The Power of Citizen’s Voices
"Local Voices at the Crossroads" is a series of articles in which local actors of daily peace share their views on the fragilities and resilience of their societies in the face of conflict. Grassroots societies are at the crossroads between local realities and national peacebuilding policies and practices. The series, therefore, aims to accelerate action at the local level by strengthening the voices of civil society at the political level. "Local Voices at the Crossroads" is hosted by the Civil Society Platform for Peacebuilding and Statebuilding (CSPPS) and is the result of a collaboration with the Peace and Conflict Resolution Evidence Platform (PeaceRep) at the University of Edinburgh.
In this new article of the “Local Voices at a Crossroads” series, we look at how SEMA, a social enterprise working in Uganda and Kenya, uses a citizen-based approach of accountability tools to improve service delivery and address corruption, thereby contributing to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 16+ (SDG16+) on peace, justice, and strong institutions. This article builds upon a PhD research work on accountability interventions and qualitative analysis of the work of SEMA in Kampala, Uganda, conducted by Yohan Iddawela, Visiting Fellow at the Department of Geography and Environment of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Looking back at the recent history of accountability in Uganda
Despite being an elusive concept, accountability has been described as the obligation to accept responsibility for one’s own actions. Yet, in many countries, this remains a difficult concept to achieve – worldwide, rather than accountability, we encounter instances of corruption, nepotism, or abuse of power otherwise leading to societal mistrust. This has also been observed in Uganda.
According to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), service delivery in Uganda “has long been imperiled by a lack of accountability, cumbersome systems, and corruption”. Regarding the latter, a baseline series of interviews conducted in 2016 with citizens and governments officials in the capital Kampala found that corruption is viewed as a cultural norm within Ugandan governments. Indeed, the culture of gifting has long been a tradition in the history of Uganda. One respondent stated that “there is systemic corruption from top to bottom which is making service provision hard”. With a population of approximately 42 million people, the country gained its independence from Great Britain in 1962. After a military coup, which was followed by a military dictatorship, president Yoweri Museveni was elected in 1986 and has been in charge of the country ever since. In spite of the efforts made by the president, country officials continue to engage in corrupt practices, together with the widespread political patronages systems.
Improving service delivery by using accountability tools
To counter this trend, it has been claimed that civil society can take on a regulating role and hold officials accountable for their performance. In this regard, the work of SEMA attempts to contribute to the achievement of accountability through a method that amplifies local voices and captures citizen feedback on their experiences with government offices. SEMA believes in the power of citizens’ voices in making a difference in their communities and advocates for evidence-based action and change coming from the local level.
To help fight corruption and support the realisation of cultural changes, SEMA employs a citizen feedback initiative, where teams of volunteers survey citizens on their experiences of service delivery. At the door of several public services in Kampala, citizens are asked about their experiences, wait time, and overall satisfaction upon leaving. The information, which is anonymised, is then aggregated, and presented back to government offices in the form of a monthly report. Government respondents explained they are incentivised to act because they do not want their managers to see that their performance is declining. Moreover, they also looked forward to seeing the positive pieces of feedback they receive from citizens.
“Both sides encourage us. When there is a declined performance, we have to work hard to see that that image is improved. When there is a good performance, it also motivates us to continue performing.” One Government official
SEMA’s hypothesis is that if citizen feedback is presented to government offices regularly and in an easy-to-understand format, public accountability will increase, which can in turn incentivise service delivery improvements. At the same time, this provides a mechanism to monitor and evaluate the quality of services over time. In short, the amplification of local voices is pivotal to improving service delivery in Kampala. Indeed, listening to citizens’ voices allows SEMA to better translate their needs into recommendations for improved service delivery in Uganda.
Achieving the Sustainable Development Goal 16+
Such efforts, however, cannot be optimised if public decisions are taken behind closed doors. This is where transparency emerges as a fundamental factor. Although more research is needed, transparency is assumed to be a necessary parameter to accomplish accountability, thereby contributing to the legitimacy and efficacy of governance. In Uganda, however, while accountability interventions can provide certain incentives to promote less-corrupt behaviour and slowly change culture over time, it does not directly address a root cause of the problem – the need for better pay and working conditions so that staff are less likely to engage in corruption. As a result, accountability mechanisms on their own are unlikely to make long-term improvements in corruption within service delivery in Kampala but can provide an initial effort.
In line with SDG16+, which promotes peaceful, just, and inclusive societies, it is of paramount importance to reduce corruption and bribery. To achieve this, transparency and accountability are key. In this regard, and in alignment with SDG 16.6, SEMA helps governments to develop effective, accountable, and transparent institutions at all levels and to track this SDG indicator through a citizen-based approach. SEMA’s intervention in trustworthy public service delivery in Uganda serves as an example of how grassroots accountability interventions can help achieve better service delivery and less corrupt societies – increasing societal trust and cohesion along the way. Indeed, accomplishing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development cannot be done without achieving peaceful, just and inclusive societies and solving matters of corruption, poor governance, insecurity and injustice.