Research Topics


The U4 Blog

Learning & events

About Us

Social accountability

People often suffer most from corruption. Access to clean water, reliable health, and well-equipped and staffed schools are jeopardised by corruption. People’s movements, community- or faith-based organisations (CBOs and FBOs), local NGOs, and traditional and interactive media have an important role in holding power to account. By doing this they can contribute to tackling the effect corruption has on development outcomes.

Social accountability

Social accountability relates to the role people play in ensuring power is held accountable. In short, social accountability relates to a series of approaches and tools that raise citizen voice, articulate the needs and perspectives of the people to those in positions of power and ensure funds allocated to development reach their final goal. With the disappointing results from institutional anti-corruption measures, many see the potential of increasing citizen voice as a way to reduce corruption. If corrupt actions result from a lack of transparency, high levels of discretion, and a lack of accountability, social accountability is viewed as one of the mechanisms through which that formula may be balanced. Social accountability tools, such as community monitoring or participatory budgeting can be ways people and CBO/FBOs etc., can reduce the harmful impact of corruption.

Corruption in civil society organisations

It is widely agreed that civil society has an important role to play. Yet in societies with systemic corruption, it is important to remember that CSOs can also be susceptible to corrupt practices. People in this field see internal control mechanisms such as fraud and corruption prevention as an important tool for this. Increasing, CSOs recognise the challenges corruption poses to their work. In addition to implementing zero tolerance, whistleblowing and other control mechanisms and policies, many see “downward accountability” as an integral component for controlling corruption risks in their work. Whilst “upward” accountability mechanisms tying CSOs to their donors are well established, many think that CSOs should also be accountable “downwards” to beneficiaries of their programmes. Stemming from rights-based approaches to development practice, many CSOs see “downward accountability” as important to increasing participatory development. In addition to this “downward accountability” can also provide channels and feedback loops for monitoring CSOs’ activities and strengthening community level whistleblowing.

Human rights approaches

The idea that CSOs are also accountable to the communities in which they work comes out of the wider rights-based approaches to development. This approach – developed over the last two decades – sees the failure to provide access to education and clean water, for example, as a denial of one’s human rights. Those in power have a duty – as duty-bearers – to enable citizens to enjoy their rights. Citizens, or rights-holders, should claim their rights when these are being denied. This they can do by holding duty bearers accountable for their actions. The parallels between rights-based approaches, social accountability and anti-corruption are clear.

More recently, the links between the human rights and anti-corruption agendas have been made more explicit. On 23 June 2017, the UN Human Rights Council adopted resolution 35/25 – The negative impact of corruption on the enjoyment of human rights. Policy and research attention is now being directed towards how anti-corruption and human rights standards, principles, mechanisms and initiatives can positively and mutually reinforce each other.

State-society relations

Crucial to furthering our understanding of the relationship between rights, development and corruption is an approach that sees this playing out within the wider environment of state-society relations. This includes questions such as

  • How do people relate to the society in which they live?
  • What issues and incentives promote collective behaviour?
  • And what expectations govern social relations within a given context?

For example, if one expects everyone to act corruptly, what social or material benefit is there to acting non-corruptly? Or if there are prevailing norms that promote types of behaviour that are conducive to corruption, what incentives are there to contravene social norms? Under such circumstances the conventional approach – which sees corruption as a principal-agent challenge (where an agent has discretionary power to pursue its self-interests), seems overly simplistic. Demanding, instead a more comprehensive state-society or social-relations approach to understanding corruption. Research in this area helps to connect complex academic approaches into more practical policy recommendations.

Social movements

When there is dissonance between the expectations and ambitions individuals have – both for themselves and for their communities and countries – and the practical reality of daily interactions with the state, there is the potential for change. There is also the potential for frustration, alienation and socio-political instability.

On the positive side, this can give rise to what appears from the outside as spontaneous social movements – as was the case with the Arab Spring. Yet behind these apparently spontaneous movements are often deeper issues related to social relations and personal expectations. In the example above, much was made of the use of social media and mobile technology in mobilising youth. A youth that felt disenfranchised under oppressive systems characterised by widespread corruption. A disconnect between the world they could access through technology and their everyday lives. The potential of using technology to advance anti-corruption work is currently quite popular and indeed, there may well be a potential. Yet comprehensive evidence for the added value of technology in reducing corruption is mixed. Conducting research into how and why such movements occur and what they actually achieve could have implications in how we approach anti-corruption policy.

    About the author

    Saul Mullard is a senior adviser at the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre and a civil society specialist with a background in historical sociology, development studies and South Asian studies. His research interests include the relationship between corruption and climate change and the role of local communities and indigenous peoples in addressing corruption and environmental protection. Mullard holds a doctorate and master’s in South and Inner Asian Studies from the University of Oxford, as well as a BA in Development Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.


    All views in this text are the author(s)’, and may differ from the U4 partner agencies’ policies.

    This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International licence (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)