GroundBreakers is thrilled to feature Blair Glencorse, the Founder of the Accountability Lab, on this week’s Portraits of a GroundBreaker Series.
Blair Glencorse is the Founder of the Accountability Lab, an organization building a new generation of active citizens through innovative anti-corruption initiatives. Blair is passionate about contextualized, people-centered ideas that empower change-makers to drive positive social and economic reform in their communities. The Accountability Lab has developed creative campaigns to encourage accountable behavior, supports “Accountrapreneurs” to drive open governance in their societies, and builds ecosystems around accountability and open government. On this week’s feature of GroundBreakers’ Portraits of a GroundBreaker Series, our discussion with Blair ranged from creative ways to promote accountability to the diverse ways in which accountability is understood in different languages and cultures.
Read on to learn more about this GroundBreaker’s amazing work and be sure to check out the Accountability Lab!
What motivated you to start The Accountability Lab?
My background is in international development and I used to work at the World Bank. I spent a lot of time speaking with young people all around the world about the challenges they face and what they thought the solutions could be. I started out expecting answers like access to things like education or healthcare or clean water, but what I heard almost unanimously was accountability. They wanted people in power to be responsible, to advance justice, and to stop acting corruptly. I quickly came to the conclusion that accountability is at the heart of everything. If we don’t build accountability between people in power and their citizens, then it’s very difficult to fix all of the other problems in society.
How are different expressions of art a unique way to promote accountability?
I think that we have to go beyond the traditional, age-driven ways of doing things and try to get young people involved in thinking through what their future looks like. We work with a lot of rappers in Nigeria and Liberia who are making music. That’s what they like to do, but their music is inherently political and is shaping the way that young people are thinking about accountability. Another important art form here is filmmaking. We work with young filmmakers all around the world who are making narrative films and documentaries about these issues. With these advocacy tools, we are also working with interactive public artists who are using public spaces and art in a way to get people into conversations about accountability.
Who are some of the people and initiatives who inspire you in your work?
There are incredible activists all around the world that have supported and inspired our work including Thuli Madonsela and Rakesh Rajani. The head of Global Integrity, Alan Hudson, is also a great thinker and an inspirational figure. Another amazing reformer is Sanjay Pradhan, who is engaged in the India Open Government Partnership movement.
“Companies today are still more concerned with their bottom line than they are about creating more inclusive, fair systems. Because in the end, this entire process requires companies to help change the system through which they benefit. That reform is painful, but we need these companies to step up and collaboratively make that change.”
What challenges did you face in starting The Accountability Lab?
There were lots of challenges. At the beginning, we didn’t have any money. I had never built an organization before. Because we hadn’t done anything, we had no reputation and no credibility. Beyond these initial challenges, our work is focused on tackling a huge societal issue: the topic of accountability is a massive challenge globally and is only getting bigger every day.
Depending on how you measure it, there is more and more corruption around the world these days and less accountability of people in power. The work we’re doing now is hugely challenging in trying to find creative approaches to support people in understanding their rights in response to the lack of accountability.
What examples of accountable and transparent governance in the world are you motivated by?
There are both national and individual examples. The people that really inspire me these days are the young people that we work with — people who we may not think about as democracy or accountability activists, but who are inherently doing just that.
We run a program called Integrity Idol, which finds and makes famous — we call it naming and faming — the most honest government officials in the world. Though that process, we desire to give them the trust, credibility, and connections needed to push for reform within their institutions. It’s a fun, positive campaign and the Integrity Idols are very inspiring people. They are not necessarily at a high-level or already famous, but people who are doing the right thing when no one is watching. They are helping to find new ways to engage citizens to fight corruption and make government more inclusive and transparent.
From a national historical perspective, several countries have made interesting changes to build more inclusive, fair, and transparent states. Examples include Chile after the fall of Pinochet as well as Finland over the course of the last century.
“When women are in positions of power, decisions are more effective, more inclusive, and more sustainable… We ensure that women are included in all of our programs and involved in leading those efforts.”
What does the increasing private sector mobilization in the global development space mean for accountability?
I think, overall, it’s a positive trend. It’s essential that the private sector is involved in changing development outcomes, but this has to be meaningful, authentic, and sustained engagement. The innovation and creativity of the private sector is an important ingredient in creating more inclusive societies. Such collaboration can’t simply be a more traditional conception of corporate social responsibility and superficial change.
Companies today are still more concerned with their bottom line than they are about creating more inclusive, fair systems. Because in the end, this entire process requires companies to help change the system through which they benefit. That reform is painful, but we need these companies to step up and collaboratively make that change. The Accountability Lab as an organization is trying to influence these companies and bring them together in ways that move beyond the traditional aid models.
What are some of the best strategies you’ve used in partnering with many different kinds of organizations across sectors?
We start by listening. This is a major piece of our approach as an organization, as we believe we’re not learning unless we’re listening. We spend a lot of time listening and finding people that are thinking in the right ways and saying the right things, and who have the energy and purpose that is needed for the work that we do. We focus on network building to find out about new innovative work that is going on and the motivation behind it. For accountability more broadly, everything is about incentives. We think through those incentives, and then find the people who want to do the right thing and support them to connect with each other to build the right kinds of coalitions.
We have now expanded beyond government accountability as we’re realizing that accountability is not just about government. We need to look more thoroughly at different kinds of accountability, including private sector accountability and civil society accountability and media accountability. All of these processes require multi-stakeholder approaches and partnerships.
The media has an important role to play by sharing positive stories and celebrating what works rather than just focusing on the problem. This again comes back to incentives, as everyone likes to celebrate good things and to see what’s working. If we begin by pointing fingers or shouting about what people are doing wrong, that doesn’t generate the political will needed to change the problems.
What did you want to be when you were young? Did you see yourself as a social entrepreneur?
I didn’t see myself as a social entrepreneur when I was growing up. Even when I set up the Accountability Lab 6 years ago, I didn’t see myself as a social entrepreneur. At the beginning, we were looking at what other organizations were doing and saw that there wasn’t an organization that was doing what the Lab does now. The Accountability Lab grew out of that lack of an alternative. I wasn’t setting out to be a social entrepreneur and I didn’t realize at the time how much stress and sacrifice would be part of the entire process.
“We have now expanded beyond government accountability…We need to look more thoroughly at different kinds of accountability, including private sector accountability and civil society accountability and media accountability. All of these processes require multi-stakeholder approaches and partnerships.”
How do you define accountability and how does this differ in different country contexts?
Accountability needs to be defined by people within a given context. We have local teams and a lot of local knowledge in the places that we work and we are in no way trying to define what accountability is for everyone. The definition very much depends on people’s positions, incentives, and relationships and means different things to different people. In some languages, there are not even specific words that translate to accountability and sometimes it translates to responsibility. We have begun using the word integrity more, because we are pushing for a collective values shift and integrity is an important value for accountability.
Accountability includes a big element of answerability, meaning that people are answerable for certain responsibilities or decisions. Accountability is not just transparency. There have to be actions taken in response to information that indicates that there are problems of accountability. In this way, reform is not just about creating rules and institutions that build accountability but also about changing the values by which we collectively live within society. This is especially important for young people, and we’re trying to support young people to develop a values set that can guide their behavior no matter what the rules are. This will ultimately guide development and decision making even if it’s not written in laws or policies.
The Accountability Lab has a major focus on advancing gender equity — what are some of the best ways you have found to ensure women gain access to leadership positions?
We are big fans of gender equity. When women are in positions of power, decisions are more effective, more inclusive, and more sustainable. We have started by looking within at our own organization to advance gender equity. Though we’re certainly not perfect, we have put in place progressive policies in all of our country offices to ensure that there is equal opportunity and equal numbers of men and women in positions of decision making. We also ensure that women are included in all of our programs and involved in leading those efforts.
We are currently building a network of women filmmakers across Liberia who are making films about accountability for gender rights and the issues that they care most about. We just launched a national rap contest in Nigeria for women rappers to develop songs around issues of representation and democracy. We will then match these rappers with mentors in the Nigerian music industry to develop the best songs, professionally record the music, and then do a series of concerts around the country where people can vote for their favorites and get engaged around the issues. This is particularly relevant as elections are coming up in Nigeria next year. We’ve found this to be a creative and contextually relevant way to engage with women and support them to push for equality across society.
What is your vision for the Accountability Lab?
We are currently scaling the Accountability Lab as well as our content and partnerships. It’s exciting as we’re in an interesting period of growth and I think there’s more demand for accountability now than ever. We are planning on expanding to a few other countries as there is a lot of interest in South America in what we do, in Mexico and Brazil in particular. We are also beginning to codify and license some of our content and knowledge in different ways. Regarding the Integrity Idol campaign, we have been running these campaigns ourselves through our country offices and teams. We are now partnering with other organizations so that they can run the campaign in their countries and we will then provide support and content for those campaigns. At the moment we are partnering with Transparency International in Sri Lanka in that capacity.
What is inspiring is that there are lots of amazing people, particularly young people with creative ideas, who we want to bring into this movement and support to do the right thing.
This article was first published in Medium in July 2018