Guest editors’ introduction: Active citizenship and social accountability

 By active citizenship, we [Oxfam] mean that combination of rights and obligations that link individuals to the state, including paying taxes, obeying laws, and exercising the full range of political, civil, and social rights. Active citizens use those rights to improve the quality of political or civic life, through involvement in the formal economy or formal politics, or through the sort of collective action that historically has allowed poor and excluded groups to make their voices heard. [….] 

At an individual level, active citizenship means developing self-confidence and overcoming the insidious way in which the condition of being relatively powerless can become internalised. In relation to other people, it means developing the ability to negotiate and influence decisions. And when empowered individuals work together, it means involvement in collective action, be it at the neighbourhood level, or more broadly. Ultimately, active citizenship means engaging with the political system to build an effective state, and assuming some degree of responsibility for the public domain… (Green 2008:12,19)

On 3 July 2007 over 120 people came together for a one-day conference at Monash University in Melbourne entitled ‘Active Citizenship: Making Bottom–Up Accountability Work’. The conference represented a partnership between the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) and several Melbourne-based universities, and aimed to create a forum for development workers, activists, academics, and postgraduate students to discuss and debate the very latest approaches to active citizenship and social accountability. This special issue presents some of the ‘cream of the crop’ from that conference.

The quotes above from Duncan Green’s recent publication on Oxfam’s approach to development sum up the broad consensus on active citizenship at the conference. We see the concept of active citizenship as bringing together at least three domains of development theory and practice that have been very prominent during the last few decades. The first of these – participation, especially ‘bottom–up’ participation in the domain of civil society – features as a key theme in almost all of the articles here. Successful community development interventions that have sustained impact generally require a high-level of community participation. There has therefore been an important focus on incorporating community members into the decision-making process. Over time, this participation has increased from a passive attendance at ‘consultative’ meetings to an active engagement and ownership of the development intervention itself. Participation and ownership leads to relationships between community members and the intervening agency (most likely an NGO, but possibly government agency or other body charged with the task of working with the community) being built on trust and therefore being more robust and lasting.

While ‘participation’ itself is considered to be best practice in terms of development, there is no wider consensus on what is the best practice in achieving this participation. It is known that the poor are the hardest to involve in participatory approaches, as these approaches are time-consuming and time is a precious commodity for those struggling to earn to a daily living. The intervening agency must allow all community stakeholders to be involved at times and locations that best suit their own circumstances. This usually means meeting in the evening and during times of the year when workloads are lower (after harvest and planting seasons, for example). Contention remains as to the benefits or otherwise of paying community members to participate (either directly with cash or in-kind in the guise of meals, etc.).

Participatory development has been re-framed in terms of active citizenship in recent years in an attempt to explicitly address important critiques of participation as ‘tyranny’ (Cooke and Kothari 2001), that is, as severely constrained by the relations of power in which it is enabled, and its goals and terms of reference defined. The concept of active citizenship explicitly acknowledges unequal relations of power, especially the power of the state and state agencies. In so doing, the approach also acknowledges a long-standing critique of civil-society participation that, compared with state agencies, NGOs and community-based organisations (CGOs) have very limited access to material or economic resources; local development efforts, to be effective, need to able to mobilise the support and resources of state or multilateral agencies.

This brings us to the second important influence on concepts and practices of active citizenship – rights-based development. ‘Citizenship’ explicitly invokes the idea that individuals and groups are members of national political communities with legally and morally enforceable rights in relation to the state. States, in this view, have a moral responsibility to protect the human rights and improve the well-being of their citizens, especially those who are poor and marginalised. ‘Active’ citizens are agents in such a process, enacting and claiming their legal and human rights as a pathway to social change and development.

These rights-based approaches to development have often been closely linked with concepts of good governance as a necessary aspect of poverty alleviation and development. ‘Good governance’ as an approach and goal of development interventions is the third domain of development theory that strongly influences current thinking about active citizenship. It is a central theme in several of the articles here which explore and present case studies of ‘social accountability’ where citizens have engaged in local processes to try to make government officials more transparent, accountable, and responsive in the provision of services.

Thus, active citizenship draws together ideas of participation, rights-based development, and recognition of the importance of good governance and the role of the state in responding to and supporting development programmes and interventions. It emphasises and seeks ways for citizens, especially poor and marginalised groups, to exercise their rights and engage with state and other agencies in doing development. Participation leads to active citizenship when communities begin to organise themselves out of the traditional ‘development project’ and look to influence local, national, or international policies or decision making. Active citizenship may be more effective at the local level where citizens make claims on ‘duty bearers’ as ‘rights holders’. Importantly, active citizenship, like participatory development, is a collective process implying citizens acting as part of a political community with human rights and political rights in relation to the state.

This issue introduces the challenges in achieving active citizenship but also some of the benefits that success can bring in improving the lives of the poor. Three broad areas are explored using various case studies and reviews of innovative NGO practice:
· giving poor communities a real voice in shaping their development priorities
· monitoring the effective delivery of public services and development projects at the grassroots level
· enhancing local participation in government processes, beyond just taking part in elections.

Active citizenship in theory and practice has implications in both developing and developed countries. This issue of Development in Practice on active citizenship and social accountability therefore includes case studies from both poorer and wealthier countries, including Asia, the Pacific, and Australia.

This issue contains eight papers that consider various aspects of active citizenship and social accountability. The papers can be broken into three broad sections. The first section contains three articles (Cox, George, and Malik) that discuss and develop the concept of active citizenship. They do this by situating the discussion in three geographical locations and political settings. The second section (with articles by Schultz et al., Roche, and Walker) provides case studies of the experience of three international NGOs of active citizenship and social accountability. The two articles (Matthews and Missingham, and Clarke) in section three present a cautionary tale of the difficulties of achieving active citizenship. One is based one experience in a developed country, while the second reflects on experiences in a developing country.

Solomon Islands is the context for John Cox’s discussion of active citizens. Solomon Islands is located in the Pacific Ocean and comprises approximately 1000 islands. While 300 of these islands are populated, 80 per cent of the country’s 533,000 people live on a small number of larger islands (including Guadalcanal, Choiseul, Santa Isabel, Malaita, San Cristobal, and New Georgia). These larger islands are mountainous, and thickly forested, occasionally skirted by thin coastal plains that provide fertile but limited agricultural land (less than one per cent of land is presently under cultivation). The total land area is 28,370 km2 whereas the total sea area of Solomon Islands is 1.35 million km2. The Solomon Islands is the third largest archipelago in the South Pacific. The vast majority of the population are Melanesian who settled the islands over 3000 years ago, but over 100 languages are spoken throughout the country. Progress in Solomon Islands has stalled in recent years due to recent civil unrest. This civil strife, roughly drawn along ethnic lines, has disrupted the achievement of the MDGs quite considerably with the government being unable to function in an effective manner during this time, thereby disrupting the provision of education, health and other social services throughout the country. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Solomon Islands have played an important role as alternative providers of social services in the absence of a functioning public sector. Cox discusses the frustrations faced though in these circumstances of achieving a level of participation. He notes that within Solomon Islands, it is not appropriate to assume that there exists a ‘untapped’ sense of citizenship nor that traditional leadership structures can be relied upon to seek out egalitarian redistribution of resources. Cox argues that the power dynamics within Solomon Island communities is more complicated than this. To better understand how citizenship might be understood within Solomon Islands, Cox firstly considers clientelism and patronage networks. He demonstrates how the system of clientelism is direct conflict with the notion of citizenship. In contrast to citizenship, clientelism requires ‘deference and submissiveness’ of those without power to those with power. Cox argues that it is unlikely that within the dominant system of clientelism that demand for good governance (which underpins citizenship) will naturally emerge. It is more likely that individuals will seek to gain personal advantage over community benefits. Cox notes that Solomon Island is a unique country with its own particular circumstances. There is very little sense of nationhood or nationalism, with most basic allegiances remaining to the family and clan, not to the nation. Cox argues therefore that there are limited opportunities for active citizenship to flourish in a society in which access to basic services is less dependent upon the state and more contingent upon relationships with patrons. This is not necessary cultural but a simple artefact of the prevailing political dynamics. Cox suggests that attempts by NGOs to support participation or citizenship will not flourish until the experience of the state is stronger and directly challenges the dominance of clientelism.

Nicole George explores issues of active citizenship through an account of women’s organising and activism in Fiji from the 1960s to the present. For George, ‘active citizenship’ means women’s activism, popular mobilisation and organising within the realm of civil society. In her account of the vibrant recent history of Fiji’s women’s movement, George emphasises two themes that are very relevant to the nature and scope of active citizenship more broadly. First, as George writes, ‘the politics of ethnicity or race overlays many debates taking place in the public domain’ and has had a deep and lasting impact on gender-based activism and organising in Fiji. Many women’s organisations remain based in ethnic and religious constituencies and pursue the ethnically-defined, locally-based interests of their members. George shows how some women’s organisations, in particular the Fiji YWCA, have challenged such ethnically-based divisions and promoted a more inclusive notion of citizenship and gender solidarity. Second, George shows that both the national and international political contexts have influenced women activists’ understandings and purposes of their gender-based advocacy. Activists drew on international discourses of human rights, democracy, gender equality, and radical critiques of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) and the global causes of poverty, but have had to negotiate such discourses and find locally acceptable ‘paradigms’ to promote debate and mobilise women’s support. In the wake of each of the military coups women’s activists have often faced oppressive responses by the state and the military to their criticisms and campaigns, and have found the opportunities for civil society activity and active citizenship to be severely limited.

George’s contribution shows how active citizenship needs to be understood within the specific historical circumstances in which citizens act, and the political economic context shaping both opportunities and constraints. Nadeem Malik also sets out to highlight significant constraints to active citizenship, but in this case those inherited from colonial and pre-colonial pasts. Malik’s critique has particular importance to the recent promotion of decentralisation throughout the developing world as a way of improving and democratising local governance and the provision of public services, especially in rural and regional areas. His argument is based on a finely detailed, ethnographic study of the day-to-day practices of local government in a community in rural Pakistan. The policy of decentralisation initiated by the Musharif government in 1999 aimed to make local government more democratic and accountable to local people, bring women into local government in significant numbers, and make local elected officials subject to depersonalised, bureaucratic rules and procedures. Malik shows how powerful local landowners have subverted these intentions in a number of ways. For instance, the new laws mandated that 33 per cent of local seats would be reserved for women, what often happens is that elected women are represented by a male family member and local elite justify the practice in terms of local cultural and family values. Powerful landowners gain elected office through local patronage, and legitimate their position through ‘traditional’, personalised cultural practices, which further and strengthen their power. Ultimately, Malik vividly demonstrates how economically powerful groups can mobilise culture and manipulate invented traditions to severely limit opportunities for active citizenship and social accountability.

In the first of the case studies, Oxfam Australia’s Director of Development Effectiveness, Chris Roche, presents a broad-ranging discussion of Oxfam’s experience with ‘bottom–up’ accountability as a way of empowering local people in relation to state bureaucracies and development agencies. Roche grounds his discussion in two case studies of Oxfam-supported social accountability projects. The first describes a project in rural Vietnam where Oxfam worked with villagers to use participatory video to make the local school and its teachers more accountable to the local community. In the second case study, Roche presents the Gender Watch action group in Sri Lanka. Gender Watch was a group of local women, who collaborated with NGOs working on post-Tsunami recovery, to monitor problems affecting women, such as sexual harassment, rape, and discrimination, and address the problems they identified through social accountability. Roche draws out a number of lessons from his case studies, broader Oxfam experience, and the literature. He emphasises issues such as the importance of people knowing their entitlements and rights to be able to even assess if these are being met, the need for safe and effective mechanisms for people to express their grievances, and people’s need for certain skills and capacities to voice their grievances effectively and take appropriate measures to pursue them. Roche then proposes changes that he argues need to take place at individual, organisational, and sectoral level in order to make social accountability happen effectively.

Lisa Schultz, José Roberto Guevara, Samantha Ratnam, Ani Wieringa, Johanna Wyn, and Charlotte Sowerby provide an interest reflection of how young people can be engaged as active citizens within both a developing and developed country (Indonesia and Australia). They note that the simultaneous conversion of two long-term events – globalisation and changing technologies – have resulted in young people becoming increasingly required to engage with the broader world beyond their local and national communities. This increased engagement raises pertinent questions as to the ways, spaces, and tools, and resources young people require in order to engage in as active citizens. This article reflects on these questions and evaluates a schools-based programme implemented by Plan Australia in both Indonesia and Australia. The Global Connections Program is a youth-led global learning initiative developed to provide opportunities for young people in those two countries to connect with one another. The programme had a number of explicit objectives, including to: 1) assist young people form personal bonds with other young people from another country; 2) increase their understanding of issues faced by young people in other countries; 3) develop certain planning and leadership skills; 4) disseminate information about issues faced in other countries, in their own country; 5) develop solutions to joints issues of concern; and 6) assist Plan to work more closely with young people. Scultz et al. report that the programme was considered successful as it largely achieved these goals. Young people reported they felt more engaged with the global community and saw themselves has having a great role in finding solutions to common problems. A key to its success was its cross-country aspect, allowing young people in very different circumstances communicate on a more personal level and find similarities in their own lives. While Schultz et al. note some difficulties with the project’s implementation, none of these difficulties could not be overcome. Schultz et al. conclude that it is possible to develop notions of active citizenship within young people by combining exposure to counterparts in another country (developed to developing and developing to developed) with skill building and knowledge about global issues. Those that participated reported increased self-esteem and a desire to be participants rather than disinterested observers in the new global community.

Bill Walker provides a case study of work being undertaken by the international World Vision of assisting communities to hold their local political elites to account through Community-Based Performance Monitoring (CBPM). Walker takes as his starting point the notion of accountability, which has become increasingly popular in recent times. CBPM is underpinned by two principles – the principle of ownership and the principle of affected rights. The first principle involves ‘rights of prior authority based on relevant ownership by citizens and is thus linked to concepts of democracy’. The second principle ‘involves the principle that those whose rights have been adversely affected by the actions of someone else have right to hold that person to account for the way they have been treated’. Walker argues that these two principles are the basis for active citizens holding political leaders to account. Moreover, these principles also give authority to citizens to hold the state accountable. Citizens must call those in political authority to account for the decisions they make and the activities they implement. Further, citizens must hold to account these same decision makers and make them responsible for their decisions. Finally, if citizens deem decisions have been made inappropriately, they must seek redress (in varying forms). Indeed, it is this final action that largely determines how successful active citizens are in their community. If they are actually able to successfully demand redress, they have achieved a high level of accountability. Walker argues further that active citizens, particularly the most marginalised in society need a ‘voice’ in order to express their empowerment. The second half of Walker’s article sets out in more detail precisely what the CBPM is and how it is established within a community. Walker first notes that CBPM is a hybrid community-based monitoring tool. It combines selected elements from three other social-accountability approaches: social audit, community monitoring, and citizen report cards. The purpose of the CBPM is to facilitate and support ‘constructive dialogue’ between the political decision makers and citizens at a local level. The local level is purposely chosen as it is an intimate pace that allows a variety of voices to be heard around issues that are mutually understood and where it is deemed reasonable to claim that a social contract exists. Walker further explains that the central pillar o the CBPM is a planned gathering of the community that encompasses all key stakeholder groups, especially the poor and marginalised. These gathers are facilitated and seek to assess the quality of services being delivered by the state or should be delivered. These gatherings also then set out plans as to how services can be better provided often with the assistance of the communities themselves. This latent citizenship is contrasted with the political system of clientelism found in Solomon Islands as discussed by Cox. Walker concludes by stating that World Vision’s experience of CBPM has had five positive outcomes in terms of enhancing active citizenships. First, the focus on the local allows those involved to feel an immediacy of issues being discussed. Secondl it assists citizens appreciate the rights they have and opens channels for claiming these rights. Third, it assists in diagnosing what is failing in local service delivery and how this can be overcome. Fourth, it emphasises immediate response and joint decision making by both citizens and political decision makers. Finally, it supports and unifies communities delivering a sense of solidarity and mutual support.

In the third section, the difficulties of achieving active citizenship are explored in two articles. Popular participation in natural resources management has been a leading area in the theory and practice of active citizenship. Community Forest Management (CFM) has become a global movement promoting and enabling local people to take active roles in the decision-making and management of their forest resources. While CFM has been most influential in less-developed countries it has also influenced forest policy in industrialised nations in Europe and North America. In their contribution, Nathanial Matthews and Bruce Missingham examine the Wombat Community Forest Management initiative that was launched in the Australian state of Victoria in 2003. The Wombat CFM was the first official effort to develop and support a CFM processes in Australia, with real efforts to mobilise active citizens to participate in developing policy and managing the forest. Despite a highly optimistic start, the trial fell apart by the end of 2006. Matthews and Missingham describe in detail the community development and organising processes through which the Wombat CFM initiative was developed, and analyse the causes of its failure. In particular, they examine how ‘community’ was represented and constructed – who participated. In this case, the community was able to define itself and local people, as well as a diverse range of ‘outside’ interest groups, got involved. Consequently a sense of community or common purpose that could overcome entrenched ideological and socio-economic conflict over the sustainable use of the forest was never established. Matthews and Missingham also draw attention to power relationships within the newly formed CFM governing body, and between the CFM body and the government forestry department – the terms of participation. They show that the purpose and goals of CFM remained ambiguous in government directives and policy statements. The CFM governing body was not empowered to make legal decisions about Wombat forest management or use and power remained largely in the hands of forestry department officials. These unequal power relationships exacerbated conflict and inequalities within the CFM governing body, and ultimately lead to it being disbanded. The case study holds some important implications for participation in natural resources management and sustainable development throughout the world, notably that popular participation and active citizenship are often enacted in highly unequal relations of power may severely limit the terms of citizens’ participation.

Matthew Clarke calls for some caution in seeking all communities to assume the role of active citizens. Clarke agrees in his article that active citizens can become a powerful driver of development by holding to popular account those that traditionally hold decision-making power at the local and national levels. He notes that active citizenship draws from a long history of understanding the importance of community participation and ownership of development interventions. But at this point Clarke departs from the rest of the contributions to this special issue by arguing that spite of its inherent strengths, active citizenship may not be a possible or optimal outcome in all circumstances. Clarke argues that participation has been fetishised within the development sector, blinding some to the potential hazards of seeking all to become active citizens. Clarke focuses his argument on one specific sub-population within Thailand – illegal Burmese migrants – and argues for the realistic expectation of active citizenship and indeed participation for these migrants. Clarke notes that the estimates of the number of illegal migrants within Thailand vary between 800,000 to 1.5 million but that the overwhelming majority of these migrants are Burmese seeking to escape the political regime in Burma and improve their material standard of living. NGOs working with these illegal Burmese migrants face many challenges that exacerbate the normal development needs that would be expected in any poor community, such as limited access to health services, economic insecurity, inadequate housing, etc. The complexity of working with these communities are exacerbated by the precarious existence these migrants have in Thailand, which in turn hinders their ability to actively engage in the development process. Clarke draws on his work with one specific NGO that has worked with illegal Burmese communities for over 15 years. He discusses the unique strengths and weakness of these illegal communities before exploring the appropriateness of seeking to engage such communities as active citizens. The major implication for NGOs working with such communities is that they may have to assume a new role when working with these communities. Clarke introduces a new typology describing the unique role NGOs must play in these circumstances: advocate–guardians. He argues that within this typology, NGOs must assume the role of active citizen on behalf of the community in question and simultaneously provide development interventions and advocate on their behalf. Clarke cautions against the blanket expectation of participation from these communities as it actually endangers the lives of community members and is therefore an inappropriate expectation or requirement. The extent to which the circumstances of illegal Burmese migrants are mirrored by other illegal migrant groups will determine how widespread the adoption of Clarke’s new typology will be.

Active citizenship is an important concept that brings together three well established principles of best-practice within development, namely the importance of participation; rights-based approaches to development; and good governance. There is little doubt that active citizens are a powerful force for ‘good’ change, and the focus on active citizenship will affect future development at the local, national and regional levels.

The 2007 conference in Melbourne demonstrates the importance which community representatives, development practitioners, researchers, and donors assign to this notion. Moreover, it is a concept that traverses both developed and developing countries. We believe the contributions presented in this special issue of Development in Practice will go some way in adding to the current debate and practice around active citizenship.

Cooke, B. and Kothari, U. (2001) Participation: The New Tyranny? London: Zed Books.
Green, D. (2008) From Poverty to Power: How Active Citizens and Effective States can Change the World, Oxford: Oxfam International.