The coming age of accountability

There was such a great audience yesterday at the Brookings event on What Works in Development. (If you are a glutton for punishment, the full length audio of the event is available on the Brookings web site.) In the end, what struck me was the passion for just having SOME way to KNOW that aid is benefiting the poor, which dwarfed the smaller issue of Randomized Experiment methods vs. other methods.

And extreme dissatisfaction with aid agencies who ignore even the most obvious signs that some aid effort is not working. (Example cited in the Brookings book: a World Bank computer kiosk program in India celebrated as a "success" in its "Empowerment" sourcebook. Except that the computers sat in places without functioning electricty or Internet connections. Critics pointed that out, and yet officials still defended the program as contributing to "Empowerment." Abhijit Banerjee asked "empowered how ? through non-working computers?")

It is awfully hard to get an accountabilty movement going that would have enough political power to force changes on aid agencies, say, away from forever mumbling "empowerment," towards actually making computers light up.

Accountability is not something that anyone accepts voluntarily. It is forced on political actors by sheer political power from below. That's what democratic revolutions are all about. Can we hear a lot more from people in the poor countries protesting bad aid (thank you, Dambisa Moyo) and praising good aid (thank you, Mohammed Yunus)? Can we hear A LOT more from the intended beneficiaries themselves? Can their allies in rich countries help them gain more political leverage with rich country aid agencies?

I don't know yet. But there is a lot more awareness of the accountability problem then there was a decade ago. The dialogues of the blogs on making Haiti disaster aid work is one example.  The size, savvy, and enthusiasm of the audience yesterday was one more small hopeful sign.

Watch out, aid agencies, accountability is coming.