Building a strategy

We know context matters…but how?

By 25/02/2015

The relatively young field of social accountability (SAc) has boomed in recent years. Conferences have proliferated, research has expanded, and important global actors like the World Bank have thrown their heft behind the concept. All of this hubbub reflects a powerful basic insight: civil society voices and action are an absolutely critical ingredient in the effort to improve government services.

But while the field is growing, it’s also evolving.

At the same time as civil society-led efforts to monitor public spending and services have spread, we’ve also seen major shifts in thinking about what constitutes “best practice” in SAc design and implementation.

A key recent addition to this has been calls for a shift towards more “strategic” SAc (notably by Jonathan Fox at American University). A crucial feature of such an approach is a focus on addressing specific problems, and designing campaigns tailored accordingly, rather than starting with prescribed, rigid interventions based on specific tools like a Community Scorecard or Citizen Report Cards, to name just two of the myriad tools that have come into vogue since the young field’s inception.

And as the field continues to expand, context and the role it plays in shaping CSO-led SAc efforts has become an increasingly common topic of conversation amongst SAc practitioners, scholars, and donors alike.

Despite the proclamations that “context matters,” however, it’s much harder to articulate exactly how it matters. This remains a challenge despite valuable efforts to identify and define key contextual factors. With few exceptions, however, the literature available tends to be dense and often theoretical, rather than diving into how, specifically, contextual factors shape CSO decision-making and effectiveness. Moreover, the macro-level focus of much of this literature largely overlooks the intricate contextual considerations critical to the success of local-level reform efforts — where the rubber hits the road in much SAc work.

Too often, this means that the available resources on context miss those most in need of navigating it in all its complexity: the civil society leaders spearheading SAc efforts.

What practitioners need to navigate context

It may someday be possible to develop a magic machine that takes in contextual information (low capacity, high trust) and spits out a suggested approach (Community Scorecard!). I’ll let others hold their breath waiting for the magic machine.

In the meantime, the best guide for civil society leaders is often others’ experiences.

The Social Accountability Atlas, which we’ve just launched here at R4D, tries to make this information searchable using various contextual filters like location, sector, problem type, and even budget. The profiles don’t explicitly examine and evaluate CSO decisions in response to context, but by gathering and organising information on the use of specific methodologies and the adaptation of SAc tools, we see these context decisions and strategies begin to implicitly emerge.

And when CSOs find SAc efforts that may hold relevant insights for their own work, they can then connect with those leading the projects to learn how they adapted and implemented various SAc tools.

Furthermore, this emerging body of information lays the foundation for potentially interesting analysis of contextual trends. Researchers can identify projects spanning geographic regions and a wide range of political and economic factors.

This certainly isn’t the last word on cracking the context nut. But it does help us get past simple platitudes that “context matters,” and to help us grapple with how it does.


by Aprille Knox (Senior Program Associate) and Sam Polk (Senior Programme Officer) from the Results for Development Institute (R4D).