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Accountability’s Got Talent: Celebrating Integrity in Public Service

At the Oslo Freedom Forum, we spoke with experts, practitioners and activists about how to build peace in their corner of the world. Blair Glencorse, founder and executive director of the AccountabilityLab, discusses the creative ways his team is working to build integrity in communities.

Written by Alessandria Masi Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Nepali Co-operatives and Poverty Alleviation Minister, Chitra Bahadur (left) hands the Integrity Idol trophy to civil servant and district administrator Pradip Raj Kandel during an awards ceremony in Kathmandu on January 10, 2016.PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images

OSLO, Norway – Blair Glencorse and his team at the AccountabilityLab are working to flip the narrative on government accountability. Rather than calling out the perpetrators, their programs aim to shine the spotlight on those who have exemplified integrity in communities across Western Africa and South Asia.

The nonprofit organization works to develop tools and incubate grassroots ideas for sustainable social change.

“We work with young people to find creative ways to make governments more accountable and transparent,” founder and executive director Glencorse said. “Our approach is very positive, very solutions-oriented.”

Peacebuilding Deeply spoke to Glencorse at the Oslo Freedom Forum about the importance of accountability efforts in rebuilding society and the challenges of measuring impact in long-term efforts to make governments accountable to their citizens.

Peacebuilding Deeply: What are some creative ways to make governments more accountable?

Blair Glencorse: One campaign that is getting a lot of attention right now is a TV show called “Integrity Idol,” where we ask people to nominate honest government officials. We get tons of nominations, narrow it down to the top five, film them and put them on TV and radio. Then we get people to vote for their favorites. We finished one round in South Africa last week. We’ve done it in Nigeria, Mali, Pakistan – all over the place. It’s a fantastic way to flip the narrative on corruption and focus on the positive and to get young people in particular involved in a conversation about integrity and what kind of people we want in government.

We also run incubators, a bit like business incubators that support entrepreneurs, but we support civic activists in these places to develop new ideas in the arts, in media, in culture, with technology. We also run coworking and collaboration spaces for all of these people, to help collaboration and innovation happen.

Peacebuilding Deeply: Do you need permission from governments to do this?

Glencorse: We work closely with governments, when it is feasible. We work with reformers, within [existing] systems to help them push through solutions to challenges. We are registered locally in all of these places.

Peacebuilding Deeply: I ask because, I would imagine that something like Integrity Idol would be difficult to do in Syria?

Glencorse: Yes, but because it is positive, we are not pointing fingers at corrupt people, just holding up good people and shining the light on them. We work mostly with local-level officials, so the unsung heroes – teachers, nurses, local-level district officers. The idea is to highlight these unsung heroes and promote the idea that there are people like them in service and that we should support them.

We haven’t done this in Syria or North Korea, but we have worked in some tricky places, like Pakistan and Mali, where there are issues of corruption and it still works pretty well.

We have tons of amazing concepts on this, and there are really interesting intersections with peacebuilding in places like Pakistan and Mali because governance, or lack of governance, is at the core of the conflict.

Peacebuilding Deeply: How do you define peacebuilding?

Glencorse: Peacebuilding is very narrowly defined by the U.N. definition: a very specific set of activities related to a post-conflict period. I would argue that peacebuilding can include many things, for example, broadly engaging young people in positive engagement around their rights and responsibilities and supporting the accountability of those systems to make sure that they serve citizens inclusively and effectively. Because, if they don’t do that, if they don’t manage conflict through peaceful prescribed means, that’s when you begin to experience challenges.

Peacebuilding Deeply: What is the importance of accountability in putting a country back together or rebuilding society?

Glencorse: I think accountability, which is also a big word that can mean a lot of different things, but accountability is at the core of everything. Unless you can create systems where people in power are accountable to citizens, you can’t begin to deal with all of the other challenges – including conflict and service delivery and everything else.

I think it is absolutely at the core, and we should be working towards it in every way.

Peacebuilding Deeply: And is that post-conflict accountability for crimes that happened during a conflict, or is there also a way to make accountability more current, more present?

Glencorse: I think it is accountability for past crimes, though that’s not the part that we are working on. There is this dichotomy in literature between peace and justice, which I think is a fake one. I don’t think you can have peace until you have justice.

We do a lot of work in Liberia where this is a pertinent issue. You may not have violence, but you don’t have a secure peace unless there’s been justice for past crimes. But the accountability that I am talking about is more about the accountability of governments to citizens in the present for their responsibilities and their decisions as they relate to managing finances, delivering services, corruption, these are all issues with accountability in the present that we are thinking about.

At every level it is political and too often we assume that the answers are technical or military related, and that we are going to find solutions to these problems by force. But it’s not, it has to be political agreement.

The other piece of it that I think we always forget about is the economy. I did a study at one point of all the peace agreements in the 90s, and they are all negotiated by former ambassadors, by high-level political officials, without people who really understand the economies of these places. The Balkans is a really good example. We created a peace but the peace led to a criminalization of the economy that has really undermined the development of those countries over time. So we need to focus much more on the economic dimension of peacebuilding.

Peacebuilding Deeply: How do you measure impact or your success rate?

Glencorse: What we are doing is very long term, it is not linear. We do a lot of qualitative surveys, we ask people about changes in attitudes, changes in behavior, and policies as a result of certain things that we’ve been doing. A big part of what we are trying to do is build communities for accountability so we do a lot of social media analysis, which begins to map how close those bonds are between people and how they work together.

We’ve begun to use new techniques like contribution tracing, which maps backward from the outcomes to your activities, to see what your contribution is. With Integrity Idol, we’re beginning to look at control trial type activities, where you would expose a certain community to something, but not another, to see what the changes are around these issues. We’re getting more scientific in this, but on many levels it’s still really hard. It’s going to take a while as it is a generational change we are trying to see.

Peacebuilding Deeply: Is there a way to measure if the change will last?

Glencorse: We’ve been doing Integrity Idol in Nepal for five years. We now have five years of data … on what the winners have gone on to do and the credibility it has given them, as well as on the people engaged in their campaigns and how it has allowed them to change accountability dynamics.

It’s beginning to get to the point where we have longer term data that we can use to understand the dynamics.

These responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Natalie Sikorski contributed to this article.

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