“Mutual accountability” is the fifth principle of aid effectiveness in the Paris Declaration. Importantly, it asks how governments, development agencies and civil society can hold each other accountable for delivering on their many promises. However, like the last child in a large family, it has received the least attention of any Paris principle. A recent review by OECD concluded that the development community is unclear on its definition, and there is no established best practice on how to put it into action.

Over the last year, I have worked to boost mutual accountability between African governments, development partners and others as they attempt to transform agriculture across the continent. I have concluded that it is real relationships that are the basis for achieving mutual accountability, and yet the development community rarely considers what it takes to establish productive working relationships that transcend institutions.

The accountability problem
According to the Paris Principles, development work is most effective when numerous actors align themselves behind a single strategy and co-ordinate their action. As a result, governments, development partners, and civil society make countless fine promises to act together on various issues. However, as sovereign entities, there is no formal or legal accountability for anyone to deliver on these promises. The principle of “Mutual Accountability” calls for mechanisms that provide the evidence, debate and transparency through which all partners feel the pressure to deliver.

Where mutual accountability works
There are numerous mechanisms that promote mutual accountability, but I will highlight three that are generating particular interest.

In Rwanda, for its poverty reduction strategy, the government has proactively established a performance scorecard with clear mutually agreed criteria against which all partners are held accountable. At an annual event the results are publicly announced, with the good and poor performers recognised at Presidential level, and remedial actions agreed.

The International Health Partnership (IHP+) is rationalising the inefficient jungle of health initiatives by committing partners to one strategy in each country against which to align, and then producing scorecards that show whether partners are really harmonising their efforts. The results are announced and debated at technical and political fora.

CAADP, Africa’s plan for boosting agriculture, is similarly aligning partners behind single country strategies, but then bringing together stakeholder coalitions to interrogate M&E reports and debate the quality of performance by various partners. Again the outcome is shared at technical and political fora where partners can commit to remedial actions.

Real relationships – the secret ingredient
Most literature on mutual accountability takes a typically technical or mechanistic approach to the issue, extolling structural solutions such as M&E systems, scorecards and platforms. My experience however is that fundamentally mutual accountability is a cultural issue founded on the quality of relationships between individuals that transcend institutions. People feel mutually accountable because they respect each other personally and professionally, and do not want to let each other down. Where these relationships are forged in hard work and honesty, people can demonstrate a much stronger commitment to delivery than with relationships within hierarchical institutions where formal sanctions do apply.

Furthermore relationship based accountability means issues get dealt with faster and more efficiently. My Ugandan colleague can call me up to discuss financing constraints as soon as they are apparent, rather than waiting for a senior manager to make a formal and potentially awkward announcement at the next big meeting.

The three examples of Rwanda, IHP+, and CAADP are significant because in each case there is a real community of people who are actively working closely on making progress together. This contrasts with high-level fora such as the UN Development Co-operation Forum where the discussion is more technical, and the relationships more institutional. Real relationships are necessary for people to care about delivery, and then mechanisms for evidence, debate and transparency count for something.

Development initiatives are rarely structured to establish personal working relationships that transcend institutions. I suggest this is essential good practice, as a foundation for accountability and delivering results. We need to think more about how to foster such relationships, but potentially heretical proposals could include:
• Co-locating teams of individuals who work together on issues from across institutions, rather than housing them in their own organisations and dispatching them for the occasional brief interaction
• Locating structural mechanisms for mutual accountability at the heart of real communities of practice, rather than operating as global, generic aid effectiveness instruments.
• Organising meetings and conferences to include more small group time, rather than lengthy formal plenary sessions; and hosting them at informal venues rather than grand conference centres.
• Organising social events at meetings or conferences to allow people to get to know each other personally, or better undertake joint field trips that build an emotional connection to the issue.
• Embracing technology such as video-skype and virtual workspaces.

Accountability will be mutual, when individuals from across institutions stand shoulder to shoulder with a personal commitment as well as a professional obligation to achieving results together.