Voice, empowerment and accountability (VEA) interventions 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. This guide provides an overview of the best available evidence on the impact of VEA interventions. It identifies what we know about the barriers to VEA in different contexts, and emerging lessons on how to address them.
Two main rationales for supporting VEA recur across the literature. One is that voice, empowerment and accountability have intrinsic value, as objectives in and of themselves. A second rationale is that VEA is instrumental to the achievement of a broader range of development goals, including inclusive institutions, improved access to and quality of public services, and human development outcomes. VEA also aims to support inclusive political settlements in which states respond to the needs of all groups.
Evidence of the impact of VEA interventions is limited and inconsistent – identifying both positive and negative effects. Only a small body of literature has analysed the (potential) role of VEA in supporting development goals, and the evidence is clustered around more measurable effects on service delivery, particularly health and education. Overall, the evidence consistently demonstrates that the impact of VEA depends on context: specifically, on pre-existing power relations, social norms, levels of equity or exclusion, leadership, and the capacity and will of both state and civil society actors.
Albeit limited, the evidence presented in this guide indicates that: i) voice and participation have had positive effects on education and health outcomes in a small number of isolated cases, but evidence of links between participation and inclusive institutions is mixed; ii) empowerment is positively associated with improvements in health-promoting behaviour and women’s protection against violence, although there remains a gap in understanding the long-term effects of empowerment on social and political inclusion; and iii) transparency and accountability initiatives have had mixed results, although transparency has been linked to reduced capture, and some positive impacts on access to services have been documented.
Recent research, whilst sometimes critical of aid, has identified promising entry points for supporting VEA. Some call for aid to move beyond short-term tools and tactics towards more strategic, multipronged interventions that simultaneously tackle blockages to VEA within both state and society. Other studies emphasise the need to think and work politically, adapt theories of change to local incentives and power dynamics, and be realistic about what can be achieved. Aid actors are increasingly being called upon to adopt an enabling and brokering role. This implies working across public and private spheres to build consensus and address the pervasive collective action problems that often constitute a major barrier to citizen accountability. Evidence suggests supporting women’s political inclusion requires understanding women’s networks and their own capacity to empower themselves.
Challenges for aid effectiveness are particularly acute in fragile and conflict-affected states characterised by low trust and weak capacity. In some fragile and conflict-affected contexts, positive results have been achieved by adopting a non-confrontational ‘social contract approach’, which emphasises the collective responsibility of all parties to support better development outcomes.
Rigorously measuring the impact of VEA is challenging: whilst inputs, outputs and results may be monitorable, longer-term outcomes that involve complex causal chains often go uncaptured through conventional M&E frameworks. A more holistic approach to indicators is widely called for in the literature.