Friday, 11 September 2009

Responsive governments need responsible citizens: Bringing citizen accountability into the debate

Araddhya Mehtta

The Mid-Day Meal (MDM) scheme aims to deliver daily cooked meals to every child in every Indian government primary school, and is currently the largest school-feeding programme in the world, covering 120 million children in government and government-assisted schools. However, although the MDM’s overall effects are positive, implementation remains varied. For example, within Delhi, children in some schools receive regular meals of a good quality, while others receive meals irregularly, if at all, and quality varies widely.

In Delhi, as elsewhere, there are problems in both delivery and distribution, which may or may not be alleviated by increasing the MDM scheme’s budget. Why do these problems exist? Caterers, unsurprisingly, often argue that the government is not paying them enough. The suggestion is that if the government increased spending and provided adequate funds for better kitchens, extra ingredients, transport facilities, and staff, delivery problems could be eliminated. Doubtless, more resources for caterers would improve meal delivery. However, this alone will not ensure perfect implementation everywhere. First, deliveries may still be late, inadequate, poor quality, or absent, as at present. Second, once food has been delivered to schools, not all the food is always distributed to children.

Accountability in the MDM scheme can be considered at two levels. At the first level, caterers need to be accountable to the government for delivering meals, and the government needs to be accountable to citizens for managing the caterers. ‘Accountable’ in the MDM scheme means that if caterers do not deliver adequate quantities and qualities of food on time, the government and the people will be aware of this and can punish the caterers in some way, or seek compensation. As client, the government should impose sanctions on caterers. But as the government is ultimately responsible to its citizens for the scheme, the government is accountable to citizens for imposing sanctions and managing the caterers. Most approaches to accountability have focused on this three-way relationship. No exception, the Right to Food Campaign (RTFC) seeks to improve MDM implementation primarily by holding the government accountable for the scheme and by pressurising the government to further improve MDM delivery.

My field research indicates, however, that focusing on these ‘macro-level’ accountability relationships is necessary but not sufficient to ensure that each child receives his/her entitlement. Accountability at the macro-level needs to be reinforced by accountability at the local, or ‘micro-level’, where providers are held accountable by individual citizens/recipients and where citizens (school parents) engage positively with the scheme. Parents must participate actively in the monitoring committees, composed of teachers, parents, community members and a local government official, that were set up by a 2006 Government Order to monitor the delivery and distribution of the food, and register complaints to the government and caterers when food is below standard.

Based on fieldwork in two schools in Delhi, my research shows that the parent participation necessary to generate ‘micro-level’ accountability does not occur everywhere. Where such parent participation occurs, the MDM scheme functions well, and where it does not, the scheme delivers poorer results. The paper therefore argues that scholars and practitioners should pay more attention to these micro-level actions, and seek to explain why parents engage actively in holding caterers accountable only in some schools. My research indicates that the level of accountability among citizens determines the extent of their participation and, to a large degree, the success of the scheme. A notion of ‘citizen-citizen accountability’ could therefore usefully be incorporated into current approaches to state-and-provider accountability. Building on the idea of social cohesion (referring to reciprocity, trusteeship, obligation, solidarity and inter-dependence), citizen-citizen accountability implies parents’ mutual answerability in fulfilling obligations, and the imposition of (informal) sanctions in case of non-participation or participation for private gain.

In one of the two schools studied, the MDM scheme worked well (i.e. children typically received food on a daily basis, either directly from the MDM scheme or from replacement sources organised by parents and teachers). In the other, the MDM scheme worked very poorly (i.e. delivery was erratic and there were no replacement sources). Based on focus group discussions and interviews with teachers, students and parents, the effectiveness of the MDM scheme seems not to depend solely on the accountability relationships between the government and citizens. Rather, good implementation depends very significantly on the level of (historically generated) social cohesion (such as notions of trust and reciprocity) between parents, and between parents and teachers. Just as citizens can be considered to have an obligation (in law and morality) not to destroy public property, they can be considered to have an obligation to engage positively with the MDM scheme. The implication of this analysis is that increasing MDM scheme funds and focusing solely on government accountability will not fully eliminate implementation problems. Activists (including the RTFC) and scholars should also focus on citizens’ accountability to each other, and to the government.

Assessments of the MDM scheme have consistently focused on the lack of government accountability, and by extension wholly ignored the critical role of citizen accountability in the success of such schemes. While the RTFC has drawn significant attention to short-comings in government efforts to implement the MDM scheme effectively, little attention has been paid to the importance of local level accountability relationships in ensuring the success of the scheme. These local level relationships, which constitute parent-monitoring committees responsible for oversight of the delivery of the MDM, are an essential factor in determining whether the scheme is successful on a school-to-school basis.

Araddhya Mehtta is a Consultant with the Accountability Initiative. Her research has been published as part of our Engaging Accountability: Working Paper Series and can be downloaded here.

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