Voice, empowerment and accountability (VEA) is an umbrella term that covers a wide range of ideas about how citizens can express preferences, secure their rights, make demands on the state and ultimately achieve better development outcomes. VEA draws attention to the role of individual agency, power relations, and processes that can enable or constrain citizens’ capacity to articulate and achieve their individual and collective goals.
Though closely connected, the terms voice, empowerment and accountability are conceptually distinct, and also widely contested:
- Voice is often understood as the ability of citizens to express their preferences and to be heard by the state, either through formal or informal channels, in written or oral form (Rocha Menocal & Sharma, 2008). Citizens’ voices are not homogenous, and sometimes more powerful voices and opinions can crowd out those of excluded or marginal groups (DFID, 2011).
- Empowerment is a process through which individuals or organised groups increase their power and autonomy to achieve certain outcomes they need and desire (Eyben, 2011). Empowerment focuses on supporting disadvantaged people to gain power and exert greater influence over those who control access to key resources (DFID, 2011).
- Accountability is a process for holding individual actors or organisations to account for their actions. Accountability requires transparency, answerability, and enforceability between decision makers and citizens (Rocha Menocal & Sharma, 2008).
For further resources, see conceptualising empowerment and accountability.
Why does VEA matter?
Voice, empowerment and accountability interventions (separately or in combination with each other) aim to support poor and marginalised people to build the resources, assets, and capabilities they need to exercise greater choice and control over their own development, and to hold decision-makers to account. Two main rationales for supporting VEA are present across the literature. One is that voice, empowerment and accountability have intrinsic value, as objectives in and of themselves. Empowerment, for example, can improve people’s autonomy and dignity, whilst enabling them to make valued contributions to family and society (Eyben, 2011).
A second rationale is that VEA is instrumental to the achievement of a broader range of development goals. For instance, citizen voice is viewed as a precondition for equitable access to and quality of public goods and services, thereby supporting improved health and education outcomes (Rocha Menocal & Sharma, 2008). VEA is also considered vital for the development of inclusive institutions – or institutions that generate equality of opportunity and access to resources. Increased voice and accountability of marginalised groups is crucial if development is to fulfil its promise to ‘leave no one behind’, and tackle the underlying causes of poverty and exclusion (Rocha Menocal & Sharma, 2008). VEA is also associated with the development of more inclusive political settlements, in which states are responsive to the needs of all groups of citizens, regardless of ethnicity or social status (DFID, 2011).
Rocha Menocal, A. & Sharma, B. (2008). Joint Evaluation of Citizens’ Voice and Accountability: Synthesis Report. London: DFID.
Citizens’ voice and accountability are important dimensions of governance. Citizens need effective ‘voice’ in order to convey their views; and governments or states that can be held accountable for their actions are more likely to respond to the needs and demands articulated by their population. Overall, interventions have had some positive effects, such as raising awareness, empowering some marginalised groups and encouraging state officials. However, impact has remained limited in scale and sustainability. The key variable for impact has been context – specifically, the interaction between formal and informal institutions, and the underlying power relations. Donors should sharpen their ‘political intelligence’, and work with existing institutions, address both supply and demand sides, and diversify their engagement outside their comfort zone. They should also be realistic about short- vs. long-term goals.
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DFID. (2011). A Preliminary Mapping of the Evidence Base for Empowerment and Accountability. London: DFID.
What do we know about the impact of aid on voice, empowerment and accountability? This review finds that the evidence is fragmentary, and more impact evaluations are needed. Little is known about the long-term impacts of interventions on political dynamics. In a number of instances, VEA has led to short-term changes in policy, regulation and reform, improved transparency, reduced corruption, increased community participation and improved government responsiveness to citizen demands. However, these changes are context-specific and have been difficult to scale up. Their drivers remain little understood. One clear finding is that citizen empowerment is not bestowed by donor or government interventions, or by official spaces for citizen engagement. Rather, it is often achieved by citizen-led movements that act without the support or sanction of governments or donors.
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For further resources, see GSDRC topic guide on inclusive institutions.
- Eyben, R. (2011). Supporting Pathways of Women’s Empowerment: A Brief Guide for International Development Organisations. Brighton: IDS, Pathways of Women’s Empowerment. See full text