Normative Narratives

Transparency Report: Civil Society Activism, Social Accountability, and Sustainable Human Development


The UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay opened the high-level segment of the 25th session of the Human Rights Council with a “call to protect, support civil society activism“:

“Streets, airwaves, entire countries are buzzing with demands for economic, social and political justice,”

Setting out this agenda and acknowledging the hard work that lay ahead in ensuring that all people enjoyed equal rights, Ms. Pillay emphasized the important role of civil society in those efforts. “We need to work together to ensure that the space, voice and knowledge of civil society is nurtured in all our countries,” she stressed.

[General Assembly President John Ashe]  drawing attention to upcoming initiatives on human rights issues in the General Assembly, stressed the human rights relevance of his body’s work in setting the stage for a new international development agenda following the 2015 deadline of the Millennium Development Goals.

Overcoming the rise in inequality around the world and the increasing marginalization of people living in poverty is particularly important in that light, he said.

He too pointed to the importance of civil society in pursuing those goals, given “how much courage and fortitude is required by those who champion human rights, when it is so easy to look the other way or take a less courageous stand.”

In related news, the United Nations Development Group (UNDG) announced it will hold 50 new national level consultations as part of its efforts to build local support for the Post-2015 Development Agenda:

The consultations will take the form of public meetings and discussions where policy planners, civil society representatives, community and private sector leaders will discuss how to best deliver the next sustainable development agenda that will build on the success of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG).

“We are committed to changing the way multilateral development diplomacy works,” said Olav Kjorven, Special Advisor to the UNDP Administrator on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. “We will continue to expand the areas where people will be able to engage with the work of the United Nations.”

Sustainable human development begins and ends with people. The human rights based approach (HRBA) to development champions both the political and civil rights needed for people to be active participants in change, as well as the economic, social and cultural rights people need to live dignified lives. The HRBA recognizes that these rights are interrelated and interdependent; for example, political reform cannot be put off in the name of economic growth.

There are universal means to improving standard of living; education, food, rule of law, responsive governance, healthcare, sanitation, access to energy, employment to name a few. How these means can be best implemented is context-sensitive; thinking we know better than those at a local level is an exercise in hubris, not development.

Social Accountability (p 44-45) “is used to refer to a broad range of activities in which individuals and CSOs act directly or indirectly to mobilize demand for accountability…Social accountability has worked best when the rules and frameworks in place provide legal sanctions in the event of wrongdoing and permit civil society to monitor effectively and access essential information.”

Without avenues for redress, the transformative value of social accountability activities ultimately depends on the willingness of duty bearers to engage with them. For this reason, social accountability may be more effective when its objective is to complement and strengthen the horizontal accountability mechanisms discussed earlier. Social accountability activities might aim, for example, to reveal the inadequacies of these mechanisms, lobby for their reform or seek to improve their effectiveness through greater public participation. Such interventions can encourage the formation of new “diagonal” accountability mechanisms, such as citizen oversight committees or grievance redress mechanisms (with varying degrees of formality and legal authority).

While social accountability can be a powerful tool, it is most effective when complemented by governments committed to human rights accountability and willing to cede some control over the legal process to CSOs. Essentially, social accountability mechanisms can be made as (in)effective as a government is willing to make them. If governments are ultimately accountable to people, they should do everything in their power to empower their citizenry, enabling effective social accountability. 

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aside, the Post 2015 Development Agenda is a blueprint; a way to show governments how effective inclusive and consultative governance can be. It is not enough to remember the role of regular people in bringing about change while drafting development agendas, or during times of election or revolution. The roles of civil society activism and social accountability must be promoted and protected everyday.

Ultimately, progress is brought about by and for people; governments, institutions, declarations, and development agendas play an enabling/complementary role.


4 thoughts on “Transparency Report: Civil Society Activism, Social Accountability, and Sustainable Human Development

  1. Thanks for the comments. I would agree with you, and it is up to people themselves to remind them via elections. Reforming the way we allow money to affect the electoral / political process is an important starting point in reviving a truly representative democracy.

    Unfortunately, it is hard to get people to see any sort of big picture. They want a politician who tells them they can have their cake and eat it too. They do not want a politician who is willing to take a stand against a corporation for society as a whole; we live in a fear economy where a politicians biggest responsibility is to pander to the wealthy, protecting jobs at any cost.

    Perhaps some more diagonal accountability mechanisms discussed in the UN OHCHR book “Who Will Be Accountable” could inspire citizen engagement. If people believe they have a voice, and power behind that voice, I could see that being a catalyst behind greater civil society activism in America.

    There is class warfare in America, but it is not the bottom vs. the middle, or even the 99% against the 1%. It is the .1%, the ultra-wealthy whose excess wealth allows them to buy media outlets, lobbyists, and politicians that have corrupted our political process. They have the resources to hire people to spin reality in their image, citing globalization and digitization as reasons why we need a race to the bottom. We need the middle and upper classes of America, not just those whose backs are against the wall, the recognize the need for civil society activism (and not just at the consequences of inequality, but the root causes).

    Some of the blame surely lies with the people. Americans have had such a high standard of living for so long, they have become somewhat complacent. People around the world sacrifice everything for many of the freedoms we take for granted. We have the systems in place to make this change a reality. It requires not only political will, but individual will to elect people who will actually champion our ideals.

    All the seats in the House of Representatives are up for reelection in 2014. Nothing is predetermined, to suggest so it to suggest that we as people do not have free will.


  2. Ben,
    You mention the root causes and consequences of inequality. Perhaps you are aware that The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists ( has established the world’s first tax haven database website where men and women can go and find out who is evading taxes in their nation(s). The website is The root cause of the world’s inequality can be found there.


    • Thanks for the info Jerry I’ll check it out.

      I know the democrats are launching a campaign, “The GOP is addicted to Koch”, in an attempt to shed light on the role the Koch brothers money plays in the political system.

      (Of course the Democrats aren’t innocent of this either)

      These two issues, money in politics and money going offshore via tax evasion, are in my opinion the two primary ways the rich get richer and block progressive common sense policies. They influence the politicians who make the laws, and the resources the government would have to find policies. This is the political economy of inequality.


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