Significant efforts have gone into increasing transparency and the participation of non-state actors in the forest sector over the past 20 years. These actions have been based on the assumption that the provision of information related to the decisions and actions of state authorities, in concert with citizen participation, will lead to more accountable, responsive and effective governance. There is a further implicit assumption that improvements in accountability will help establish a more sustainable forest sector, one that generates positive outcomes for people’s livelihoods and the broader economy, the climate and biodiversity.
Transparency and participation have increased in many countries as a result of these efforts. Areas of improvement include the availability and accessibility of laws and policies; the disclosure of data on licensing, harvesting, trade, revenues and law enforcement; the establishment of multi-stakeholder decision-making forums; and cooperation between state and non-state actors in forest monitoring. However, the extent to which these improvements have resulted in greater accountability is less clear. Often the linkages between participation, transparency and accountability are assumed, and the mechanisms and pathways through which impacts may have occurred remain unexplored.
The research outlined in this paper was undertaken in response to this gap in evidence. Drawing on case studies in Ghana and Cameroon, the aim was to investigate whether observed improvements in forest sector transparency and participation have had a positive impact on accountability, and if so, the processes through which this took place.
Defining transparency, participation and accountability
Interpretations of transparency, participation and accountability vary widely, and consequently, these concepts can encompass a range of interventions and approaches. In this section we provide some definitions.
Accountability refers to ‘the rights and responsibilities that exist between people and the institutions that affect their lives, including governments, civil society and market actors’. Two key aspects of this relationship are: answerability, this being ‘the right to get a response and the obligation to provide one’; and enforceability, that is, ‘the capacity to ensure an action is taken, and access to mechanisms for redress when accountability fails’. In other words, it is about creating checks and balances on more powerful actors.
Mechanisms of accountability can be both vertical and horizontal. The former entails citizens and civil society organizations (CSO) holding their governments to account, for example, through elections and legal cases (political accountability), or through less formal processes of advocacy and protest (social accountability). Horizontal mechanisms are those within government, for example, the roles of auditors, anti-corruption agencies and judiciaries (these encompass political and managerial accountability).
Transparency refers to making information available and accessible to people. As an aspect of governance, transparency is aimed at enabling citizens to hold government officials to account for their decisions and actions, either indirectly through their voting decisions, or directly, through advocacy, engagement or protest. Responsible behaviour of the private sector is also a target of transparency efforts, enabling customer choice (i.e. about which products or services to buy) or advocacy campaigns.
As has been well documented, however, transparency may be necessary for accountability but transparency in isolation cannot achieve accountability. An analysis of transparency interventions that have been successful in prompting a response from the intended target (government or private sector) identified four common elements of these interventions:
- The information provided is salient and accessible to at least one group of information users.
- The information causes users to change their decisions and actions.
- These new actions affect providers [e.g. the government agencies or private sector that are providing a particular service] in ways they find salient and consequential.
- Providers respond constructively.
Participation in governance refers to the rights and opportunities for citizens to be informed of, consulted on and engaged in policymaking. It is through participation mechanisms that citizens can push for and maintain accountability. Such mechanisms may be more or less inclusive, ranging from information-sharing at the lower end, through to deliberative, consultative or engagement processes with some degree of power-sharing at the upper end. Access to information can enable citizens to participate more effectively through these mechanisms, while the latter can also allow citizens to demand more transparency.
Thus, transparency and participation are intertwined. Transparency can enable more effective participation and vice versa, and each can help to deliver greater accountability. In turn, accountability can improve access to information and participatory mechanisms, for example, through legal or institutional reforms. Such reforms can be a means to help lock in improvements in transparency and accountability, making these changes more durable. These interactions can result in a positive cycle of change (Figure 1).