(Photo by Dustin Barber)

(Photo by Dustin Barber)

Top 5 tips: Social accountability in conflict, ideas from Myanmar

Social accountability, what does it mean? And does it mean something different when people are in the middle of a civil war?  Is Social Accountability  a set of static tools that sound good on paper but aren’t really associated with delivering social and political change? Some people think so, and this opinion has been somewhat encouraged by an emphasis on tools over process – such as the World Bank’s toolkit.  However that doesn’t represent what social accountability can actually do.

In Myanmar, Oxfam uses social accountability as both a framework and a hook to hang a whole series of interventions on. We have been experimenting with the approach for four years in Ayeryawaddy region – a peaceful, stable area, with a lot of success. And now we plan to see what use it can be in conflict-affected areas. So we’ve been thinking about what we can adapt from Ayeryawaddy, and what needs to be completely redesigned.

Myanmar is composed of 14 states and divisions, but at times it feels like 14 different countries with a myriad of actors: the state, Tatmadaw state army, and 21 ethnic armed groups all controlling segments of the country. Whilst most of the country is peaceful, there are multiple ethnic conflicts on the country’s borders. The largest of the ethnic armies are no average rebel group -  in addition to the army they act as mini governments, running services and collecting taxes in the territories that they control, with their own land policies and health programmes, and they produce enough electricity to sell back to the government. Trust has been broken time and again over decades of military rule. Despite attempts to pick up the pieces,  this has become an increasingly fragmented society that the country name Republic of the Union of Myanmar is not without irony.

Against this complex backdrop, as we expand our work, we continuously wrestle with how social accountability programming differs in stable versus conflict areas of the country. And in conflict areas, can its approaches actually be a useful contributor to peace making?  Here are the top five differences we have come up with so far – what do you think?

  1. Trust-building becomes even more crucial in conflict contexts. In a stable context, trust is the precursor to being able to bring together people and power holders into a constructive engagement. In a conflict context, trust becomes an end in itself, and if done well could contribute to peace-making well beyond the programme. If we were being really ambitious we might even want to add in a new result on trust building and monitor that separately.
  2. Who communities have a social contract with differs. Traditionally, social accountability targets the social contract between citizens and state; in a country where the right to govern is contested, that doesn’t hold. Starting with the needs of communities and then working out who they are or should be getting services from forces the programme to engage with the multiple actors involved. From a conflict-sensitivity perspective, just working with the state would be tantamount to building up one side of the conflict at the expense of the other.
  3. The choice of partners becomes critical. Working with either partners who are willing to work with both state and ethnic administrations or a mix of partners on each side of the conflict spreads the risk.
  4. Programming for shocks becomes the norm. In a stable environment, a shock is often unexpected; in a conflict area, it is almost inevitable. So thinking through in advance what will happen to the programme if fighting increases, or if a ceasefire is signed, becomes part of the design. 
  5. Accept that you may never get off the social accountability starting blocks when working in a conflict area. Working on the enabling environment may be as far as you get and that’s ok. At the very least plan for any engagement between people and powerholders to take a couple of years – versus 6-12 months in a stable area.

Do these make sense? What are we missing? And for those looking for more, check out these programming principles we have come up with- minimum standards for conflict sensitivity of social accountability programming.