Rude accountability in the unreformed state : informal pressures on frontline bureaucrats in Bangladesh
‘Rude’ forms of accountability are central to how poor people negotiate their entitlements on the frontline of service delivery in Bangladesh. This paper documents the unorganised, informal pressures that poor citizens exert on officials in a context where effective formal systems for accountability are absent, and the state remains unreformed in key respects. The paper explores the impact of ‘rude accountability’ on services, as well as their limitations and the consequences for formal accountability systems. Based on extensive research into how poor people experience safety nets, schools and health services, the paper argues that strong social and local political pressures go some way towards supplying a rough responsiveness to demands for service. These work through shame and embarrassment, pressures to maintain reputation and status, and the threat of violence. Poor people have good reasons to use these methods in preference to formal accountability mechanisms. And poor women may have a particularly strong comparative advantage in doing so – not because they are so much better than men or rich people at complaining and shaming, but because it is comparatively less difficult for them to do so than to engage in more formally structured means of complaint or feedback. The idea of rude accountability is seductive: when formal governance systems fail, the idea that there are informal mechanisms that are better suited to context and culture is intrinsically attractive. Yet the paper concludes that the gains from rude accountability are often short-lived and may backfire, as public officials fear and resist efforts to enable citizen participation in holding them to account. There are features of contemporary Bangladeshi state-society relations that lend themselves to informal means of accountability, the analysis here of informal accountability mechanisms has wider implications for the move towards citizen involvement in performance-based accountability in other contexts. Keywords: accountability, Bangladesh, bureaucracy, education, gender, governance, health, social protection, politics, poverty.