Citizen Action for Accountability in Challenging Contexts: What Have we Learned?
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While much is known about how citizens mobilize and make claims for accountability in more democratic, stable, and peaceful settings, little is known about how accountability dynamics work in more challenging contexts—those more democratically weak, politically fragile, and affected by legacies of violence and conflict. This article introduces a special issue that brings together findings from across the Action for Empowerment and Accountability programme. The programme explored citizen action for accountability and citizens' experiences of governance in Mozambique, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan and, to a lesser degree, Egypt—countries that reflect challenging conditions now common in many places across the world. We introduce and summarize the key findings of eight commissioned articles—some which explore specific themes across the body of research, and some that report findings of particular multi-country studies. We analyse these findings in relation to what they tell us about the contextual factors that matter, the strategies adopted, and the consequences of citizen-led social and political action. We find a number of contextual challenges for citizen action that are common, though not unique, to these settings. Despite authoritarian governance histories, and norms of fear, low expectations, and patriarchal exclusion we see diverse examples of social and political action, both open questioning of authorities and dissent and more under the radar and mediated responses. Such efforts have led to increased visibility of grievances, increased citizen agency, some concrete responses from authorities, and evidence of progressive norm change. We argue that even in challenging contexts there are prospects for finding some space for productive citizen engagement and citizen-led social and political action. These are more likely to be found from taking a “citizen-eye” view to relevant governance dynamics, actors, and identifying the most important issues. Networks and alliances, including with donors, are significant. But accountability goals in such contexts need to be realistic and recognize the importance of small steps and establishing the building blocks of better governance.