by Avani Kapur

This content was originally published at the Southern Voice website.


The COVID-19 pandemic has left an indelible mark across the world. A global economic crisis now compounds human tragedies. The world is witnessing recessionsincreased debtmass unemployment and a decline in real wages, resulting in food and nutrition insecurity.

Social, pre-existing inequalities, have placed disproportionate costs on those already vulnerable before the pandemic: – migrant labourers, daily wage earners, the poor, and women and children.

As it often happens during emergencies, governments swerved towards centralisation and a clampdown of freedom of speech and expression, disguised as a fight against misinformation. The closure of parliaments has meant that essential decisions, including ones with long-term repercussions, have been taken without adequate debate. The failure of the executive has seen a rise in judicial interference in day-to-day governance. For instance, this was the case in India, where High Courts have called for national lockdowns, and the Supreme Court pushed for an equal vaccination policy. All this has led to a widening mistrust between citizens and the State.

These factors are likely to derail the progress made on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But there is also another, more optimistic way of looking at things. The pandemic has reinforced some crucial lessons and taught us new ones. They can have implications on how we think of accountability as a service. Let’s look at four of these.

Lesson 1: “Local must be the Focal”

For improved service delivery, it is critical for communities to participate in decision-making. But in most countriesdecentralisation remains incomplete. Take the case of India. The country amended its Constitution in 1992 and created local self-governments as the third tier of government (after centre and states). Yet, they are usually seen as corrupt, rent-seeking entities, incapable of providing responsive service delivery. Thus, devolution of the 3Fs — funds functions and functionaries — has not happened.

During the pandemic, states with a robust decentralised governance architecture were better equipped to handle the pandemic. Community-level engagement and dissemination of information happen quicker than when deploying resources from the state level. Very swiftly, India reached millions through a vast network of 0.26 million rural local bodies (called gram panchayats) and over one million frontline functionaries. These community leaders were able to assist in tracing individuals in need of medical attention and ensure foodgrains and other relief benefits reach even the last one.

Finally, appropriate local representation in planning and coordination efforts provides an additional advantage – an opportunity for true state-local and citizen action. That brings us to the second lesson.

Lesson 2: Rethinking Citizen Engagement

One of the weakest links in accountability relationships has been the link between the citizen and the State. Most accountability interventions have focused on either getting citizens to put pressure on the State or State-specific reform. Yet, even as citizens play an important role in holding the State to account, equally important is how citizens interact with, contribute and demand accountability.

In 2020, India’s government think tank —- the NITI Aayog —- put out a  call for support to civil society organisations (CSOs) and non-profits to ensure that the government’s relief efforts reach the last mile. The call was a recognition of the vast networks that CSOs have. The pandemic saw ordinary citizens working with CSOs to create awareness and ensure oxygen supplies, hospital beds and foodgrains. They also created real-time information systems, including on vaccine availability.

For governments, the need for citizen engagement should be obvious. If people don’t trust their institutions, winning the fight against COVID-19 is impossible. Building trust through inclusive dialogue and getting people to monitor public health and relief measures will be critical. Simultaneously, tapping into new forms of citizen participation, including moving the public debate online, having community hubs, etc., is a current time requirement.

For citizens, coordinating with government officers has been crucial. Yet, the complex and ambiguous bureaucratic structures mean that citizens, too, need to understand better how the government functions. A growing body of work shows that social accountability interventions are more likely to succeed when practitioners can analyse and effectively navigate their local context. Building such a capacity will be necessary.

Lesson 3: Data as the Driver

One way in which governments can build trust is by ensuring greater transparency in planning and decision-making. The pandemic highlighted both the gaps in data management systems and the need for regular, localised data. It can be to determine containment zones, identify vaccine supply chains, or ensure that relief measures reach those most in need. In India, for instance, data gaps were evident in government responses to “Right to Information”-queries. Many were on the number of migrants and the lack of transparency in relief funds, among others. Even the recently released SDG Index notes limitations in tracking goals due to the non-availability of data.

Thus, there is an urgent need to ensure transparency in government reporting and forecasting while simultaneously investing in strengthening data collection and statistical capacity across all levels.

Lesson 4: Accountability is Not Accounting

Finally, the pandemic has reinforced that “leaving no one behind will be critical. The rise in vaccine nationalism has exacerbated global inequalities. Even within countries, to curb corruption, social protection programmes are designed with high administrative and social barriers. It often limits their access.

For instance, a survey in India found that 96% of the 11,159 migrant workers surveyed did not receive the free food grains announced during the national lockdown. A large part of this is due to a lack of documentation, which is often required to access welfare. Usually, people need to show they are part of a specific income group, like with a “below poverty line card”. In particular, migrant workers often don’t have the paperwork on them, as it could be back in their home town. So, while accountability does entail a transparent, judicious use of public resources, it cannot come at the cost of denying benefits to those eligible – usually the most vulnerable.

Nearly two decades ago, in 2004, the World Bank’s annual World Development Report (WDR) argued that for services to work for the poor, one needs to enable citizens to hold service providers to account directly. Yet, even before the pandemic, much of this remained an unfinished agenda. The urgency of accountability induced by COVID-19 is a clear opportunity to address these gaps for the world of tomorrow.