Accountability from the bottom up

Systemic, socioeconomic barriers have paralyzed people within their communities and nations throughout history. This occurs because they lack the knowledge and resources necessary to develop holistic solutions or hold accountable the power brokers in business, education and government. There have been some dramatic examples of change agents dismantling corrupt institutions such as gaining employee rights and ending Apartheid. Still, many people feel doubtful that they can do anything to effect positive change in their circumstances.

In March, I had the opportunity to hold a Skype conversation with Blair Glencorse, Executive Director of Accountability Lab [Lab], to learn more about his projects in Liberia, Nepal and Guinea Bissau. His work sparked my curiosity when I viewed his photos on Linkedin about an open forum he held with workers at the Firestone Rubber Plantation in Liberia. It is common knowledge that Firestone has not provided its employees with appropriate working conditions, from livable wages to proper safety equipment. This almost 90-year-old rubber plantation has been cited for many environmental concerns including the poisoning of nearby rivers. This forum was intended to allow workers to air their concerns, but also discuss possible ways that they can collectively hold their employer accountable for meeting their fundamental rights as employees. Thus the idea of “accountability from the bottom up.”

The focus of the Accountability Lab is on building partnerships with local organizations within nations they serve. The Lab contributes comparative understanding, new thinking and flexible support, while the organizations offer local knowledge, contextualized ideas and relevant networks. Blair brings extensive experience to the challenges of governance, accountability and development, working with stakeholders in developing nations in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

The Lab equips marginalized people in Liberia, Nepal and Guinea Bissau with needed resources and funds to amplify their voices about problems and develop innovative solutions to ensure that institutional leaders fulfill their responsibilities. One of the projects that Blair started in Liberia is called TELL-it-True. This is a confidential and anonymous SMS suggestion box (free text code 8355 or TELL). An operator will call back to gather and compile the information related to particular issues. This allows both students and faculty/administrators to provide a detailed accounting of problems and their possible solutions to an operator.

The Lab will periodically hold discussions with university administration and student government. These groups will develop ideas to resolve the concerns by determining action steps needed to implement them. These are then reported to the student body at large, explaining the findings and the necessary process to make corrective changes. It is through these exercises the Lab hopes to convince more people to use this system for addressing problems and creating viable solutions.

The TELL-it-True pilot program at Stella Maria has proven its worth. Blair shared in an email that “the process works well (fits the context and is low tech, which keeps it
simple and cheap) but the key is the political will on the part of the
administration to address the problems, of course.” So, they are ready to roll this out to high schools and other universities, which requires the coordination of the student government. They are in the process of building a consensus at the University of Liberia to implement this program, which could be an important vehicle in addressing the ongoing student frustration of this nation’s largest university. 

Another project that was introduced in Liberia on April 29 is called Accountapreneurship Funds. This exciting initiative allows people with an entrepreneurial spirit to develop their own innovative methods to facilitate the accountability of the powers-that-be. According to their Facebook post announcing this program, the Lab states: “The fund may provide small grants (of
US$1,000-2,000) to help catalyze new tools, but the emphasis is on the
provision of training, mentorship, connections and networks that can
really help make these approaches work over time. Applications are
received on a rolling basis.” For anyone interested in this program, please contact Lawrence
Yealue, Lab’s Country Representative, at 0888330901 (local number). 

Since introducing this initiative, Lawrence has been going out to rural and urban communities to explain the program and how to apply for funding. He was in Bomi County on May 4 talking with potential accountapreneurs, who according to the Lab’s Facebook post were able to deliver “tons of good ideas to fight corruption and improve transparency!” 

At the time of this posting, the Lab has awarded one accountapreneurship grant to community leaders within West Point, one of Monrovia’s largest slums. The project is to merge a formal and informal justice system to resolve legal disputes in accountable and legitimate way from both top-down institutions like the police and bottom-up community forums. Blair shared in his email that the Lab has spent $1,000 and “saved citizens over $1500 in bond fees, travel fees etc, and
hundreds of hours in time; and the results are far more sustainable as
they are locally agreed and owned.” They hope to award five or more grants before the year’s end. Check out Blair’s article Re-Imaging the Relationship of Citizens to Power-Holders Through “Accountapreneurship” in the World Justice Project to learn more about this program.

The Lab customizes its initiatives for the countries they serve based on their level of development and the strength of their infrastructure. Liberia uses texting for their university initiative. Nepal on the other hand has “Bye Dalal” which uses crowdsourcing as an effective means for accountability. They “use web-based tools to gather, organize and disburse the information, and foster human networks to transmit information to and from the web-tools, bridging the digital divide in new ways.” 

The work that Blair and his Lab team are doing in Liberia correlates well with the programs that Uniting Distant Stars is working on. We share the belief that grassroots innovation has its place in nation-building, especially with its youth. A nation’s future is their young people. When we engage them in finding meaningful solutions with lasting impact, they will likely remain vested in the process. The expectation is that the young people of today, who will be the leaders of tomorrow, shall themselves support the young people of tomorrow by endorsing “accountability from the bottom up.”

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