By Renee HoDecember 15, 2015

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Most of us think of accountability in a one-dimensional way: records, files, or numbers about performance. We think of accountability as a policing mechanism to make sure what’s supposed to get done, gets done. We think of it as, well, accounting.

Did the organization deliver the schoolbooks it said it was going to? How many patients did the doctor see? Is there evidence that the intervention worked?

These are all reasonable questions. They underpin the vast world of Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) in aid and philanthropy. It’s what the US Congress demands to make sure taxpayer dollars are well spent.

But there’s this other kind of accountability that Lant Pritchett (in this video) suggests could be even more important:

The “account” in accountability refers to the narrative that people are telling themselves and others. In this kind of accountability, their accounts or stories help justify the world around them and what they’re doing.

This kind of deep, thick accountability is arguably more important that the other kind of “thin” accountability. Thin accountability might tell you if something superficial was done, but thick accountability tells you why and how something was done or not done.

Thick accountability is what, in effect, can help organizations truly learn, improve, and get the outcomes they actually care about (think: increased learning vs. teacher training). The stories and narratives the people give can help move an organization from simply M&E to MEL— monitoring, evaluation, and the sexy new thing called learning.

Nabeela Aslam interviews a landless villager in Hyderabad, Pakistan. (Credit: Internews on Medium) |

Feedback is valuable to both kinds of thin and thick accountability. Talk to a project’s constituents and you’ll see whether teachers showed up to class in India (thin accountability). Talk to a project’s constituents with an approach to get an account—a story—and you’ll find out why and how teachers didn’t show up in class. Then, maybe you’ll actually be able to do something to improve the intervention.

As Pritchett explains, if we don’t change the deep, thick account—of how people narrate their performance within an organization, context, etc.—no amount of accountability through accounting will solve the problem.

For further reading, see Pritchett’s Folk and the Fomula: Fact and Fiction in Development.

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