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Accountability in Development


George Kennedy

Accountability is of absolute importance for grassroots development. It is the means by which individuals and organisations involved throughout the development process report to each other and are held responsible for their actions. Pretty simple right? – Everyone just needs to be honest and transparent.

Unfortunately, in practice it isn’t that easy. Each relevant party, or stakeholder, involved in development has a very different set of expectations regarding accountability. This governs the way they interact, creating hierarchies of power that impact directly upon local development projects. Remaining accountable to different sets of expectations is challenging, especially when balancing the needs of communities with the requirements of donors. If not sufficiently balanced, these competing interests can quickly give rise to tensions which may negatively impact a development projects success.

There are three key stakeholders relevant to accountability in development.


1. The beneficiary

We can agree that from an altruistic perspective, the primary goal of development is to assist the beneficiary. If not, why do it? When a project is designed to reflect the needs of the beneficiaries, this is known as downward accountability. High quality downward accountability is widely recognised as the foundation of any effective development initiative. This is the reason grassroots movements are often so successful.

2. The benefactor 

Without benefactors, grassroots organisations are left helpless. They require outside funding and, in many cases, technical support to undertake successful projects. This group of stakeholders thus represents donors and larger partner organisations that directly assist grassroots organisations. Being accountable to the expectations and desired outputs of these stakeholders is known as upward accountability.


3. The organisation 

Accountability to the goals of the development organisation itself is known as inward accountability. This is not such an issue for grassroots organisations because their goals are usually almost entirely aligned with those of the beneficiaries - in most cases the members of grassroots groups are the beneficiaries. However, for larger organisations, accountability to political motivations, access to future funding and organisational mantras often dictates the way they do business.

Accountability is thus a delicate balancing act between the expectations of benefactors, beneficiaries and the organisation itself. Ideally these would be perfectly aligned, however this is rarely the case. 

Tina Wallace, a prominent development academic, suggests it can be useful to consider accountability on a hierarchical chain where stakeholders are positioned relevant to their power and influence over a development project. Traditionally, the benefactor is at the top, beneficiary at the bottom and the organisation is wedged in between, seeking to balance the expectations of both. Those higher up the chain generally have power over those below because they control funds and support. 

This conceptualisation places donors as the most powerful stakeholders in the development paradigm. Indeed, projects are sometimes designed with the expectations of donors in mind over those of beneficiaries in order to maximise funding opportunities. This is not to say that the needs of beneficiaries are altogether silenced, it merely highlights that some sacrifices may be made during project design to accommodate the expectations of donors.

This concept can be a little confusing so lets use a case study to explore it further;


Not long ago, an international nonprofit that builds toilets for vulnerable communities visited a rural Indian village. They new that diarrheal diseases were prevalent in this community and as such, they sought to use their skills to build a new block of modern toilets. They had appealed to donors who had funded their plan and they had all the necessary tools to complete the project. However, upon meeting with the community, they were told that instead of toilets, they required somewhere to store their grain. The community leaders explained that their food was being destroyed during the wet season and that children were dying of malnutrition and starvation. Whilst acknowledging this, the nonprofit insisted they build their toilets – this was, after all, the technical skill the organization possessed and the objectively beneficial outcome their donors expected. Reluctantly the community agreed and the new, hygienic toilets were built.


After six months the NGO returned to the village to inspect the toilets and take pictures for their donors so that they may secure future funding. However, when they saw the toilet building, it was filled with grain. The toilet had never been used for its intended purpose and had instead been used to safely store the communities food source.

This clearly highlights the challenges associated with competing accountabilities in development. At the top of the chain is the donor whose expectation is that their money will be used to achieve an advertised output. By donating, they indicate their support for the project based upon the information put together by the NGO. Below them is the organisation, bound to the donor by a need for future funding and somewhat blinded by their technical focus. Finally, the communities needs have fallen to the bottom of the chain. They cannot refuse a project, for doing so may prevent them from accessing future aid. Yet accepting a project that their community clearly does not value, even if it is objectively beneficial, appears to be at best, a missed opportunity.

The challenge for development organisations is thus to be conscious of these competing expectations and ensure they are balanced. It is of course paramount they remain accountable to the expectations of the donor. Without a funding source, the work of development will grind to a halt. By producing measurable outputs and transparent feedback, the NGO  aims to inspire confidence in their project and gain the donors trust. Yet, a focus upon the achievement of pre-determined milestones and predictable outputs may divert attention away from the actual realities in communities. Indeed, academics and development practitioners alike readily agree that rigid upward accountability mechanisms make development organisations less likely to listen to the community and prioritise their views. 

To be effective, organisations, and the expectations of donors, need to be fluid and responsive to changing realities on the ground, rather than assuming they can be predicted in advance. We need to empower beneficiaries to take ownership of projects and engage in political processes. The art of development at the local level must be consultative and participatory, a process that is inherently unpredictable. Mechanisms to ensure the effectiveness of projects are important, but designing projects around measurable outputs rather than community needs is a mistake.


Importantly, organisations at all levels of development are making the shift towards empowering downward accountability. International organisations are becoming increasingly flexible to the needs of communities, consulting with grassroots organisations during project design to gain insights into the real needs and values of communities. In this way, the outcomes advertised to donors will more closely align with the expectations of the beneficiary. However, this recalibration of the accountability chain will rely upon trusting relationships, fluid project design and flexibility on the part of all stakeholders.


This article only scratches the surface of concepts surrounding accountability in development. We’ll explore the complexities in more detail in future posts. However, if you’d like to study up on this important issue, I'd recommend reading Tina Wallace’s book “The Aid Chain”. It presents detailed research on the mechanisms of accountability in development in a logical and easily understood package. Please don't be disenchanted by the complexities surrounding accountability. It is an incredibly important safeguard of responsible development. However, by better understanding the systems caveats and flaws, you are empowered to make well informed decisions about the way you play your role in the development process. 

About the Author

George is the founder of Grassroots Collective and has worked with local development organisations all over the world, from Cambodia to Patagonia. He is currently working in Latin America, helping local community nonprofits achieve their missions and share their incredible stories.

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