What do social accountability and power have to do with children?

Rakesh Rajani, Director of Democratic Participation and Governance at the Ford Foundation, recently visited UNICEF as part of the Conversations with Thought Leaders series. After the event we got his views on where the field of citizen-led accountability is headed and what risks and opportunities there are for working with and for children in this area.

UNICEF: What are you the most excited about in relation to civic engagement and social accountability right now?

Rajani: Two things. First, and it is easy to underplay this, is how the concept of social accountability, or the basic idea that governments are there for people and that citizens need to have channels and ways in which they know how government is working for them, has gotten traction. The fact that governments need to be accountable to people and that people should be able to hold them accountable is now largely agreed in much of the world. And that’s powerful, because even 20 years ago, that was not the case. The norms have shifted. It means one does not need to spend energy fighting to say why people matter, we can focus on how to make governments more responsive and accountable, and learn from it.

Second, we have moved from a period, about five years ago, of big hype about what social accountability could do (we thought it was going to solve many of our problems) to a more mature, rooted place where we understand that social accountability is much harder to achieve in practice, that it cannot easily trump the daunting challenges we have faced for many centuries.

Today, hopefully, we have better questions, more humility and see the need for rigor, or more of an open-eyed feet-on-the-ground way of thinking about this. We are less starry-eyed, which is a good place to be. This awareness will allow us to be more thoughtful, and understand that to do well we need to learn to develop a posture and culture of experimentation and learning, which is very healthy.


UNICEF: What are the main implications (opportunities and risks) of social accountability for children and young people?

Rajani: The first thing we need to understand is that social accountability is about power. It is essentially about a contestation of power, and that what we are trying to create is a more level playing field and platforms in which people who hold a lot of power – governments, older people, richer people – are having that power better checked and more regulated…and that people who have less power have opportunities to question and demand answerability and exercise some power themselves.

So when the great leader says, you know, I have done wonderful things for education, we are creating a platform for people to say, well, actually maybe not, or it is not helpful, or here is a better idea. Or when the corporations say business is terrific because it creates jobs, people can say, hold on, let’s look at job quality, job security, and tax regimes to see whether you are paying your fair share and not stashing it away. So social accountability, let’s not mince words, is about power, is about contestation of power.

Now to your specific question. Children and young people, historically, given how our societies are constructed, have less power. And this means two things: One, we need to be practical about where there are possibilities for children and young people to exercise power, and where there are none. This is practical realism, and it is something we owe children and young people. To pretend otherwise is to do a disservice. We’d be better off enabling young people to learn and experience how to negotiate and exercise power within real constraints.

That said there are creative possibilities of imagining social accountability with children, on issues that matter to children and/or that involve children. One can leverage the fact that young people can have disproportionately more time, are present in many important domains, are often in groups and at times have not been adequately socialized in certain rules of the game – to facilitate imaginative collective action. One could do focused quality work, and learn, document and communicate it, in a manner that can help change norms and public conceptions of what is possible.


UNICEF: What could UNICEF do to bring about such change and make social accountability work for children and young people?

Rajani: Lots, but it needs to be strategic. Some 15 years ago I wrote a paper for UNICEF on The Participation Rights of Adolescents. In there I argued that one of the mistakes we often make, especially in relation to children and young people, is to talk about this sort of work in terms of small little boutique projects, divorced from day-to-day institutions that matter to their lives. It’s easy to do amazing things with 50 or 100 kids for a few days. But then they go back to school and life goes on as normal.

So I think it’s really important to institutionalize social engagement and civic participation of young people in the key institutions that matter to them in their everyday lives and in major service delivery areas. Instead of setting up yet one more youth club, or one more one-day event, we need to ask: Where do children and young people spend most of their time? Schools? Markets? Sports? And how can we reform those institutions to empower children? Take schools. For over a century they have changed little, it’s still very much top-down rote teaching. Changing the structure, culture and practice of teaching could hugely transform patterns of relating, of exercising power, of knowing how to deal with conflict, for ensuring equity and inclusion.

This is a real opportunity for UNICEF, as you work in education, health and nutrition and the like; you work with governments both central and local, and you work at global level on standards and norms. The opportunity is to ask how social accountability can be a core signature of your engagement in these areas, and to build a body of evidence and practice in how to avoid common pitfalls, and do this really well. This is perhaps most important in how you work with governments – UNICEF should always seek collaboration and be respectful, but it should also figure out how it can effectively persuade its government partners to deal with their blind spots on children.

Operationally, perhaps, the child and adolescent unit should not be a separate unit, or the social accountability work in a separate box, but a core part of the programme division approach. Mainstreaming can have its very real challenges, as we know from work on gender. But that should not make us take the easy road of putting social accountability in a box that will ultimately marginalize its effect.

Finally, done right, UNICEF could be an incredibly powerful broker. A real challenge for children and young people is that they are not connected to the institutions and processes where power is exercised, and their voice and engagement does not feature in key moments and key tables. Very much like how it was for women 50 years ago, or for people of color in the US, for example. UNICEF could do the hard work to identify these key opportunities at local, national and global levels; to review the rules of the game and work to make them more inclusive, respectful, and meaningful for young people; and then play a connecting, brokering role between children and these opportunities.

Part of this could involve support for the development of ‘social infrastructure’ of children and young people’s associations and movements. Some of the most powerful changes in the world have come when people have, often against daunting odds, organized and had their actions constitute a movement. UNICEF should not have the hubris to think that it can start a movement, but it sure can help seed and support elements that are necessary for a movement to form.

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  1. Social accountability bring together service providers and service users to make dialogue how to improve the services and sustain it. Mr. Rajani’s message is very useful to give attention for the children and youth in the implementation of SA.