Use aid to strengthen accountability in India

Beyond the rhetoric, a vast majority of Indians remain poor; but India itself seems to be chugging along reasonably comfortably, promoting itself as an “emerging superpower”. True, The government is not crunched for funds and its outlays dwarf all aid budgets. The state has high tax revenues and runs welfare schemes that reach out to remote corners of the country. 

On the economic ladder, the top 300 million in India form one of the most formidable markets ever and every marketer wants a share in the pie. This section of the population has ‘privatised’ their lives, or at the very least, have turned into a dependable market for private schools and hospitals, cars and motor-bikes, generators and inverters, water tankers and private bore-wells, supermarkets, real estate agents etc.

Civil society in India is vibrant and influential. The intense efforts of dedicated development sector workers and organisations have led to significant legislations and policy initiatives in the country. Grassroots innovations have been publicised and replicated. The mass media is now used to mobilise public sentiments and crowd-source opinions on a host of different issues.

On the surface, it looks like the state has the resources and the reach to implement; the market has the incentive to expand access and and civil society has the expertise and credibility to act as a watchdog. Of course, there are leakages and resources are often wasted; corruption is rampant and social problems abound. What is lacking is not capacity, but better lines of accountability between different actors in society. External aid is unlikely to  revamp the Indian bureaucracy, nor can it afford to continue plugging gaps in service delivery in perpetuity. Instead, aid could focus on improving systems of accountability. 

Here is my list for where aid could help:

  • Strengthen capacities and enhance independence of state institutions such as the Comptroller and Auditor General and Central Vigilance Commission to hold the different state agencies to account. 
  • Encourage improved performance management through outcome measurement of governmental and non-governmental programmes; ensure outcome budgets are prepared and disseminated widely; promote social audits at the local level
  • Support rigorous research to identify and replicate best practices; foster an environment where research feeds policy through dissemination to legislators as well as key policymakers in government, NGOs as well as captains of industry  
  • Strengthen national and global coalitions to regulate corporate interests that harm the poor and the environment
  • Improve accountability of civil society organisations to citizens and not only to donors; promote a diverse set of local associational organisations where citizens come together 
  • Promote a culture of local philanthropy and sustainable social initiatives by big businesses in the country. 
Not all of this will require direct funds disbursements. What this will involve however, is a willingness to embed in the local context and be part of the local politics. At a macro-level, this also requires reinforcing (or enhancing) the mandate and legitimacy of multi-lateral agencies such as the UN or World Bank to hold national governments to account. For donors, it might be cheaper, but possibly tougher. 

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