By: Blair Glencorse. This article was originally published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review.
How one organization is combining the best elements of accountability and entrepreneurship to redefine development paradigms of the past.
The Hyatt Hotel in Kathmandu is a serene place, with beautiful Newari architecture, lush gardens, and impeccable service. It is also about as far removed as possible in Nepal from the real lives led by ordinary Nepali citizens—an executive suite can cost $800 a night while the average Nepali earns just over $600 a year. As I sat in one of the hotel’s magnificent conference rooms several years ago, attending a three-day conference on poverty in Nepal funded by a foreign donor, I began to question how we do development—three aspects in particular.
First, I realized that accountability is critical. Unless we can make sure that people and organizations with power and money (including government officials and international donors) are responsible, we will spend resources in lavish, inefficient ways that do not further the larger public good.
Second, my experience indicates that there is an absence of creativity in fighting poverty. Instead of efforts to build real partnerships, we still fall prey to the “charity” mentality; rather than focusing on concrete change, we often strive to fill conference rooms and write reports; and in place of building usable tools, the process of “development” is often about organizing commissions and ticking boxes.
Third, for these reasons, the majority of citizens that live in poverty, experience the painful problems of corruption, and know what the solutions to these challenges might be are precisely the people locked out of the development paradigm.
I started the Accountability Lab to try and find a way of doing things better. We are now working to harness the creativity of individuals to solve problems in their communities and change their societies in innovative ways using a mix of entrepreneurship and accountability—what we call accountapreneurship. The idea is to combine the best elements of both—creativity, sustainability, cost-effectiveness, and integrity—to redefine the development paradigms of the past.
Through new low-cost, high-impact mentorship, networking, training, and management support, our “accountapreneurs” are developing trust and interdependence with people in power, and unlocking the rich potential for political and economic development. A few examples of what this looks like:
In Nepal, we are working with a fantastic team to crowd-source important information on public services—such as how to get a passport or register a vehicle—through volunteer networks. The result is a popular data portal that citizens have accessed more than 140,000 times across the country in just a few months.
In Liberia, the Lab supports the first-ever accountability film school, which has trained more than 60 young Liberians to make documentaries about problems in their communities and use visual arts as a tool for change. Thousands of people across the country have seen the films at film festivals and in local video clubs, and the students are now getting requests to show their films to government organizations and donor agencies to help inform policy and program development.
We also support an ingenious low-tech approach to citizen journalism in Liberia. A citizen journalist, Alfred Sirleaf, shares useful news and information via chalk billboards at two busy intersections in the capital city—each gets 8,000 to 10,000 views a day. In a country where many can’t afford newspapers and internet penetration is still less than 10 percent, this is proving a very effective way to share information.
These efforts and others have resulted from our training, networking, and mentoring, as well as small grants of less than $2,000. We don’t seek or take government donor funding so that we can maintain our objectivity. This also helps us avoid falling into the supply-driven, aid dependency syndrome so obvious in Nepal—where NGOs end up chasing contracts for funding, which often distracts from their core objectives. Unlike most other charities and NGOs, the Lab is also radically transparent—for example, anyone can view all of our expenses on our website in real time. Transparency and accountability is our aim, after all.
There have been huge challenges of course—trying to change the way entrenched practices take place tends to meet with resistance, and we’ve made mistakes. We’ve found it hard to find partners that are really interested in shifting the status quo on accountability in innovative ways. It has also been difficult to build trust in places where conflict has often ripped apart the social fabric and where citizens are used to unfulfilled promises from those in power. What’s more, building constructive relationships that allow for creativity is not a process that happens overnight—it takes time.
But we’re making progress. And from the outset, we’ve taken risks and embraced failure as a learning process. We are also trying to learn in different ways from other organizations that are truly at the cutting edge of development practice, including the brilliant, citizen-focused group Janaagraha in India and Twaweza, which is working to create an “ecosystem of change” in East Africa. There is a long way to go, but we are moving beyond words and building innovative approaches to increase accountability on the ground. If more donor organizations were willing to experiment in these kinds of ways, the world of international development might look very different. For the cost of one international conference in a plush hotel like the Hyatt in Kathmandu, the Accountability Lab is changing thousands of lives.