and collaboration in tandem, through the Accounting for Basic Services project, in the local governance space.

The term good governance is fixed in the vernacular of the international development arena, but is fantastical in reality, as it has no single or exhaustive definition, neither is there a universally accepted delimitation of its scope. As this term is normalised in governance literature, there is the risk of it being accepted as a traditional narrative – a sacred story immune to interrogation. Discussing conventional governance myths on the World Bank’s “People, Spaces, Deliberation” blog, research fellow David Booth alleges that ‘In some areas of development policy, deep-rooted assumptions are extremely hard to dislodge. Like science-fiction androids or the many-headed Hydra, these are monsters that can sustain any number of mortal blows and still regenerate. Capable researchers armed with overwhelming evidence are no threat to them’ (2015, 26 February). One of the myths he unpacks is the importance of good governance for development, questioning whether certain ideals, such as ‘transparency in public affairs, accountability of power-holders to citizens, ability of citizens to make demands’, are necessary conditions for development success. His answer is “clearly not”, citing the economic history of human progress as proof that ‘governance ideals are realised over time on the back of economic progress, not the other way round’ (2015, 26 February). Institutionally speaking, this may well be an expected position from the World Bank, but stands at odds with the practice and principles of Isandla Institute. Booth’s assertion therefore provides an interesting prism through which to reflect on the Accounting for Basic Services Project (the ABS project). In the context of the Good Governance Learning Network’s emphasis on accountability and collaboration as key values and activities driving democratic development at the local level of government in South Africa, this reflection also allows for the ABS project to be functionally chronicled so as to contribute to project implementation.

As a disclaimer, the ABS project is only halfway through its two-year implementation cycle and at the time of writing, the author (and researcher tasked with documenting the project) is still on the cusp of fully grasping the intricacies of a project of this nature. Her evidence is not yet overwhelming, neither are her capabilities infallible. That said, the dynamic synchronicity of this social accountability project has proven to be both a challenge and a capacity-building opportunity: much needed collaborative relationships are being built between citizens, civil society and the public sector while at the same time, active citizenship is being motivated through targeted capacity building. The ABS project speaks to the interdependence inherent in the concepts of accountability and collaboration, in that it has a chicken-or-egg type of tension regarding what is more imperative: the need to build those relationships (i.e. in response to corruption or poor service delivery as systemic challenges) or the attempt to motivate individuals and institutions to collaborate to improve accountability.

This paper is an attempt at reflecting on and learning from the experience of utilising accountability and collaboration in tandem, through the ABS project, in the local governance space. A summary of the context in which this paper is written is provided, namely, the ABS project as a good governance endeavour and experiment at the local level. Thereafter, a brief summary of the approach, theoretical foundation and value framework grounding this research is given. This structure allows for a summary of the pertinent details of ABS project activities, followed by emergent findings put forth as preliminary evidence to support the importance of accountability and collaboration for good governance specifically, and development more broadly.

Written by: Sindi-Leigh McBride

A copy of Chapter 4 can be downloaded below.


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Sharing the common goal of promoting participatory, effective, accountable and pro-poor local governance, the network strives to provide an interface for civil society organisations to network and share information towards strengthening local democracy in South Africa.