Social accountability: Buzzword or boost for child rights?

In 2015 the world will move into the “post MDG” era, with a new development agenda. Deliberations and preparations for this are already well underway, and for those of us working for the wellbeing of children, it is crucial that this new agenda can fulfil the rights that children have – faster and more evenly.

One of the potential frameworks to achieving just this, is that of social accountability – when citizens and civil society organisations hold governments accountable for the commitments they have made to realising the rights of their citizens, and improving their lives.

But is social accountability just another jargon phrase used by those working in development – or does it present a real opportunity to advance child rights?

In an attempt to answer this question, last month UNICEF organised a workshop on “Child Rights and Social Accountability in the Post-2015 World”. It saw an eclectic group of people come together to learn from experience and to help understand different views on the connection between children, rights, development outcomes and social accountability. It also helped to clear up some myths around what social accountability initiatives can deliver – and potentially they can’t.

So, do social accountability Initiatives…

… help to accelerate results for children? Social Accountability initiatives seem to work well for improving the quality of services. If used in the frame of participatory advocacy efforts, they can also help to expand service delivery and improve government policy, including national and municipal budget allocations. However, there seems to be so far less evidence for the latter. Working from a rights-based perspective, this way of questioning is however, not very helpful; the better question is: do social accountability initiatives…

… help to realise rights? Involving children and youth social accountability efforts such as assessing, monitoring and reporting on the quality of services by using scorecards or engaging them in participatory budgeting does not only help to improve the quality of government services for children and potentially can expand them, it does also realise children’s civil rights. These include the rights of freedom of expression, gathering, dissemination and access to information, or the right to organise. It’s essential that social accountability initiatives with children are ethical and take adequate consideration of children’s protection. And directly related: it is essential to ensure better protection of children’s civil rights under national legal frameworks if we want to ensure enabling conditions for child sensitive social accountability.

… create greater equity in service delivery? Not necessarily. Unless groups of particularly marginalised people are actively supported to make use of and are being associated to social accountability initiatives, it is unlikely that their rights and needs are taken into account. This requires that public officials and civil society understand the importance of – and the obstacles to – the participation of marginalised groups, including that of children (including children who are marginalised – children are not a homogenous group).

…and, are social accountability Initiatives…

… purely “social”? Social accountability efforts are powerful tools designed and driven by citizens and their organizations. Social media has taken these tools into another dimension and amplified their force. INGOs can integrate social accountability tools into their work and equip civil society groups (particularly those made up of marginalised people) with the skills to use them. At the same time, Plan’s own work experience on child sensitive social accountability has shown that working both with civil society groups as well as with government institutions can significantly accelerate the improvement and offer of government services. Developing the capacity of government officials to listen to children, and supporting government institutions to create spaces for receiving citizen feedback or to improve information for citizens is thus another crucial area of work that should not be neglected.

…scalable from local to global? Not sure. Social accountability initiatives are often highly locally contextualised. It’s not evident that they are readily replicable and scalable. What works in one community, might not work in another or only with great difficulty be connectable to the national level. For sure, more thinking on this will have to be done. Good that the workshop resulted in the establishment of a community of practice for child sensitive social accountability.

Stefanie Conrad is Plan’s Global Advisor for Citizenship & Governance. She has more than 20 years of experience working on child rights, child participation & empowerment and rights based programming. Stefanie is based in Niger.

UNICEF, in collaboration with the UK National Committee for UNICEF, convened a two-day workshop in London on 3-4 March 2014, bringing together social accountability researchers, practitioners and child rights experts to discuss how civil society engagement can help accelerate results for children by holding governments accountable. UNICEF Nepal’s effort to advance social accountability with and for children was one of the initiatives profiled at the meeting.

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