What is accountability? And how does it relate to the Joint Peace Fund in Myanmar?

March 15, 2017

Accountability is a popular topic in aid circles. But references to accountability are usually most enthusiastic when directed at holding “other people” to account.

 

I think most would agree with me that the feeling of being held to account is much more uncomfortable than holding “others” to account.

 

Our human nature leads us to talk more about, for example, “holding the government to account”, or “holding our partners to account”, rather than how “we” are accountable.

 

Accountability is of course always a relationship. “Being accountable” doesn’t mean much unless we specify who we are talking about. It could be accountability to a board, or to a certain committee, or to beneficiaries of a program.

 

And accountability is also about power. Being accountable to someone means that they must have some degree of power to set standards, the power to evaluate us.

 

Ultimately there must be some repercussions from our actions, whether good or bad. In blunt terms, there is either “rewards” or “punishment” depending on whether we have met the expectations of that relationship.

 

When I talk with people about international aid support to the peace process in Myanmar, I hear a lot about the importance of conflict sensitivity.

 

Form a variety of contexts around that world there have been crucial lessons about international agencies unintentionally doing harm, and even perpetuating conflicts through their aid.

 

It seems amongst international donors in Myanmar there is a keen awareness of this, and the potential negative impacts of aid. And for example from the Joint Peace Fund team, there seems to be a commitment to developing nuanced and sensitive approaches to supporting the peace process here.

 

But conflict sensitivity, while a crucial concept in itself, is not always the same thing as accountability.

 

The Joint Peace Fund can have an “intelligent secretariat”, stocked with high level peace and conflict experts, and razor sharp analyses of Myanmar’s context, yet that does not guarantee accountability to its stakeholders.

 

That is because accountability is about power. Being held to account is about others having the power to set standards, to evaluate and ultimately to “reward” or “punish” you for your actions.

 

Who is the JPF accountable to? Who has the power to hold it to account?

 

Accountability is, after all, a relationship. And the JPF is, by its very design, intended to be “joint”. Figuring out who has, and who ought to have, that power to hold the JPF to account is crucial.

 

But I don’t envy them. Accountability is easier to talk about when it is about holding someone else to account.

Focussing on one’s own accountability is far more uncomfortable.

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