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Study Session 5 Social Accountability and Social Responsibility


This study session introduces you to the concepts of social accountability and social responsibility. You will learn about the enabling environment for social accountability and how such an environment helps to improve service delivery and facilitates community empowerment. This will help you as an urban WASH practitioner to understand the principles and benefits of social accountability and the importance of social responsibility. You should consider these basic principles as part of urban WASH interventions in your local context.

Learning Outcomes for Study Session 5

When you have studied this session, you should be able to:

5.1  Define and use correctly each of the key words printed in bold. (SAQ 5.1)

5.2  Describe what is meant by personal and social accountability. (SAQ 5.1)

5.3  Explain how social accountability principles can be implemented in the WASH context. (SAQs 5.2, 5.3 and 5.4)

5.4  Explain the importance of social responsibility to communities and wider society. (SAQ 5.5)

5.1 What is social accountability?

Accountability was defined in Study Session 1 as the duty of an organisation or individual to account for their actions and accept responsibility for them. Different aspects of accountability apply to organisations and individuals. Personal accountability is the duty of the individual to take responsibility for his or her actions. Every individual is socially, morally and legally accountable to the community or organisation that they belong to. Defining what this means for each member of a team is often a critical part of a community or organisation leader’s job. Encouraging team members to be personal accountable can have the following results:

  • It can ensure that community members and organisational employees are held accountable to local agreements and bylaws.
  • The leader’s willingness to promote personal accountability in others and in themselves helps to create a positive focus in which great things can be achieved.

Organisations, including all levels of government, should also be accountable. Social accountability means that public officials, politicians and service providers are held accountable to the public and service users for their conduct and performance. A fundamental principle of democracy is that citizens have a right to demand a governance system that ensures accountability of power holders and public actors. In a democratic society, public actors such as elected officials and civil servants are obliged to be accountable for their conduct and performance (ANSA-EAP, 2010). Citizens get a better service when officials respect the public and follow the principles of social accountability. The relationship between democracy and social accountability is therefore important in ensuring that government officials and community representatives respect the wider community.

Social accountability is about involving citizens and communities in the processes of governance so that decisions and actions of the people and organisations with power are made public and can be questioned. This not only improves governance but also leads to better service delivery and to community empowerment.

Social accountability mechanisms for involving the community can be applied in (ANSA-EAP, 2010; World Bank n.d.):

  • planning and development
  • setting budgets
  • tracking expenditure
  • monitoring the performance of projects.

An essential part of social accountability is open and effective communication with communities so that they are informed and can participate in these areas of project development and service delivery. Figure 5.1 shows an example where a community is participating in discussion about plans for new WASH facilities at the local school.

Figure 5.1 Communicating with the community is part of social accountability.

5.1.1 Enabling environment for social accountability

It is important to ensure that the mechanisms used to achieve social accountability will be effective. For this to happen there needs to be a suitable enabling environment in which these approaches will work. An enabling environment means the set of conditions that need to exist for some event, phenomenon or action to take place. According to ANSA-EAP (2010), an enabling environment for social accountability of government organisations has four pillars. These are listed below.

1. Organised and capable community groups

Well-organised community groups should be able to gather information about government programmes and services, and use this to directly engage public officials, politicians and service providers. They can ask questions and demand that they serve the community interest, justly, efficiently and effectively.

2. Responsive government

The government organisation should be willing to respond positively to the community and provide opportunities and processes for constructive community engagement. The government officers should believe in the value of social accountability and community participation in governance, and support these processes.

3. Access to and effective use of adequate and essential information

High quality and reliable information is an important prerequisite for any social accountability programme. Monitoring and evaluation of government’s performance should be based on reliable evidence to make credible claims about whether the government is performing well or not.

4. Sensitivity to culture and context

All the people involved should have a good understanding of contextual factors that could help or hinder the adoption of social accountability mechanisms. Hindering factors may include values and beliefs that sustain a culture of favouritism, corruption and mismanagement in the government.

5.1.2 Social accountability in WASH services

For social accountability in the WASH sector, the first step is to consider who the service providers might be, because these are the people or organisations that need to be socially accountable.

  • Who do you think are the service providers for an urban WASH project?

  • Public officials, professionals, government employees, non-governmental organisations and community-based organisations are all considered to be service providers. All these groups of people should therefore be accountable for their conduct and performance in delivering the services.

Community-based urban WASH projects may encounter serious challenges as a result of poor service delivery. Such challenges may arise if WASH facilities have been installed without the participation of the local community (KIND, 2014). Involving the community at an early stage helps individuals to realise their responsibilities as citizens (personal accountability) and helps to ensure that public officials, politicians and service providers are accountable for their actions (social accountability).

5.2 Putting social accountability principles into practice 

Applying social accountability principles helps government officials and community representatives to respect the wider community. It encourages government officials to take the community into consideration when making decisions and this should improve the delivery of urban WASH services in the long term.

As a WASH practitioner and development worker you should understand the general approaches to achieving social accountability so that you can encourage and support these practices to be applied in your particular locality. Common approaches to putting social accountability into practice include the following methods:

  • Producing clear, relevant information in a simple and understandable way. If such information is made public and is easily accessible, this can raise public awareness and help promote mobilisation of resources at a local level.
  • Creating opportunities for communities to meet, discuss and present their views to the decision makers and power holders. Listening to community needs, opinions and concerns is an important part of social accountability. If there are good communications between a community and the government, this can help the government to understand the local context, including community priorities and concerns, and therefore enhance the performance of the public service. It is also empowering for the community because their voices are heard and they gain experience of participating in decision making.
  • Negotiating about possible changes and new services. This can be achieved by direct and regular interactions between government officials and members of the community. Such interactions could include community level meetings, mediated consultations and conversations between community and government officials (Figure 5.2).
Figure 5.2 A community meeting to discuss provision of WASH services in Hawassa.

It’s important for information and communication to reach all members of the community. Effective social accountability needs to have active engagement of everyone, including less powerful stakeholders, poor people and disadvantaged community groups such as women, youth and minority groups. This can improve equity and strengthen social accountability.

Four key areas for implementing social accountability mechanisms were listed in Section 5.1. Putting the principles into practice in these areas means the following:

  • Participation in planning and development: This can be achieved by sharing information and communicating effectively by such methods as local radio, public hearings, public announcements (Figure 5.3) and community meetings and discussions.
  • Participatory budget setting: By involving community members in formulating and prioritising budgets for urban WASH projects.
  • Participation in expenditure tracking: This involves citizen groups or community members monitoring the manner in which the government spends public funds.
  • Participatory performance monitoring: This involves keeping track of and evaluating the impacts of government projects on intended beneficiaries. It includes assessing the efficiency, quality and responsiveness of public service delivery using participatory performance monitoring tools such as community score cards and citizen report cards (see Box 5.1).
Figure 5.3 Using a loud hailer to make announcements can help to spread the message.
  • You will see that all four of the methods for implementing social accountability mechanisms include the word ‘participatory’ or ‘participation’. What does this mean in practical terms?

  • This means that community participation is essential in order for any of the methods to be successful.

Box 5.1 Citizen report cards and community score cards

Citizen report cards are a type of survey tool used to get feedback from users about the performance of public services (World Bank, 2004). They consist of questionnaires that are used to collect data from large numbers of households or individuals. The collected data is analysed and written up in a report that is published and can be discussed at public meetings.

Community score cards (CSCs) are another participatory tool for evaluating public services. CSCs are used at a smaller, more local scale than citizen report cards and focus on a specific community. Information is not gathered by questionnaire but through a focus group, A focus group is a selected group of people who are brought together to discuss an issue (Figure 5.4). The method includes a face-to-face meeting between the community and the service provider, which allows for immediate feedback on the quality of service provided (World Bank, 2005).

Figure 5.4 A focus group discussing a WASH project.

The effectiveness of implementing social accountability measures depends on the local context. Its success rate depends on:

  • communication between the community and the service provider
  • attitudes and capacities of citizens
  • attitudes and capacities of government officials
  • an enabling environment.

Implementing social accountability is challenging for government officers at all levels. The attitudes of both citizens and officials are important because they need to value the principles of accountability and be committed to putting them into practice. However, social accountability has many benefits. Promoting the principles of social accountability can contribute towards improved governance, enhanced public services and enabling local officials to make well-informed decisions. Social accountability can also facilitate multi-stakeholder communications and empower local communities, especially marginalised social groups.

5.3 What is social responsibility?

Social responsibility is related to social accountability but is a broader concept that includes us all. Social responsibility means individuals and organisations behaving and acting for the benefit of, or at least not causing harm to, society at large.

Consider a person who you see urinating on the side of a building in your local town, even though there is a notice that reads ‘Urination is not allowed here, you will be charged 10 birr!’ He has ignored the notice. The notice has not protected this public place in the town from such undesirable use and the offending smell that results.

  • Why do you think this person was urinating on the street?

  • He had a personal need to urinate. He may have been unaware that the practice of urinating in an urban street is an undesirable practice.

    The composition of most urban communities in Ethiopia is quite diverse. Many inhabitants of Ethiopian towns have migrated there from rural areas. As a result there is inadequate awareness of the importance of maintaining sanitation and hygienic conditions. There may also be inadequate latrine facilities and poor regulatory mechanisms to ensure that the notice is obeyed.

  • How could you influence undesirable individual behaviours such as urinating on street corners?

  • You could perhaps organise a community group to raise awareness of the need to avoid the practice of urinating on street corners.

    Such a community group could be used to provide information and raise awareness of social responsibility and the need to avoid undesirable practices. The group could discuss the cultural context and possibilities of citizen monitoring, as well as legal enforcement to ensure the well-being of the wider community.

Now read Case Study 5.1 and answer the questions that follow.

Case Study 5.1 Gemechu and the community who won’t obey the bylaws

Many households in the town of Shashemene are quite reluctant to obey the municipal and local bylaws and they pollute their neighbourhood by simply dumping solid waste (see Figure 5.5) and improperly releasing their wastewater. A project has been initiated to enable residents to dispose of their liquid and solid waste in collaboration with youth entrepreneurs.

Gemechu is a WASH practitioner working in Shashemene who wishes to influence the behaviour of those who irresponsibly pollute their neighbourhood. He sees the need to (a) educate the community and (b) ensure that local bylaws are obeyed, so he works with the local administration to take corrective measures. These include campaigns to educate the community and the introduction of municipal directives to ensure local bylaws are enforced.

Figure 5.5 Dumped solid waste is a common sight in urban streets.
  • In what ways are the members of the Shashemene community failing to be socially responsible?

  • Dumping solid waste creates an unhealthy environment, as well as being unsightly. The individuals in the Shashemene community should think about their neighbour’s safety and well-being.

This example illustrates the gaps between the personal and collective responsibilities of the inhabitants of the town. Personal liberty should be respected. However, it is part of the responsibility of each individual citizen in a community to manage their solid and liquid waste in accordance with the environmental and social safety procedures. When we live in a community, we should behave in a way that agrees with the norms of the community and avoid actions that negatively impact on the well-being of our neighbours.

Read Case Study 5.2 and then answer the questions that follow.

Case Study 5.2 Alula and Aster meet their targets but encounter difficulties

Alula and Aster are WASH practitioners responsible for the promotion of water supply and sanitation services in a small rural town called Wechale. They have served in this town for more than five years. A couple of years earlier, during an annual planning and orientation workshop, they were instructed to work hard and ensure 100% household latrine coverage.

Despite the refusal of some households to dig a pit and construct the necessary superstructure, the WASH practitioners finally managed to achieve the desired target. Alula and Aster managed to influence most of the households because they considered the fulfilment of this task to be a precondition for getting various other services from the woreda administration.

The whole kebele declared 100% coverage of latrine facilities and they were selected as a model. Alula and Aster were both rewarded for their extraordinary achievements. They became determined to focus on fulfilling the requirements of their next annual plan and the locally designated quotas they had been given for the year ahead. To fulfil these requirements, they fixed handwashing facilities near all the latrines.

However, they were dismayed to discover that both the latrine and handwashing facilities were abandoned just after the inauguration day and that the residents of Wechale returned to their unhygienic practices. Since that time, there has been an increase in the incidence of diarrhoeal diseases (typhoid, amoebiasis, shigellosis, cholera and others) and a case of trachoma was reported to the nearby health centre.

  • Why might these diseases have occurred?

  • The latrines and handwashing facilities were not being used and as a result the households’ health conditions deteriorated. The inhabitants of Wechale had returned to practices such as open defecation and other unhygienic behaviour.

  • Can you identify the source of the community’s discontent and suggest why Alula and Aster’s initiatives ended in such disaster?

  • Alula and Aster were so focused on fulfilling their annual plans and locally designated quotas that they disregarded the opinions of the community they served. The installation of these important WASH facilities was therefore not driven by local demand, but was imposed on the community. The community was not involved throughout the planning and implementation processes.

  • Can you suggest a solution for the problems?

  • Alula and Aster now need to involve the community in tackling the problem and convince the households of their collective responsibility to prioritise the use of WASH facilities, to prevent further incidence of disease.

You may know of other situations in which similar problems have arisen. You may be able to identify how the community could have been more involved in planning and implementing WASH facilities and made aware of their social responsibilities. The recognition by the community as a whole of their social responsibility is crucial for the success of any new WASH initiative.

You may have realised that social responsibility is closely related to personal accountability that we described at the start of this study session. To conclude this study session, Case Study 5.3 brings together personal and social accountability. Now read the case study and answer the questions that follow.

Case Study 5.3 Dejene and the urban and rural community friction

Dejene is a water supply engineer. He works at the Amhara Regional Water Bureau. He is asked to assess the problem of lack of access to safe water supply for people living in major towns of the region. While conducting the assessment at one of the big towns, he found out that the existing water supply system was no longer adequate to meet demand and there was a significant shortage of water for domestic purposes. The present water supply system only covered the water supply needs of 40% of the population of the town and the majority of the people living in this town were suffering from lack of clean water.

As a WASH practitioner, he was keen to find a solution to the problem. When he looked for a source that could be used to enhance the town supply, he found a spring with a strong discharge that could cover the additional need. Then he proceeded with the design of the new water supply system.

He presented his design to the regional water bureau and succeeded in getting funding for the construction of the system. The construction was completed and the people living in the town started to get enough safe water.

However, after the water supply system had been providing water for the town for several months, there were repeated breakages in the pipes where they crossed a more rural area between the source and the town. An investigation of the situation revealed that the people living in this rural area had broken the pipe network intentionally. This was because they themselves had a shortage of water and they were disappointed to see the water supply system crossing their villages without providing any additional water to meet their needs.

  • Give examples from Case Study 5.3 of people who have not demonstrated personal and social accountability? Explain your answer.

  • The people living in the rural area close to the town have not demonstrated personal accountability or social responsibility. They have acted irresponsibly in intentionally breaking the pipe network. They have not shouldered responsibility for their actions.

    In addition, the regional water bureau has not demonstrated social accountability in the eyes of the people in the surrounding villages. When they agreed on the plan to construct the new water supply system, the rural people were not taken into consideration. Dejene and the water bureau did not consider the wider community in attempting to improve the water supply service, improve people’s welfare and protect people’s rights.

In any WASH programme, there may be cultural, administrative or environmental issues to be considered. Inclusive engagement and negotiations with all stakeholders are required to understand and adapt WASH management approaches in line with these complex issues. A negotiated approach can help in bringing both town and rural administrations together to understand and manage the underlying complexities associated with each project.

Summary of Study Session 5

In Study Session 5, you have learned that:

  1. Social accountability means holding public officials and service providers to account for their actions and performance. It can improve service delivery and community empowerment in WASH projects.
  2. Factors that provide an enabling environment for social accountability include organised community groups, responsive government officials, access to information and sensitivity to culture and context.
  3. Mechanisms for social accountability include participation by citizens and community groups in project planning, budgeting and monitoring.
  4. The relationship between participation and social accountability is important in influencing government officials and community representatives to respect the wider community and bring about improvement of urban WASH services.
  5. Social responsibility is linked to personal accountability and refers to the attitudes of responsible citizens and organisations that consider the impacts of their actions on the wider community.

Self-Assessment Questions (SAQs) for Study Session 5

Now that you have completed this study session, you can assess how well you have achieved its Learning Outcomes by answering these questions.

SAQ 5.1 (tests Learning Outcomes 5.1 and 5.2)

Explain the difference between social accountability and personal accountability.


Social accountability is about citizens and communities holding public officials and service providers to account. Personal accountability applies to all individuals and is about each of us taking responsibility for our own actions and behaviour.

SAQ 5.2 (tests Learning Outcome 5.3)

Imagine you were part of a team that is planning the development of a new water supply source for a small town. Your team leader is a supporter of social accountability. Identify three ways in which the team could implement principles of social accountability during project planning.


  1. The team should ensure that the community is informed about the plans by providing clear and relevant information that is easy to understand.
  2. There should be opportunities for the community to participate in discussions about the plans. This could be by arranging public meetings or inviting representatives to discuss specific issues. It’s important to include all groups from the community in these discussions.
  3. The community should be able to negotiate with the team about the plans so they know they have been listened to and that their opinions matter.

SAQ 5.3 (tests Learning Outcome 5.3)

When the project from SAQ 5.2 is complete, you now want to involve the community in evaluating its impact. Which social accountability mechanism would you apply in this case? What methods could you use and how might you go about it?


The social accountability mechanism involved here is that of monitoring the performance of projects. The method used is that of participatory performance monitoring. You could ask members of the community to complete citizen report cards or you could organise focus groups to help you evaluate the impact of the project.

SAQ 5.4 (tests Learning Outcome 5.3)

What factors are likely to determine the success of a specific social accountability method? Imagine that before planning a new WASH project, there is a public hearing to discuss the issues involved. Which of the factors you have identified is this an example of?


The selection and success rate of a specific social accountability method is determined by:

  • having effective mechanisms to communicate between the community and the service provider
  • the attitudes and capacities of citizens
  • the attitudes and capacities of the government officials involved
  • the existence of an enabling environment.

A public hearing to discuss issues would be a mechanism to communicate between the community and the service provider.

SAQ 5.5 (tests Learning Outcome 5.4)

Explain why open defecation could be described as socially irresponsible behaviour.


If someone is defecating in the open, their faeces could contaminate the environment. Rainwater could wash faecal material into rivers or other sources of water. This contamination could cause the spread of disease in the community. It is socially irresponsible because the person is not considering the potential harm to other people.