Improving the accountability of leaders tops the agenda of just about everyone involved with development. But the preferred solution—elections—often comes up short in countries with divided populations and democratic structures that are not well institutionalized. There is a great need for alternatives.
Such alternatives can take many forms—including improving governance, enhancing the rule of law, promoting transparency, decentralizing government (where leaders might be held more accountable in some cases), ensuring equity in governance and the distribution of resources (which may matter more than better governance), and increasing the leverage of societal groups to monitor the performance of state officials.
One neglected area that deserves much more attention is promoting social cohesion. Indeed, it can be argued that the greatest difference between the successful developmental states and their far less successful developing country peers is the degree of social cohesion.
But how do you promote social cohesion when it is lacking?
On a national level, it requires determined and consistent effort aimed at building a strong national identity around some unifying force. Tanzania has adopted Swahili as its national language; Senegal has celebrated its unique Islamic and African cultural heritages; Pakistan has attempted to forge an Islamic identity.
This is essential but not a quick solution: effort must be multigenerational and multidimensional to create the moral imperatives for public goods that is the basis of effective government. The young must be educated from an early age in languages, symbols, and ideas that everyone within the country can accept. The media must cultivate a shared self-image and show a population how it differs from its neighbors. Political parties representing sectarian or sectional interests must be banned. Government officials must consistently display no favoritism toward any group. Steps must be taken to institutionalize cooperation between the country’s different ethnic and religious groups, such as making agreements to share the profits from a country’s natural resources equitably throughout the country, and drawing up constitutions that mandate that all groups be represented in cabinets, civil services, legislatures, and militaries.
The local level is often more promising. There are two possibilities. As I have argued previously, urban governments may be better positioned than national (or rural) governments in many countries to promote development, partly because they are in some places much more cohesive. In addition, governance capacity achieves more and accountability loops works better when great distances and poor infrastructure are not in the way.
Outside cities, the best possibility is to try to leverage an existing set of identities and institutions. MIT’s Lily Tsai’s 2007 paper “Solidary Groups, Informal Accountability, and Local Public Goods Provision in Rural China” shows how this might work (as well as how important social cohesion is at all levels of government).
In this paper, she showed through in-depth case study research and an original survey of 316 villages in rural China that:
Even when formal accountability is weak, local officials can be subject to unofficial rules and norms that establish and enforce their public obligations. These informal institutions of accountability can be provided by encompassing and embedding solidary groups. Villages where these types of groups exist are more likely to have better local governmental public goods provision than villages without these solidary groups, all other things being equal.
She defines “encompassing and embedding solidary groups” as “groups based on shared moral obligations as well as shared interests.” They must meet two particular structural characteristics:
First, they must be encompassing, or open to everyone under the local government’s jurisdiction. In localities with encompassing solidary groups, social boundaries overlap with political boundaries. . . . Second, solidary groups must be embedding in that they incorporate local officials into the group as members. Not all encompassing solidary groups are embedding.
Officials act differently in such places because:
They may still have a strong incentive to provide public goods when citizens award them moral standing for doing so. . . . Moral standing can be a powerful incentive. It not only makes people feel good about themselves, but also it can translate into economic and social advancement. Local officials with higher moral standing may also find it easier to elicit citizen compliance with state policies. Moral standing can be an invaluable resource for accomplishing a variety of political, social, and economic objectives.
These results can explain much of the difference in local government effectiveness between and within countries across the world. They show that the nature of state structures (whether they are democratic or not) may matter less than how society is organized and how this organization interacts with the state. One World Bank study showed that 93 percent of the variation in the extent to which local political leaders pay attention to citizens is explained by within-country variation, meaning that the great majority of difference was not explained by the form of government (which did not vary within countries). Things like social cohesion, political culture, and capacity mattered more.
Tsai’s conclusions are important for anyone trying to improve the accountability of political leaders and officials:
When formal institutions of accountability are weak, citizens can still make government officials organize and fund the public goods that they want and need when they have the right kind of social groups. Solidary groups that are structured so that they overlap and mesh with government structures can provide local government officials with important incentives to provide the public goods and services that citizens demand even when democratic or bureaucratic institutions do not work effectively.
Of course, not all social groups can achieve these results:
We need to differentiate between different types of social groups and social capital and to theorize about how they are correlated with particular political and economic outcomes. What the “right” kind of social group is depends on what result we are interested in. This study shows that distinguishing between different types of social groups can reveal that groups with different structural characteristics have very different effects on governmental performance. It also suggests that we need to pay more attention to important interaction effects between social structures and state structures.
The importance of social cohesion to development and governance is well understood in Asia, but generally ignored in the West. The latter has long focused on technical and economic approaches to what might be better understood as collective-action problems requiring a sociopolitical response.
When the term “social cohesion” does come up in the West, it usually is discussed in the context of reducing inequality, something I called “vertical social cohesion” in an earlier post. “Horizontal social cohesion,” which is what Tsai focuses on, is instead about the social glue that ties people together and that encourages leaders to act for the good of their communities no matter what state structures are present.
Figuring out how informal accountability can improve how states work ought to be an essential topic for leaders of countries and policymakers in the development field.