Social Accountability - A Key Element of Effective Service Delivery

The state is responsible for delivering services to realise the rights of its people. Service delivery is conducted through a public resource management framework, which consists of five processes that include resource planning and allocation, expenditure tracking, performance management, public integrity and oversight. Because the state is duty-bound to facilitate the realisation of people’s rights progressively within its available resources, any wastage or inefficient use or management of public resources should be viewed as a violation of people’s rights.

The public, as beneficiaries of the services provided, need to ensure that the state complies with the various legislative requirements, universal declarations and commitments in decision-making processes, as well as the implementation of their duties. In the case where there is a violation of human rights, justifications and explanations have to be made as well as affirmation that remedial action is taken to address the matter. Furthermore, civic actors need to ensure that civic engagements and participation are not isolated in the processes of state decision-making, planning, implementing and evaluating the various levels of development; as the approach itself should be adopted from a bottom-up perspective.

According to the Social Development Note No. 75, “Social accountability can play an important role in the creation of more transparent and representative governments and aid public institutions in meeting the expectations of the population. It allows civil society and government to interact in a manner that acknowledges the limitations each sector faces while recognising that collaboration is necessary for effective and sustainable development.”

Realisation of Human Rights

The 2002 Human Development Report of UNDP (United Nations Development Problem) reported that good governance advances sustainable development for three reasons.

Firstly, by making it possible for people to enjoy political freedom and participate in the decisions that shape their lives. Secondly, good governance helps protect people from economic and political catastrophes, such as famines and other crises. Finally, it helps promote sustainable development by empowering citizens to influence policies that promote growth and prosperity, and reflect their priorities. Having access to public information and participation is a fundamental element of participatory governance, including transparency and accountability in municipal processes. Inadequate access to information creates and promotes corrupt practices that persistently undermine citizens and their rights.

Access to information is recognised as a fundamental human right and citizens’ access to information is hailed as a cornerstone of democracy across the world. Furthermore, freedom of information is also considered as crucial in securing and protecting other social, economic and political rights and in promoting equitable human development. Enhancing public access to and demand for public information is the first step towards empowering citizens to participate proactively and effectively in governance processes. Citizens need to understand their rights to continuously participate in such processes.

The World Bank Learning Group defines public participation as a process through which stakeholders influence and share control over development initiatives, decisions and resources that affect them (World Bank, 1995). From this perspective, participation could be viewed in terms of consultation or decision making in all phases of the development cycle, from needs assessment to appraisal, as well as from implementation to monitoring and evaluation. The link between good governance, human rights and sustainable development has been emphasised directly or indirectly by the international community in a number of declarations and other global conference documents. For example, the Declaration on the Right to Development proclaims that all people “are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development” (article 1).

In the Millennium Declaration, world leaders affirmed their commitment to promote democracy and strengthen the rule of law as well as to respect internationally recognised human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to development. According to the United Nations strategy document on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), titled ‘The United Nations and the MDGs: a Core Strategy’, "the MDGs have to be situated within the broader norms and standards of the Millennium Declaration," including those on “human rights, democracy and good governance.”

The human rights-based approach emphasises human rights as key factors in determining the relationship between individuals and groups with valid claims (rights holders) and state and non-state actors with correlative obligations (duty-bearers). It identifies rights-holders and their entitlements and corresponding duty-bearers and their obligations. According to the human rights-based approach it is essential to note the following when promoting human rights:

  • People are recognised as key actors in their own development, rather than passive recipients of commodities and services;
  • Participation is both a means and a goal;
  • Strategies are empowering;
  • Both outcomes and processes are monitored and evaluated;
  • Analysis includes all stakeholders;
  • Programmes focus on marginalised, disadvantaged, and excluded groups;
  • The development process is locally owned;
  • Programmes aim to reduce disparity;
  • Both top-down and bottom-up approaches are used in synergy;
  • Situation analysis is used to identify immediate, underlying, and basic causes of development problems;
  • Measurable goals and targets are important in programming;
  • Strategic partnerships are developed and sustained;
  • Programmes support accountability to all stakeholders.

(Developed at the Inter-Agency Workshop on a human rights-based approach in the context of UN reform, 3-5 May 2003.)

Achieving Proactive Participation Through Social Accountability Mechanisms

The World Bank defines social accountability as an approach towards building accountability that relies on civic engagement in which ordinary citizens and/or civil society organisations participate directly or indirectly in exacting accountability. The importance of social accountability, according to the World Bank, is related to social accountability initiatives that derive from its core goals of promoting poverty reduction and effective and sustainable development, and that social accountability is an essential component of and contributes directly to good governance.

Social accountability mechanisms refer to a broad range of actions (beyond voting) that citizens, communities, civil society organisations, and other interest groups can use to hold government officials and bureaucrats accountable. These include citizen participation in public policy-making, participatory budgeting, public expenditure tracking, citizen monitoring of public service delivery, citizen advisory boards, lobbying and advocacy campaigns.

These tools are made up of various policy instruments some of which are universally recognised and demand accountability, transparency and responsiveness by the state whilst in the process empowering citizens to influence policies that promote growth and prosperity and reflect their priorities. Mechanisms that involve participation of citizens in the process of managing public resources have proved to be particularly effective, and are fundamental in participation and civic engagements. When civil society is promoting social accountability through public participation, it is crucial to acknowledge that they:

  • Occupy their constitutionally provided spaces and utilise them for the promotion of equal participation, the realisation of human rights and a transparent government that promotes democracy and good governance;
  • Take advantage of the opportunities provided by the constitution and other legislation to participate in their own government and development processes;
  • Demand accountability, justifications and explanations, including corrective action in the case of misuse or abuse of public resources;
  • Be in a position to distinguish between outright corruption and administrative shortfalls resulting from weak capacity, and then prioritise and design their responses accordingly;
  • Continuously demand accountability and corrective action where legislative requirements have not been strictly complied with, particularly when the State is facilitating development processes;
  • Civil society needs to be able to better understand their role as oversight bodies.


Civil society needs to be fully equipped with the policy requirements promoting civic engagements in development processes, through networking and forging of partnerships with relevant structures and institutions such as the media to facilitate and raise awareness around the importance of the realisation of human rights in development processes. The importance of this realisation relates entirely to the prioritisation of community needs in service delivery implementation.

- Gugu Nuba Mgwebi is Project Coordinator at Afesis-corplan.This article was first published in the Jan/Feb/March 2011 edition of The Transformer and is republished here with permission from Afesis-corplan.


• Centre Social Accountability (CSA) handout session 2 (2.3) Civil Society interventions to strengthen the implementation of the five processes of public resource management framework. Developed at the Inter-Agency Workshop on a human rights-based approach in the context of UN reform, 3 to 5 May 2003.
• Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 26 April 2000.The Commission on Human Rights, 2000/64 resolution, Geneva.
• Social Development Note No. 75
• The United Nations strategy document on the millennium development goals (MDGs), entitled “The United Nations and the MDGs: a Core Strategy' (Good Governance practice that promotes human rights) .15-16 September 2004
• Kempe R H, 2003, The UNECA and good governance in Africa, Harvard International Development Conference Governance and Development in a Dynamic Global Environment. Boston, Massachusetts.

NGO Services

NGO Services

NGO Events