Fostering social accountability through community radio

By Lilian Kiefer / PSAf

GOOD governance focuses on the extent to which governments enact and implement policies in the interest of all citizens and the effective translation of public resources into public services. Decentralisation, a process of redistributing or dispersing functions, powers, people or things away from a central location or authority allows for popular participation in implementation of policies ensuring interests of all citizens. This process is key in ensuring good governance as it allows for citizens’ participation in the planning and policy-making as well as implementation systems which would otherwise be highly centralised.

Whilst the top-down approach cannot be dismissed altogether, it cannot solely effectively influence the development and implementation of pro-poor policies and services because it overly emphasises the supply-side indicators such as number of health facilities or schools or water points without necessarily taking into account specific challenges of specific communities or contexts, or quality of service provision as experienced by the target population. This overlooks the link between service providers and citizens.

Appreciating the value of participatory governance and decentralisation processes, civil society organisations (CSOs) have over the recent years increased their interest and initiatives in the use of innovative mechanisms to ensure accountability and improve governance systems. These mechanisms are premised on the need to provide opportunity for citizens to participate in providing feedback in making services work for the poor and their voices to be heard in the decision-making processes.

This process has led to the growth of social accountability approaches which are about participation of different stakeholders in governance and accountability systems. In general, social sccountability refers to gathering, analysing and disseminating information, mobilising public support and advocating and negotiating for change on development issues.
A major pillar of social accountability is participation which is the process through which stakeholders’ influence and share control over priority setting, policy-making, resource allocations, and creating access to public services provisioning.
Panos Southern Africa (PSAf) has over the years been promoting the creation of community-driven platforms for participation, where community members appreciate the value of their own participation. In partnership with civil society and various community radio stations in Zambia, and other countries in Southern Africa, PSAf has worked to create platforms for participation in fostering social accountability in a way that ensure sustainable structures that continue beyond project funding.

Community radios on the one hand provide a platform where local citizens access information on current affairs which helps them to effectively engage in constructive dialogue with duty-bearers. On the other hand, community radios provide a platform where citizens voice out their issues to influence policy development and implementation, and this leads to increase in Social Accountability.

However, for community radios to effectively carry out this important role there is need for an enabling environment, which allows them to be self-sustaining in terms of resources, to have better access to public information and to have adequate skills in synthesising, analysing and interpreting information. Additionally, community radios need support in enhancing their skills in participatory methodologies that promote citizen participation which is the pillar of social accountability.

Over the years, PSAf has been using a number of methodologies for citizen participation in partnership with community radios such as the notice board methodology as used in the HIVOS-funded Domestic Accountability Project in Zambia, radio listening clubs being utilised in the OSISA-funded Radio Platform for Community Development Project in Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique, Media Fellowships in the SADC-funded HIV Prevention Project in Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, Swaziland and Angola, the UNDEF-funded Governance and Transparency through radio project in Zambia and oral testimonies in the SIDA funded HIV Prevention Project in Mozambique and Angola among others.

The success of these initiatives lie in the ability of the partner community radio stations to continue with the methodologies as part of their programming, engaging citizens and continue with the methodologies as part of their programming, engaging citizens and amplifying their voices in fostering accountability in policy implementation. This cannot succeed if community radios are not able to sustain themselves.

Participation particularly in development, poverty reduction and governance processes is very important to ensure the long-term sustainability of development interventions as this builds further ownership, enhance transparency and accountability. Doing this also further enhances effectiveness of development programmes and policies which ultimately help in making basic services work for the poorer and marginalised people.

There are a number of Social Accountability mechanisms that citizens, community groups, and CSOs can use to hold service providers and government officials accountable. These mechanisms mainly include, citizens report card, community score cards, citizen participation in public policy making, participatory planning and budgeting, public budget tracking, citizen monitoring of public service delivery, lobbying, campaigning and advocacy, etc. This means in short by using different accountability mechanisms that involves participation of citizens in the process of managing public resources we can empower citizens and ensure good governance for poverty reduction and sustainable development.

Some of the main areas where Social Accountability mechanisms are applied in (there could be more) are:

a) Issue Identification: This involves identifying areas that need improvement in the policy formulation and implementation processes and mobilising entry points;
b) Researching: generating evidence on the issues identified using various techniques to inform advocacy
c) Awareness raising: Holding community awareness campaigns, road shows, and public meeting to popularise and disseminate results;
d) Alliance building: Identifying like-minded groups and organisations to establish and strengthen common voices;
e) Dialogue: Negotiating for changes through interface meetings and forums (service providers and receivers); and
f) Monitoring: Following up on promises made, delivery of the promises and sustainability of changes.

For these to be realised there is need for an enabling environment for the civil society to genuinely engage in the process of development and poverty reduction and exercise these mechanisms. There is also need for financial support to sustain the work of CSOs. In the recent months, a number of CSOs in Southern Africa have closed down due to sustainability and financing challenges. While Civil society organisations have a great role to play in ensuring their sustainability, there is also need for the playing field to be supportive.

Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) play a critical role in building and introducing different Social Accountability mechanisms to realise these important objectives, however, most of the times, interventions are project-based and phase out with the end of project funding. Creating local level coalitions made up of elected representatives, CSOs, traditional authorities and media that are driven by a common purpose ensures that interventions are replicable and sustainable.

The existence of the Zambia Community Media Forum (ZaCoMeF) and other community media networking organisations in Southern Africa is a great opportunity for stakeholders to support the development of the community media sector and ensure its sustainability.

Social accountability is very important in holding public service providers accountable to citizens by ensuring that they provide accessible, affordable and quality services. This is achieved by empowering citizens to demand their rights, thereby improving governance, and development effectiveness through better service delivery and informed public participation.

Lilian Kiefer is the PSAf executive director. She can be contacted through email on This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. This article was first published in the Zambia Daily Mail newspaper on 16 April 2013.