Starting a new Accountability Lab – the example of South Africa

Many have asked us how we started working in the countries in which we work. To begin with, there were strategic reasons, like knowledge of the context, good networks and trusted partners. But over the years we have become more organized in our approach to growth (see our country selection matrix). Now with almost weekly requests to start working in new and exciting places we have started to think about – and operationalise – a more structured approach to scale.

When deciding to work in a new country we ask ourselves five key questions (more detail can be found in our TOC explanation here).

  1. Do we know, or have someone on the team, who has a deep understanding of the political-economy of the country in question?
  2. Does the country or its (region) neighbourhood have a particularly unique accountability challenge that would benefit from our approach? In addition, we also ask ourselves if there is a strategic reason for us to be in a particular country and how our approaches might fit (see a short blog by Blair Glencorse about how we are thinking about legitimacy).  
  3. Is the political and civic space sufficiently open enough for us to operate? In many of the places we work, this space is closing; but there has to be at least some room to discuss accountability issues. In addition, as we work in particularly insecure places, ensuring the safety and security of our teams is equally important (see more about how we are supporting our own security here).
  4. Are communities willing to participate? We do not engage if there is no demand or meaningful relationships which allow for us to co-create solutions to the shared challenges. 
  5. Can we can form partnerships to facilitate change? Coalition-building is a key part of our work and the ability to partner with others is both critical to success and to collective learning. These kinds of partnerships must stretch across sectoral and organizational boundaries – inside and outside government, civil society, business and the media.  

Back in 2014, the Lab sent a team member to explore the South African context. At that point, the organization could not answer the 5 questions above positively. By 2017, however, the Global Operations Manager was based in Johannesburg and carried out an extensive stakeholder mapping process across civil society, think tanks, government, business, embassies, donors, experts and academics. The intention was to better understand the accountability context and challenges facing South Africa and ask if a campaign, such as Integrity Icon, would find a receptive audience.

We have found that our work manages to achieve its greatest impact through strategic approaches that bring together citizens, governments (and businesses) to build accountability through an ecosystem approach. We ask these different types of actors to do exactly what they do best, without being forced to put themselves at risk through ‘naming and shaming’. The coalitions and communities that emerge are better able to amplify accountability messages and secure long-term sustainability, thus overcoming ‘flash in the pan’ syndrome that many other campaigns can face. Integrity Icon is just such an activity. It is a fun, creative campaign to ‘name and fame’ honest civil servants and the perfect way to make friends, build coalitions and introduce ourselves to a new context. 

In South Africa, the response was overwhelmingly positive as civil society was desperately looking for something positive, engaging, non-political and non-threatening to throw their weight behind.  

Therefore, in 2018, we launched Integrity Icon in South Africa in partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Corruption Watch and Democracy Works Foundation, amongst others. We received over 500 nominations and thousands of votes and our films received thousands of views in South Africa and beyond. In an effort to ensure that our films spoke to young South Africans, and to play a small role in addressing the high youth unemployment rate, we also built out a film fellowship for young South Africans, some of whom are employed as a direct result of partnerships with the Lab. We had a few significant programmatic outcomes from the first year of the campaign including Icon speaking engagements at the African Public Service Day and the Young Africa Leadership initiative global conference. Additionally, as a result of our excellent relationship with the government department responsible for civil servants, the winner was selected to sit on the department’s Integrity Committee. 

The successes of the campaign affirmed our responses to the five key questions outlined above and in 2019 we registered ourselves in-country and established a small team. In an effort to keep ourselves accountable to learning and growing, but still remain responsible to our core work, we  developed a country level strategy to guide our work for the year- which will soon be replaced by a localized version of our broader 2020-2023 strategy. 

Now, we are working with our new friends and leveraging our learning from last year to deepen the impact of Integrity Icon by hosting integrity workshops; partnering with film distribution channels to screen our films in the most marginalized and isolated communities across the country; and partnering with education institutions to develop and offer a formal, accredited mobile story-telling for social change program. We are looking at providing further accountability and leadership training for the Icons, and their teams; building our skills and knowledge through the development of an accountability curriculum; working towards launching an Accountability Incubator and building out our one-year non-profit management fellowship program.

There is certainly room for improvement in our process, but for now, understanding the country, need, space, communities and potential partnerships provides a solid basis for decision-making and has yielded positive results.  Let us know what you think about our process! Do you know of ways that we can improve? Please be in touch with Jean Scrimgeour: [email protected] if you have ideas, questions or comments.