A non-profit organisation founded by history graduate Blair Glencorse is building a new generation of active citizens and responsible leaders around the world.
Corruption scandals, culprits and crackdowns have long occupied newspaper headlines. But Accountability Lab, a non-profit organisation, takes a different approach to promoting integrity in public office. Instead of heaping attention on dishonest officials, the Lab focuses on positive role models, building communities of individuals and finding creative ways to engage people with their mission.
Founded by alumnus Blair Glencorse in 2012, Accountability Lab is headquartered in Washington, DC and has teams running programmes in six countries. Here Blair describes taking Accountability Lab from an initial concept to winning at the 2018 International Anti-Corruption Excellence Awards, before sharing his advice for budding social entrepreneurs.
Let’s rewind to 1998 when you were embarking on your degree at Edinburgh. What did you hope you’d be doing in 20 years’ time?
“I studied history at Edinburgh and was interested in international history in particular. For me it was always about studying the past as a way to understand the world in the present. I wasn’t sure exactly what I’d be doing but I had lived in Zimbabwe before Edinburgh and I was interested in thinking and working further on development and the political-economy of change processes around the world. As graduation came closer I realised I wanted to study all of this further so applied to an American graduate school to study International Relations and Economics, and ended up in Washington, DC. That led me to the World Bank and onwards from there. 20 years flies by quickly!”
What sparked the idea for Accountability Lab and how did you go about setting up the organisation?
“At the World Bank, and then working for another think tank, I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time talking to young people all over the world, particularly in post-conflict and what are called “fragile” environments. I’d ask what they wanted, expecting to hear “better schools” or “clean drinking water” or “better healthcare”. However, actually what they said, almost universally, was that they wanted people in power to have integrity, they wanted justice and they wanted governments to stop being corrupt – because they knew that all of the other problems stemmed from this lack of accountability.
“They also said they had ideas for changing these things but did not have the opportunity to build these ideas or to build communities around them to make them effective. That is where the concept of the Lab came from – working with young people to develop new and sustainable ideas for accountability – to get to the heart of development challenges. There was a real gap that didn’t seem to be filled by the work of other charities. So, I resigned from my job, registered the organisation and spent the next few months in Nepal working out what the programming would look like. ”
Programme spotlight: Integrity Idol
“A few years ago we were watching the Nepali version of Pop Idol and thinking about how to bring together the idea of these popular media-driven competitions with the issue of accountability and integrity. We came up with Integrity Idol – a campaign not to “name and shame” corrupt officials but to “name and fame” honest bureaucrats.”
Building the programme
“We sent volunteers out the very next day to collect nominations for government officials with integrity from across the country, narrowed down the field to five, and then filmed them. We put the episodes on TV and radio and asked people to vote for their favourites by SMS or online. We were amazed at the reaction – Integrity Idol created a national conversation about integrity, role-models and trust in government. We had millions of viewers and tens of thousands of voters. We celebrated the winner at a national VIP ceremony and then began to work with all of the five Idols to push for change within their ministries and agencies.”
Growth and impact
“Now, Integrity Idol has grown to an annual campaign in eight countries and has been seen by people across Africa and Asia. The winners have become national celebrities for their honesty and have helped inform policies, change rules and have even briefed Congress in the US on development issues. We have videos of the winners being mobbed by crowds of thousands of supporters when they get home; and the campaign has been covered by everyone from The Economist to the Guardian. It is amazing to see what happens once you make something like this accessible, positive and give everyone a sense that they can be part of the change they want to see.”
How do you approach designing an anti-corruption programme?
“We do a few things differently at the Accountability Lab. First, we make this work positive. Usually anti-corruption approaches are very negative – focusing on the problems and the wrong-doers not the solutions and the do-gooders. We try and flip this narrative. Second, we focus on individuals rather than institutions – as we feel building communities of individuals will ultimately shift cultures and norms, which is what this is going to take over time. And third, we focus on creative ideas that get people excited – technical reforms are important but a big piece of what we feel needs to happen is that people have to be engaged around these issues, and that means making them fun.”
What do you hope Accountability Lab will achieve in 2019?
“We have big plans for this year – we’re expanding to Mexico which is of course a large and strategic country with a very interesting political transition ongoing, so that will keep us busy. We are also consolidating our work in our existing contexts – we work in both South Africa and Nigeria too, both of which have elections this year, so we are doing a lot around youth engagement one way or another.
“In Nigeria, for example, we started a music competition for first time musicians to develop songs around issues of democracy and participation. We have matched them with leading artists in the music industry and they will tour the country playing these songs at concerts and creating conversations with young people about the importance of getting out to vote for honest politicians.
“Internally we are also developing a new strategy for the organisation to begin in 2020 – we are seven years old now and have learned a lot about what works, what does not and why – and want to incorporate that into a process and document that reflects where we are going over the next three years.”
Congratulations on Accountability Lab’s win at the International Anti-Corruption Excellence Awards last year. What does this recognition mean to you personally?
“Thank you so much! It is a real honour for us to be recognised and the award ceremony was an amazing experience. It has been a huge collective effort within our team. It really inspires me to see what they are doing on a daily basis and fills me with hope for the future – which is much needed in the current global context. Personally, it is great to see the Lab grow and improve over time and to be acknowledged for it – although everything we do is in partnership and so this is a collective recognition, I think.”
What advice would you give to students or graduates hoping to become social entrepreneurs?
“There is a lot of discussion about social entrepreneurs or start-up founders having amazing new or revolutionary ideas – but my experience is that actually the ideas are already there, it is the persistence to follow-through on them that is the key.
“I would strongly encourage founders to put systems in place at the beginning so they are there as you grow. I knew nothing about building out financial systems when I started, for example; or how to develop all of the policies and procedures needed for an international organisation. I had to learn along the way but it was painful. I’d recommend bringing in a lawyer and accountant (hopefully pro-bono!) at the outset who can help get things set up and advise on ways forward.
“The other big piece of advice is to build an amazing team, with skills that complement your own. We have been really lucky to have some incredible leaders within our team who have been with the organisation since almost the beginning and have really shaped what we do in positive ways. They have developed new programmes, followed through when I haven’t been able to and acted as sounding boards for our ideas. Look for these kinds of people!
“I’m really happy to chat to anyone who is interested in the Lab’s work, or generally to any students who are thinking about starting something new.”
Join the conversation
You can connect with Blair on Platform One – an online meeting place where University of Edinburgh students, alumni, staff and volunteers can gather, mingle, inspire, support, encourage and share.