By: Henna Mahmood

I recently joined the Accountability Lab as a Fellow and the timing could not have been better. The Accountability Lab just turned five, which gave me the chance to reflect on five years of lessons and insights into what it takes to build a grassroots movement in the toughest of places.

The Accountability Lab came together in 2012 with a bold vision — a movement, led by citizens and leaders, to build integrity and accountability across the world. That vision matched a strategy – to build a pipeline of accountability change-makers through an incubator program, elevate national engagement through creative campaigns, and cultivate an accountability ecosystem through high-level policy reform and partnerships that would create sustainable change over time.

Here are a few of interesting moments and lessons from the Accountability Lab:

1 / Turning integrity into a national conversation

Started in 2015, Integrity Idol — a campaign to “name and fame” honest government officials — is now a major hit in four countries with millions of viewers and hundreds of thousands of votes. The impact has become tangible- the first Integrity Idol campaign in Nepal, for example, rewarded a district education officer who has been flooded with calls from other government officials asking how to implement his reforms in their district. The second Integrity Idol campaign in Liberia was hailed by President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson as an important national program.

2 / Incubating great ideas

Since 2012, the Accountability Lab provided over 40 “accountapreneurs” (accountability change-makers) across Liberia, Nepal, and Pakistan with financial, operational, and technical capital. We’ve seen outstanding growth through this support, including, for example, the expansion of Accountability Film School efforts across Nepal, Pakistan, and Liberia. In Liberia alone, mobile screenings of the accountability films have attracted thousands of viewers and led to critical changes in behaviors.

3 / Adapting to crises

In the aftermath of the 2015 Nepal earthquake and in the wake of the Ebola crisis, the Accountability Lab mobilized rapidly to make vital information transparent and close the loop on accountability issues. Nepali youth who volunteered for the Mobile Citizen Helpdesks connected with earthquake survivors to find lost relatives, seek medical care, access government aid, and debunk rumors. Community Justice Teams working in West Point, Liberia – which was quarantined during the Ebola crisis – played a key role in maintaining peace and negotiating with the government on behalf of the community.

4 / Bringing government and people together

In addition to helping many of the accountapreneurs engage with relevant government stakeholders, the Accountability Lab has been actively involved in the Open Government Partnership. We have been part of coalitions to support and monitor the government’s commitments in Liberia; bring the Open Government Partnership process to Pakistan, and understand the readiness for the Open Government Partnership process in Nepal.

5 / Building an Ecosystem

The Accountability Lab was one of the first organizations to join the OpenGov Hub in Washington D.C. and saw its huge potential to further much-needed collaboration in the accountability field. In 2014, we established an OpenGov Hub in Nepal, which has served as the platform for many joint projects, community discussions, and international connections. Then in 2016, in coordination with iLab Liberia, we established a similar co-working space in Liberia called iCampus which supports young Liberians with ideas for positive social change, accountability, and technology.

1 / Trust is critical

Lasting accountability depends on relationships of trust between citizens and power-holders. This requires not only creating platforms of engagement but also closing the feedback loop -communicating back to communities how the information they provide is being used. For example, our Mobile Citizen Helpdesk team not only gathered data from an SMS platform and household surveys, but also hosted regular radio shows and community meetings with citizens and local government officials in earthquake affected districts to discuss how the government and donors responded to their concerns.

2 / Arts and media are very powerful tools for social change

Data transparency is great but not nearly enough in places where access to information is limited. Photography, art, music, theater, and film are a few of the creative mediums our accountapreneurs have used to engage hundreds and thousands of citizens on social issues and to help citizens easily relate to the information in their own lives. For example, rappers in our Hip Co Accountability Network hosted voter education events featuring their new song “Know Who to Vote For.” and it worked- young participants said they came for the music but left with the message.

3 / High-impact ideas don’t always need big budgets

Knowledge of and long-term commitment to local communities are stronger indicators of impact than the amount of money spent. The Community Justice Teams in Liberia, for example — with a total investment by the Lab of $9,810 to pilot the teams in two different communities — have now mediated 150 cases in their communities, saving citizens $20,000. They have also raised an additional $29,379 (from Trust Africa, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and crowdfunding) for their important work: a return on the initial investment of $9,810. Not a bad accountability “return on investment.”

4 / Accountability is “stereoscopic” – we all play a role

Accountability needs to begin with a sense of personal responsibility. Using creative, low-cost tools like sports (“Kick Out Corruption”) and civic education (“Civic Schools”), our accountapreneurs are training youth to first think about what it means to demonstrate integrity in their own lives and how they can help build accountability in their schools and daily interactions. We’ve even taken a look at ourselves to improve our own transparency through initiatives like quarterly impact calls and an interactive open budget.

5 / Perseverance pays off

Transformative governance is generational: building accountability is not for the faint-hearted. Change can take decades and all governance reforms build upon a complex history of previous work on these issues. As one of our accountapreneurs in Pakistan noted from his year-long campaign with a group of accountability ambassadors to unblock funding for two women’s colleges, “success is as much about perseverance as innovation.”