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Understanding accountability ecosystems in the Pacific: political, context-specific and strategic

27 July 2023

As geostrategic competition hots up in the Pacific, the future trajectory of the state in Pacific Islands Countries is brought into sharp focus. It’s not that what states look like didn’t matter before – of course it did; but the sense of there being a broadly agreed ‘end point’ for what states will look like, how they relate to citizens, etc. was largely taken for granted under ‘good governance’ narratives (misguided though they may have been). That is no longer the case, and there are now real concerns amongst the international community and in the region about what kind of states might emerge in the Pacific region, as elsewhere.

Against this backdrop, the issue of accountability becomes key. How is the exercise of power held to account, by who and through what means? This question goes to the heart of the nature of the state, its relationship with society and whose interests are ultimately served by the status quo and whose are not. These questions are central to a new research partnership between UNDP’s Vaka Pasifika Project (funded by the European Union) and La Trobe University’s Institute for Human Security and Social Change, which is working with Pacific researchers in six countries spanning the North and South Pacific to understand what Pacific accountability ecosystems look like. This is in response to decades of externally-imposed ideas of accountability that, in most cases, have done little to improve the responsiveness of governments to their citizens.

By ‘accountability ecosystems’ we mean the broad group of actors that play accountability functions within their societies – from ombudsmen and anti-corruption commissions to the media, civil society, Church and customary governance systems. Taking an ecosystems approach puts stronger emphasis on the relationships, networks and power relations amongst these actors, rather than on the roles and powers of individuals actors. It opens up opportunities for thinking about collective action to pursue change.

While the language of accountability is relatively new to PICs – coming with independence from colonial powers and development partner speak; concepts of mutual obligation, relationality, reciprocity and good leadership are not new at all in the Pacific, as much DLP research has demonstrated. While they take many different forms, practices such as kastom governance in Vanuatu and other parts of Melanesia, the Fa’amatai system in Samoa and mataqali system in Fiji all govern socio-economic and political relationships in communities. These traditional political systems need to be appreciated by well-meaning external actors in order to understand local notions of accountability and how these inform, compete with or sit in parallel with state accountability systems.

Alongside understanding the roots of diverse Pacific interpretations of accountability, it is important to examine the politics of accountability and how this shapes what happens, and what doesn’t happen, in serving particular interests. Our research engages directly with actors in the ‘accountability ecosystem,’ as well as wider community observers, and asks who ultimately has the power to make accountability happen or not and why. This provides a revealing picture of the true constraints to stronger accountability. It suggests that this does not lie entirely (or even mostly) in the weak capacity of financial ministries or oversight bodies – but rather in the particular constellation of entrenched interests that benefit from weak accountability.

While this finding is hardly surprising to many who have worked on issues of responsive governance and equity, it nonetheless poses a challenge to development partners and other external actors who seek to support accountability. For too long the focus has been on strengthening capacity, without addressing the fundamental roadblock of vested interests. Through conversations with accountability ecosystem actors in the region, including by bringing them together to share experiences and learning, we hope to identify new ways of working on an old problem that are more politically-informed and locally-relevant. We would love to hear from others who’ve been grappling with how to shift accountability support to address these fundamental roadblocks in the Pacific and elsewhere.

As we write, researchers are undertaking consultations in Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, with the influence of archipelago geographies, histories of colonisation and conflict, customary governance, family structures, religion and donor presence already emerging as important influences on how accountability is thought about and experienced. The vast chasm between central capitals and the provinces is also readily apparent in shaping accountability. Opportunities are also emerging – most notably in relation to mobilisation of public awareness and demand – but also as identified by local accountability champions themselves, who are best placed to speak to what works in their own political ecosystem. As we continue to work with UNDP through its Vaka Pasifika project and they test new approaches as a result of the finer understanding of accountability ecosystems, we aim to “think out loud” and continue sharing our findings.

The political economy analysis of the accountability ecosystems in the Pacific is a project being undertaken by the Institute of Human Security and Social Change at La Trobe University, in partnership with UNDP. The project will explore locally-led understandings and practices of accountability across the North and South Pacific, as well as the relationships, power dynamics and interests of ecosystem actors. It aims to explore opportunities and constraints for expanding accountable and responsive governance.

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