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States’ Compliance to International Treaties

Louis Bodmer

1. Introduction and Literature

Texte intégral

1.1 Introduction

Thirty years ago, nations joined together to make an unprecedented promise to the children of the world. They pledged not only to proclaim children’s rights, but to uphold them and be accountable for them. The Convention on the Rights of the Child was a landmark achievement.

Antonio Guterres

1This statement by the Secretary General of the United Nations was proclaimed at the 30th Celebration of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 2019. This celebration marked decades of struggle to ensure child rights. Antonio Guterres highlighted later in his speech the considerable remaining challenges that need to be overcome if the Convention’s goals are to be fulfilled. Yet, he did not expect the largest pandemic in a century to erupt a year later, destroying decades of hard work to build a more equitable and fairer world for children and youth. Basic rights such as education and protection have been jeopardized. A number of important questions thus stem from these events: to what extent are states held accountable for their actions in regard to the Convention and which actors are able to foster such an endeavor?

2The notion of sovereignty is central to these questions. Sovereignty is a fundamental principle of the contemporary international order, yet with the increasing importance of non-state and international actors, this pillar of world politics is weakening. These more recent players in international governance are able to hold states accountable for their behavior, policies and commitments (Peters et al., 2009, p. 544; Charnovitz, 1997, p. 190).

3Accountability can be defined as a process implying that an actor has to justify and explain his behavior to a forum to whom he responds and which can judge him (Bovens, 2007a, p. 447). It is a core element required to ensure that populations are “the cause and end of all things” (De Tocqueville, 2003, p. 65). Society is therefore given a voice to share its concerns, namely to its government. Thus, accountability is an essential mechanism to eliminate impunity. But one might wonder why such forms of accountability endure despite the prominent role of sovereignty prevailing in the international order.

4States’ compliance to their international commitments, notably regarding human rights, is questioned on a regular basis by media and public opinion (Simmons, 2010, p. 291; Tallberg et al., 2018, p. 214). At the same time, non-state actors’ actions are also often brought up by various actors, including media and scholars, as either having life-saving or detrimental consequences (Nasiritousi, 2016, p. 123 ; Cammett & Maclean, 2011, p. 17). As a matter of fact, the role of non-state actors such as civil society has drastically increased over the past decades (Keohane & Nye, 2000), notably in terms of these organizations holding states accountable (Brinkerhoff, 1999, p. 83). Yet, neither the heterogeneity of non-state actors’ programs nor their own legitimacy to conduct their activities have been thoroughly examined. As a matter of fact, the legitimacy of non-state actors such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international organizations (Ios) in terms of how they act towards populations they support is put forward by numerous scholars as being undemocratic and lacking accountability mechanisms (Fox, 2000, p. 11; Bob, 2007, p. 6; Dahl, 1999, p. 22; Papadopoulos, 2007, p. 483). These deficiencies originate notably in the detachment between organizations and the people they work for and stem from a lack of inclusion (Kriesi et al., 2013, p. 118) and a too strong focus on donors (Barber & Bowie, 2008, p. 749; Fox, 2000, p. 12). Several mechanisms have been developed in these last years to offer different forms of participation and empowerment that enhance accountability towards the population these organizations foster (Bexell et al., 2010, p. 85; Malena et al., 2004, p. 4). Moreover, non-state actors gravitating around treaties should be analyzed in detail because they clearly establish a form of network whose role and implications for policies has to be examined. Therefore, the extent to which states can be made more accountable to societies by non-state actors has not yet been adequately studied and deserves a proper analysis.

5Thus, the questions grounding my research are the following: to what extent can actors such as NGOs and Ios hold states accountable regarding specific conventions? Is there a network of non-state actors surrounding treaties? Can NGOs and Ios indirectly hold governments accountable through the empowerment of the populations they support?

6I gather all these elements to pursue my research on the question of accountability mechanisms surrounding a specific treaty. It seems highly relevant to study these aspects since they are fundamental to democracy and the legitimacy of states regarding their citizens.

7By identifying the actors and the variety of mechanisms that exist, by whom and how they are used, this study provides significant insight into ways to hold governments accountable. This requires an assessment of the complexity of this issue through an in-depth analysis to grasp all the relevant mechanisms. If such mechanisms exist, they improve the legitimacy of Is and NGOs as actors defending citizens’ rights and demands. If states do this as well, there will be important gains for democracy, the credibility of international covenants and multilateral processes. Furthermore, it may mean that there are pathways through which compliance of states to international norms can be effectively demanded and actors can act and demand compliance even in non-democratic states.

8In order to answer my research questions, I divide my thesis into six chapters. Firstly, I draw on the literature to provide a theoretical background of governance, accountability, legitimacy and social accountability to demonstrate the need to address the pending puzzle raised here. In the second chapter, I provide a theoretical framework gathering key elements to understand the process followed in my study. In the third, fourth and fifth chapters, I analyze the UNCRC, an IO, an NGO and a state. The sixth chapter presents the results obtained and provides a critical analysis and synthesis of the research, as well as suggesting paths for further research.

9My study relies on the “treaty accountability network” (TRAN) concept that I aim to develop in this study. Through this concept, I am able to map the network of actors surrounding a treaty that holds states accountable. I then take NGOs and Ios as principal actors able to hold states accountable using the UNCRC as a case study. Mechanisms developed by these actors can be coined as direct or indirect accountability mechanisms. While direct accountability’s definition stems from its name, indirect accountability mechanisms have to do with the empowerment of the populations created by Ios and NGOs to enable them to hold their governments accountable. I also analyze accountability pathways created by states to ensure their populations are able to hold them accountable. I use reports, constitutions, laws and rules, among other sources, to assess formal mechanisms, as well as interviews to analyze whether there are informal and implicit mechanisms operating as well.

10I focus on the UN Child Rights Convention (UNCRC) because children and youth are of utmost importance to a society’s development. Consequently, their empowerment should have a dramatic impact on policy-making (Danhoudo et al., 2018, p. 6). The UNCRC is one of the most widely ratified human rights conventions. Related to this Convention, I focus on UNICEF because it is an important IO working for child rights and its central role for the UNCRC is acknowledged in the treaty itself. Regarding the NGO, I take the case of Terre des Hommes Suisse, a medium-size NGO working for child rights that is part of the Terre des Hommes International Federation, which constitutes one of the largest federations for child rights. Finally, I also focus on Switzerland to identify state-led initiatives. Thus, it is possible to identify the differences and similarities in the practices of the three categories of actors.

1.2 Literature review

1.2.1. Governance as a network of actors

11At the beginning of this research, it is important to raise the question of international governance, which can be defined as “the collective capacity to identify and solve problems on a global scale” (Slaughter, 2003, p. 83), and to consider what its significance is. Numerous authors have worked on this topic using different approaches and my study stems from this concept, which can be considered as central to international relations.

12First, I argue that international governance is increasingly populated by various actors who are not necessarily states. Indeed, it is important to envision governance as a space where multiple actors interact, in opposition to a vision of the international order occupied by the state alone (Rosenau, 1992, p. 4; Ruggie, 2004, p. 507). According to Rosenau,

governance occurs on a global scale through both the co-ordination of states and the activities of a vast array of rule systems that exercise authority in the pursuit of goals that function outside normal national jurisdictions. (2000, p. 172)

13Building on this, a number of authors confirm the importance of non-state actors as being able to challenge and change states’ behavior in the international system (Auer, 2000; Bulkeley, 2005; Bulkeley & Betsill, 2003). Therefore, it is necessary, when discussing international governance, to identify all of the concerned actors.

14International governance relates to the multilateral and international processes set by different actors to guarantee commitment to international treaties. However, there is no guarantee of compliance, because there is no central enforcing power. Thus, to better apprehend policy-making, decisions and their repercussions, it is necessary to analyze all relevant active participants within international governance (Willets, 2001, p. 2), to what Ruggie (2004) refers to as the “Global Public Domain”. This ranges from governments to populations, multinational companies and transnational actors such as civil society, NGOs, religious associations, Ios and even transnational criminal groups (Ruggie, 2004, pp. 509–510). The best way to conceptualize these actors participating in governance is to understand them as part of a network. Slaughter explains that “transgovernmental networks […] occur within a broader framework of sometimes formal, sometimes informal, interaction” (2003, p. 83). He affirms that networks should be understood as complex elements enabling interactions on different scales. While agreeing with the element of complexity, I would rather use the term transnational network as developed by Keck & Sikkink (1998). This term describes more accurately the range of actors rather than focusing only on governments as central actors. Thus, governments are still important actors but they are not as omnipotent in shaping governance as they were a few decades ago. New actors have found pathways to participate in international governance through traditional and/or unconventional ways (Andonova, 2017, p. 55; Naidoo, 2003, p. 1; Tallberg et al., p. 233).

15The idea of networks of transnational actors having a key role in international governance is quite compelling because it includes a large variety of actors who are focusing on public goals and looking for an authoritative entity to support a process (Andonova et al., 2009, p. 56). Networks came to be understood not simply as a form of transnational interest organization, but also as a new form of global governance where public and private actors engage with each other across borders and jurisdictions (Andonova & Levy, 2003, p. 19; Andonova et al., 2009, p. 69). The following criteria are essential to transnational forms of governance: the “types of actors involved and the governance functions provided by the network” (Andonova et al., 2009, p. 57).

16Interestingly, three types of transnational networks can be identified:

171. Epistemic communities (Haas, 1989; Adler & Haas, 1992; Betsill & Bulkeley, 2004), which consist of networks of experts who have a common approach to scientific and political issues;

182. Global civil society (Lipschutz, 1996; Wapner, 2017), which focuses on the diversity of actors influencing governance decisions; and

193. Transnational advocacy networks (Keck & Sikkink, 1998), which stem from the discussion on the power of transnational actors.

20These networks reflect Putnam’s (1994, p.167) argument that cooperation is needed to overcome the dilemma of collective action and that civil societies and citizens’ engagement have an important role to play. Thus, these actors and the sections of the population sharing their values and objectives are equipped with some leverage based on their capacity to build new pathways between civil society, states and Ios across borders (Keck & Sikkink, 1998, p. 10). Therefore, it enables them to hold governments accountable and to challenge state sovereignty (Keck & Sikkink, 1998, p.10).

21I also would like to emphasize that international governance can seem and actually be undemocratic. This explains the pressing demand to develop accountability. Dahl (1999, p. 23) argues in this sense that international decision-making cannot be democratic and Papadopoulos puts it more bluntly: “actors involved in governance networks are not accountable at all” (2007, p. 483). According to Dahl (1999, p. 22), the delegation of authority from individuals to states and from states to international organizations puts people’s concerns too far from the actions of organizations. For Papadopoulos, this distance is the consequence of four inherent aspects of governance networks: “the weak presence of citizen representatives in networks; the lack of visibility and uncoupling from the democratic circuit; the multilevel aspect; and the prevalence of ‘peer’ forms of accountability” (2007, p. 470).

22Moreover, there is an actual gap between the policies taken at the international level and what is concretely relevant for populations. Indeed, actors participating in international governance convey their own interests and are not necessarily representative of populations, hence creating democratic deficits (Naidoo, 2003, p. 1). While highlighting the importance of “new media” as a new avenue for a population to get political information and to socialize, Kriesi et al. (2013, p. 42) believe that there is too much disconnection between people shaping and enforcing policies and those impacted by them. This raises issues of legitimacy that I discuss later in this thesis.

23However, many authors argue that international governance facilitates cooperation through international institutions to address issues that are beyond state control, particularly in instances affecting global commons, transnational interactions, threats or norm-making (Abbott & Snidal, 2001, p. 366; Keohane, 1982, pp. 354–355; Milner, 1992, p. 495; Snidal, 1985, p. 56). Scholars of democratic governance have furthermore proposed solutions to make international cooperation more inclusive: for instance, by enlarging the scope of policy-making in international governance, notably through the inclusion of citizens, thanks to other schemes rather than simple elections (Kriesi et al., 2013, p. 118). Bexell et al. also develop their argument on transnational actors and governance: “problem-solving effectiveness is no longer sufficient in itself, but [it] must be supplemented with more democratic procedures of decision making” (2010, p. 85). This can be resolved to some extent with the participation of transnational actors in international institutions (Bexell et al., 2010, p. 88). Indeed, transparency and participatory methods are expected to provide more legitimacy to such processes (Backstrand, 2006, p. 290). Thus, the question of accountability emerges as a significant parameter giving international governance legitimacy and effectiveness (Woods, 1999, p. 41).

24The consideration of networks of both state and non-state actors in the analysis makes it possible to better grasp their roles in addressing the democratic deficit in global governance. Indeed, civil society’s role in global governance comes with strong consequences for accountability (Scholte, 2004, pp. 212–213), such as greater

public transparency of global governance operations, [which enables] monitoring and reviewing [of] global policies, […] by advancing the creation of formal accountability mechanisms for global governance. (Scholte, 2004, p. 217)

25These forms of accountability could be what Papadopoulos advocates for: a “parliamentarisation of multilevel governance systems” (2007, p. 484). This implies that inclusion and participation could be adequate tools for international governance but would require a genuine representation of people and not only some strata of them (Schmidt, 2006, p. 12).

1.2.2. Accountability and its societal impacts

26Accountability has a dramatic importance for international governance since it defines relations among all actors participating in this field. As I try to demonstrate, accountability is a powerful mechanism to increase states’ compliance with international treaties. Thus, it is important to clarify what the constitutive elements of accountability are since the term “often serves as a conceptual umbrella covering various other often highly contested concepts” (Bovens, 2007, p. 105b).

27Therefore, the definition of accountability given by Bovens seems to be overwhelmingly favored by authors and the most accurate for my research:

A relationship between an actor and a forum, in which the actor has an obligation to explain and to justify his or her conduct, the forum can pose questions and pass judgement, and the actor may face consequences’. (2007a, p. 447).

28Moreover, Bovens (2007a) provides three main practices permitting institutions and powerful actors to verify their capacity to be responsible:

291. Gathering relevant information regarding their actions;

302. Building a setting where accountability-holders can question the actions taken by those who wield power and their legitimacy;

313. Requiring some type of liability.

32Different ways to apprehend accountability have been raised in the literature. Mulgan (2000) shows how accountability is becoming a chameleon word whose definition is constantly expanding. It can refer to either internal accountability, which is about personal responsibility, or external accountability, which pertains to the relationship between two entities (Mulgan, 2000, p. 557). In sum, accountability is a concept that is used to name all mechanisms relating to individuals or institutions that need to justify their conduct (Mulgan, 2003, p. 9). Koppell also raises the issue of the meaning of accountability, coining the phrase “multiple accountability disorder” (2005, p. 94), because of the various conceptualizations that the word implies. He identifies five elements linked to accountability: transparency, liability, controllability, responsibility and responsiveness (Koppell, 2005, p. 94). Yet, the most prominent distinction that can enhance comprehension of accountability is the differentiation between vertical, diagonal and horizontal accountability (Bovens, 2007a; Schillemans, 2008; O’Donnell, 1998; Scott, 2000). Bovens (2007a) refers to this distinction as one between traditional and modern mechanisms.

33On one hand, vertical accountability can be understood, for instance, as the most obvious public form of accountability in Western democracies, stemming from a principal–agent relationship where delegation of sovereignty is entrusted to parliamentary representatives and consecutively delegated to an executive branch (Strom, 2003). Among the different mechanisms of this more traditional type, Stewart (2014) raises the importance of elections as an element of vertical accountability. Moreover, the judicial system is another mechanism enabling this form of accountability (Scott, 2000).

34On the other hand, modern horizontal and diagonal accountability mechanisms “include accountability to administrative forums, to citizens, clients, and civil society” (Bovens, 2007b, p. 110). As indicated by Bovens (2007b), many pathways of accountability refer neither to a top-down and principal–agent relation nor to a democratic process per se. Grant and Keohane confirm that “we should resist the temptation to narrow the issue of accountability to that of democratic control” (2005, p. 42). These new forms of accountability identify numerous societal mechanisms where civic engagement, associations, civil society organizations or social capital, to mention only a few, are essential for holding governments accountable and more responsive (Bovens, 2007b, p. 116). Actually, horizontal forms of accountability often possess an informal character (Schillemans, 2008, p. 305). However, Schillemans also mentions that, for instance in the case of the Netherlands, “formal mechanisms have been developed [...] that give third parties the formal possibility to demand accountability from agencies” (2008, p. 305). Therefore, states have the possibility to develop horizontal accountability mechanisms enabling other actors to participate.

35For instance, the work of McCubbins and Schwart (1984) on fire alarms and police patrols in the United States Congress demonstrates the existence of different mechanisms: while police patrols would rather refer to vertical forms of accountability with Congress using its own power to trigger inquiries into specific processes, fire alarms refer to mechanisms established by Congress as “a system of rules, procedures, and informal practices that enable individual citizens and organized interest groups to examine administrative decisions” (McCubbins & Schwart, 1984, p. 166). This has dramatic consequences for my work: firstly, it implies that the power-wielder has to develop and allow pathways for such mechanisms to exist and, secondly, it indicates that non-state actors can effectively be watchdogs, or to name them differently, accountability holders, provided they are granted the possibility to express themselves. It would therefore be interesting to question this assumption in my research.

36Putnam (1993), along the same lines as Tocqueville in Democracy in America, underlines the importance of societal inclusion and concrete action in society. He also emphasizes that “associationism is a necessary precondition for effective self-government” and notes that “there was a strong correlation between civic participation and institutional performance” (Putnam, 1993, pp. 90, 98). He thus insists on the benefits of horizontal networks of actors as accountability holders for the effectiveness and responsiveness of governments.

37A number of authors (Brett, 2003, pp. 22–23; Sarker & Hassan, 2010; Odugbemi & Lee, 2011) note that transparent media and proactive academia are essential for an active civil society to exercise accountability. Indeed, there is an increasing need to identify the will from the population to inform, monitor and participate in the processes of […] institutions as elements of accountability (Goetz & Jenkins, 2001, p. 363; Harrison & Sayogo, 2014, p. 523). Therefore, it is unavoidable to adopt a non-state vision of accountability and examine carefully the role of non-state actors in this research.

38The literature on accountability in non-democratic countries is of interest because it provides some elements going beyond traditional accountability mechanisms. According to Levitsky and Way, there are four arenas of democratic pillars: the electoral arena, the legislature, the judiciary and the media (Levitsky & Way, 2010, pp. 55–56). Not all of these four mechanisms are always in the government’s hands, which creates what is often referred to as hybrid regimes and leaves room for certain forms of opposition. These arenas are relevant places where NGOs and Ios can work to hold states accountable. Even in neo-patrimonial regimes, governments are accountable to some segments of society, notably elites and supportive parts of their populations (Snyder, 1992, p. 379). To conclude, voting is obviously, and by far, not the only means holding those in power accountable. Many other mechanisms exist, namely where actors in the accountability network, such as NGOs and Ios, can have an impact and leverage on states. This is what I aim to demonstrate in my study.

39Furthermore, the distribution of power is an important way for the power-wielder to be held responsible by accountability holders. Power resources are not equally distributed among actors and pro-accountability actors may face severe resistance when power is not equally shared among the actors involved (Fox, 2000, p. 19). In undemocratic states, this is an important issue and this is why it is often the elites that are the most powerful group to hold governments accountable (Snyder, 1992, p. 379). However, power distribution is not only to be apprehended through a state-centric model but, as noted by Clifford Bob, non-state actors such as NGOs also have significant power: “transnational NGOs have specialized agendas and limited resources making them highly selective in choosing local clients from numerous similar groups” (2001, pp. 327–328). Thus, there is competition between different civil society organizations that receive funding. In this case, transnational NGOs become the power-wielders. Moreover, thanks to the development of new technologies and social media, a new path to accountability is developing, where individuals are better interconnected, notably with state institutions (Bovens, 2007a, p. 457; Kriesi et al., 2013, p. 189).

40After acknowledging the power of non-state actors, the question of their own accountability needs to be addressed as well. Actually, several mechanisms are taken into account by the literature. For instance, among the seven accountability mechanisms developed by Grant and Keohane (2005), mechanisms of peer-pressure are identified: they include, for example, the quality of information that NGOs collect from their counterparts or their readiness to cooperate with each other (Grant & Keohane, 2005, p. 37). Thus, thanks to these mechanisms, peer organizations hold other organizations and their boards accountable for their actions (Grant & Keohane, 2005, p. 35). Moreover, as I demonstrate later, the literature has also raised the importance of participatory mechanisms to improve accountability of non-state actors.

41As states’ institutions are a well-analyzed part of the literature, I focus on the involvement of non-state actors. Assessing the literature thus far, it is particularly useful to perform a comparative analysis among various actors.

1.2.3. Legitimacy of accountability holders

42Legitimacy is central to understanding how any actor, from citizens to organizations, could claim to be or to be seen as able to hold another actor or institution accountable. That is why I briefly assess the literature on this core element of my research.

43It is important to understand what elements provide non-state actors legitimacy to set up accountability mechanisms. Scholars distinguish between empirical and normative perspectives on legitimacy to better apprehend the concept (Jackson & Bradford, 2019, p. 268; Schmelzle, 2012, p. 11; Walter-Drop & Remmert, 2018, p. 546).

44On one hand, normative legitimacy refers to a predetermined theoretical standard (Jackson & Bradford, 2019, p. 268; Schmelzle & Stollenwerk, 2018) such as norms developed through international agreements and conveyed throughout the world. This resonates with Weber (1978) explaining that legitimation stems from rational discourse, relying on a rational-legal approach. Thus, norms and principles are the core of legitimacy because they were adopted by the governing group and they bound various parties rationally (Weber, 1978, p. 217; Habermas, 1988, p. 105; Cole, 2009, p. 564; Saurugger, 2008, p. 176). Through the analysis of three prominent human rights treaties, Cole concludes that normative legitimacy depends on international covenants being ratified or not (Cole, 2009, p. 564). Yet, as seen in Goldstein’s analysis of WTO functioning, states may well be liable to international law and its effects even when they are not part of an agreement (Goldstein et al., 2007, p. 37). Furthermore, international customary law has a significant role to play in legitimizing the accountability of states because it is universally applied. States are liable in regard to it, despite the fact that they have not formally ratified binding rules (Petersen, 2007, p. 296). Therefore, these examples highlight some limitations of normative legitimacy and show that it is highly subjective and often not related to the concrete world.

45On the other hand, empirical legitimacy brings some enlightening responses to the question of legitimacy. This concept relates to a de facto social acceptance of the right to govern (Jackson & Bradford, 2019, p. 268) and it “increases the chances of the governed to voluntarily follow the rules established by the governors” (Walter-Drop & Remmert, 2018, p. 546). This resembles what Weber coins as legitimacy “through the habituation of long practice” (1964, p. 115 in Spencer, 1970, p. 126). Thus, if the governing group is representative empirically, the norms it creates should be empirically legitimate. In this process, participation is an important tool to gain legitimacy (Habermas, 1999, p. 7). In the same vein, the inclusion and the participation of the public in decision-making in the governing group enhances the policies and the legitimacy of the decisions stemming from this process (Dabrowska, 2007, p. 288). Many actors such as NGOs and Ios have an increasing empirical legitimacy to hold accountable states, other actors or their peers (Coicaud, 2001, p. 573). Yet, there is a need to build stronger mechanisms to include, among others, participation, representativeness and identification on a world stage and among non-state organizations (Coicaud, 2001, p. 583).

46As a marker of the tension between normative and empirical legitimacy, the example of NGOs is enlightening. NGOs claim legitimacy for emphasizing states’ responsibilities. Yet, their own accountability towards the populations they support is lacking (Fox, 2000, p. 11; Bob, 2007, p. 6). Therefore, the problem is the fact that they are often more accountable to donors than aid recipients (Barber & Bowie, 2008, p. 749; Fox, 2000, p. 12). Actually, “one of the most important sources of NGO accountability is the possible distance between the high standards they publicly set for themselves and their actual practices” (Fox, 2000, p. 12). It seems then salient to argue that if NGOs, and more generally non-state actors, emphasized their responsibility towards populations they support, their empirical legitimacy would increase. Therefore, there is a need to provide a better understanding of the accountability mechanisms and the legitimacy of non-state actors such as Ios and NGOs.

47Finally, Finnemore and Sikkink’s (1998) study on norms and practices reconciles to some extent both dimensions of legitimacy: they explain that norms and practices are both providers of legitimacy to actors demanding accountability of states for their commitment to international norms and standards. On one hand, norms provide juridical legitimacy; on the other hand, practices supply empirical evidence of legitimacy which is either implicitly or explicitly granted by populations.

48Even though NGOs and Ios are not democratically elected, they can gain legitimacy thanks to normative references in international and domestic laws, as well as through practices linked to societal actors, victims and impacted populations (Price 2003; Keck & Sikkink, 2014; Andonova, 2017, p. 39). Both norms and practices influence and enrich each other. According to the display of norms proposed by Finnemore and Sikkink, once they emerge, there is a norm cascade ensuring the movement from population to states and Ios (among others). Ultimately, there is the “internalization” of the norms by states, through their domestication in local contexts (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998, p. 898; Price 2003). Thus, the role of local participation of populations and civil society is important since it can have a direct impact on the legitimacy of NGOs and Ios as accountability-holders.

1.2.4. Social accountability as a field of study

49In this section, I focus on the concept of social accountability recently created mainly for the purpose of development agencies. It is relevant to examine what this concept contributes because it provides an interesting conception of accountability and is increasingly discussed in the literature.

50First of all, the definition of the concept can be summarized as such:

[It] refers to a form of accountability that emerges through actions by citizens and civil society organizations aimed at holding the State to account, as well as efforts by government and other actors [media, private sector, donors] to support and respond to these actions. The goal of social accountability is not to replace but to reinforce and complement existing […] accountability mechanisms. (UNDP, 2014, p. 11)

51The field of social accountability is a recent development in the literature on accountability, focusing on the key role of social actors such as civil society to hold power-wielders accountable. It would thus refer to a horizontal vision of accountability according to the classification discussed before. Social accountability has actually emerged as a core concept and provides citizens the possibility to access greater transparency and to exercise a better control of their rights (McNeil & Malena, 2010, p. xi; Bergh, 2019, p. 237). If implemented thoroughly, these mechanisms can contribute in many ways to citizens’ participation and life-conditions. Thus, it fosters a more adequate responsiveness to populations’ demands and enables more effective policy-making, governance, empowerment and policies (Danhoudo et al., 2018, p. 6; Malena et al., 2004, p. 4). For instance, the World Bank has developed social accountability mechanisms, which enable citizens to be in contact with decision-makers of the organization and, conversely, staff to be aware of citizens’ demands regarding the organization (World Bank, 2004, p. 275).

52It is important to note that the approach to social accountability should not be taken in a unidirectional sense, for instance through the perspective of a state-based approach, but rather should be identified as the intersection of the involved partners (Gaventa, 2003, p. 2). Thus, the concerned actors analyzed can be both the power-wielders and the accountability holders (Brinkerhoff & Wetterberg, 1999, p. 275). This is a significant aspect, given that I aim to study accountability as seen in both directions: from NGOs and Ios to governments and from populations to NGOs and Ios.

53Moreover, social accountability goes further than traditional vertical accountability. Indeed, social accountability mechanisms can be used at any moment in time and with respect to any specific actors (Peruzzoti & Smulovitz, 2006, p. 10), unlike fixed election dates and governmentally defined pathways of accountability. Actually, as noted by McNeil and Malena (2010), a social accountability mechanism is neither uniquely a bottom-up nor a top-down approach since it can be initiated by a broad range of actors such as individuals, civil societies, Ios, media, etc. It can also arise at various spatial levels (internationally, nationally, regionally or at the community level). However, the context, in which social accountability is exercised, is an important element in its functioning. The context involves various aspects such as political or cultural elements; the legal and policy frameworks that are in place; sociocultural and economic factors and institutional conditions (Grimes, 2013, p. 380; McNeil & Malena, 2010, p. 186; Kihongo & Lubuva, 2010, p. 68).

54Several mechanisms of social accountability can be determined. Indeed, authors working on social accountability have identified civic education, media coverage, advocacy, coalition building, learning and capacity building as the main social accountability mechanisms (Ahmad, 2008, p. 13; McNeil & Malena, 2010, p. 6; Kohli, 2012, p. 14; Brinkerhoff & Wettenberg, 1999, p. 283). Participatory practices and pathways are essential since they enable non-state actors and, most importantly individuals, to voice their demands to power-wielders in various ways (McNeil & Malena, 2010, p. 6), such as health facility committees, citizen report cards and score cards (Danhoudo et al., 2018, p. 3; Humphrey & Weinstein, 2012, p. 47; Shanklin & Monga, 2018). Participation is about providing individuals agency by considering them as having the capacity to provide necessary knowledge and shape policies (Hickey & Mohan, 2004, p. 3): to express it differently, participatory mechanisms empower populations. Actually, Sirker and Cosic (2007) and Hertz (2016) emphasize the question of the empowerment of marginalized populations, arguing that it allows citizens to be heard, thus ensuring a more cohesive society.

55Therefore, social accountability, by its functioning, can allow for positive outcomes for a population, non-state actors and governments. It can improve the effectiveness of programs and enhance policy-making by offering pathways for a wide range of actors to hold power-wielders accountable. In spite of all the advantages of social accountability referred to above, numerous shortcomings ought to be mentioned. Firstly, because social accountability is a concept created essentially by and for development agencies, the literature related to it might be overly optimistic about its results. As noted by Davies (2001, p. 7), the evidence of its effectiveness is often limited. Secondly, social accountability’s success needs to be balanced with the fact that NGOs “focus principally on their responsibilities to their patrons, very often at the cost of their responsibility to their clients and to their own goals and vision” (Najam, 1996, p. 351). Thus, it is easily understandable that they have high incentives to develop reports fostering the methods they use such as social accountability. Thirdly, local information is necessary for the effective implementation of social accountability at the local level. Because it is often inaccessible without contacting local populations, several NGOs avoid this step, thus jeopardizing the legitimacy of the project (Barnett & Walker, 2015, p. 134). Finally, while the literature affirms that it refers uniquely to vertical accountability, its theoretical position is not clear because many of the attributes of the concept coincide with horizontal accountability.

56Assessing what has been brought up in this section, the concept of social accountability offers an interesting contribution to accountability in general. Its theoretical utility needs to be considered, yet due to the several shortcomings of the concept, I use it as a complement to my conceptualization of accountability rather than as it is.

57I reach here the end of the literature survey which provided an overview of my specific research interests. As can be seen, much has been written on several aspects of my thesis question, yet they have never been brought together, focusing on both NGOs and Ios and on the multidimensional accountability patterns they are part of. Here is then a further elaborated formulation of my research question:

To what extent can NGOs and Ios hold states responsible regarding the UNCRC and are they themselves accountable to the populations they foster? Is there a network of actors surrounding the treaty and can NGOs and Ios indirectly hold governments accountable through the empowerment of populations they support?


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