Photo: Projet Jeune Leader
By Jack Cornforth, Resilient Roots Coordinator, CIVICUS
Towards the end of 2020, we spoke to many of our national partners from the initial phase of the Resilient Roots initiative to find out how they are doing nine months after our financial and technical support for their pilot accountability projects ended (see them on ourinteractive map). Overall, the news was very encouraging, with the vast majority reporting sustained positive outcomes from this work, including ways it has enhanced their ability to cope with challenges related to Covid-19. Several key themes came through strongly:
Deepening and expanding accountability policies and practices
All partners have continued their accountability practices in one form or another, with most actually going a step further to deepen or expand their efforts. They told us this was because of multiple positive outcomes from the pilot phase, ranging from more engaged and active constituents, to a more collaborative and transparent internal working culture.
This ongoing work has included training more staff and partners on the topic, new rounds of surveying constituents to assess organisational accountability, the maturing of new constituent-driven organisational bodies like Video Volunteers Council (India), or even electing constituent representatives to the board of directors (PCCDS, Palestine). For many partners, this has enabled them to go beyond simply asking for feedback about their performance, to adopting an inclusive planning approach that directly involves constituents and wider stakeholders. Projet Jeune Leader (PJL) in Madagascar, for instance, have expanded their now annual partner school learning and planning symposium to involve a wider group of constituents. This includes school directors, whose involvement has been vital for embedding their programmes within the curriculum, aligning goals and how to measure them, and reducing pushback from skeptical parents.
In Peru, Kusi Warma has found that being more consultative when deciding what they do and how they do it - as well as transparent about how tight their budgets are - has helped the community to step up and take charge. For their new community kitchen project, for instance, the organisation provides support and advice but decisions are made by local people. Similarly, PJL is now attempting to run its programmes in twice as many locations by putting its trust in local delivery partners to roll out its activities more independently, whereas Poverty Reduction Forum Trust (PRFT, Zimbabwe) has enabled its constituents to play a more direct role in their advocacy work.
Accountability to staff
It was also wonderful to hear many organisations reinforce that being more transparent with their own staff, and taking a more inclusive approach to organisational planning and decision making is absolutely critical for both a healthy internal working culture and external accountability efforts. In Russia, OVD-Info has now created a specific action plan for increasing accountability to their staff, which includes clarifying their structure, values, and how decisions are made, while in Greece, Solidarity Now attributed its ability to more quickly close the feedback loop with its constituents to improved communication channels between different delivery partners. Others have started internal newsletters, and even developed a new scorecard system where educators can assess their supervisors and feel more energised as a result of having a greater voice.
Engaging in the context of COVID-19
All partners reported a range of new challenges associated with the pandemic, including their ability to maintain a two-way flow of information with their constituents as virtually all engagement has moved online. Some have been able to help bridge the gap, such as PCCDS’ provision of microgrants to constituents for the purchase of mobile data. However, despite these efforts, many people have remained almost impossible to reach or include in activities. As a result, PRFT said that both the quantity and quality of feedback they’ve received has dropped.
Photo: Palestinian Centre for Communication and Development
Nevertheless, several partners said that they were better prepared for the shift to virtual-only engagement because of their improved understanding of who their constituents are and how they prefer to communicate, and having multiple online channels already up and running. Kusi Warma, for instance, switched to primarily engaging their communities through telephone conversations. But they have also regularly sent simple staff-shot mobile phone videos with information and advice, so people can see who they have been talking to.
Adapting to new constituent needs
Many partners told us that the upheaval from Covid-19 has required them to pause, ask what their constituents need during this time, and adapt their activities accordingly. This has ranged from providing badly needed new services, such as psychological support for families hit hard by the pandemic, or even helping ensure access to clean water - something totally new for child rights and education organisation Educo (Nicaragua). Other shifts have been more subtle, with human rights watchdog OVD-Info eventually meeting increasing demands from their constituents to provide guidance on quarantine-related restrictions, despite them initially seeing this as out of scope for them. Whereas FemPlatz in Serbia helped to address changing constituent needs more indirectly by connecting them with other organisations who could provide the services they needed.
Accountability for resilience
Several organisations explained that the ability to pivot and meet the changing needs of their constituents is itself crucial for organisational resilience. Even if their accountability practice isn’t directly helping to counter closing civic space, which has made the work of several partners during the pandemic not just harder but in some cases more dangerous, there was a clear feeling that maintaining community trust and support is key to organisational survival. Furthermore, several organisations have been able to successfully integrate their accountability work into subsequent grants - including from a new domestic donor for PCCDS - and use the positive outcomes from these efforts so far to sell themselves to donors in what has become an increasingly tough fundraising environment.
Many partners have also been able to share their new-found accountability expertise with wider audiences. By regularly telling the story of their successes and lessons learned, PJL has been building a new evidence base on how to effectively build community support for sex education programmes in socially consertaive contexts. In this regard, their regular magazine isn’t just important for closing the feedback loop with the communities they work with, it’s also a key advocacy tool. Similarly, PCCDS has produced what it believes to be the first guide to good accountability practice for organisations in the Palestinian context. And in Serbia, FemPlatz used their growing network and enhanced consultation skills to bring many of their partners together to discuss how the pandemic has affected their constituents, and how their organisations can adapt to help meet these changing needs. What’s more, they have also provided recommendations to both partners and donors about how to support women with disabilities, as a group hit particularly hard by the impacts of Covid-19. Overall, there was also much interest from the partners in engaging more with CIVICUS and its wider members on accountability work.
Beyond the progress made by each partner, reconnecting with these colleagues has been an important way for CIVICUS to sense-check our approach and validate our ongoing organisational commitment to taking this work to wider audiences. But it has also provided us with further lessons and good practices that others can learn from and adapt to their own contexts. In this regard, we look forward to continuing our collaboration with these important accountability ambassadors, including via the Dynamic Accountability Community of Practice (please do join up!). You can also read this summary of the Resilient Roots phase two, which we have been implementing since July 2020, and join our mailing list to receive updates and opportunities related to the initiative.
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A massive thank you to Hannah Wheatley and Oriana Castillo for helping to craft our approach and conducting the interviews, as well as to our amazing partners for doing such an incredible job at taking their constituent accountability practice to new heights!