What prompts collective action for accountability?
By Yamini Aiyar, 09 Sep 2010

What prompts collective action for accountability? Information campaigns are premised on the assumption that information can act as a catalyst for mobilizing collective action. Yet, experience suggests that these links are neither implicit nor automatic. For instance, a recent evaluation by J-PAL MIT, of an information based education intervention to mobilize village education committees in Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh explored this question to find that information campaigns had no visible impact on community involvement in public schools and no impact on learning outcomes in those schools. The study proposes several reasons for this failure including the challenges of coordinating and sustaining collective action in a large group, the expectations people had about the efficacy of the Village Education Committee (VEC) and the possibility that people do not care enough about education.

<--break->Our Sehore experience offers some interesting insights in to why people do not come together (although we learnt very little about why people do come together). First, we found that there is a widespread perception amongst parents that monitoring the school and demanding accountability for teaching is simply not their responsibility and it is this which creates the first barrier to effective collective action. Interestingly, the villages we worked in had never had a community discussion about education till we parachuted in. This is not to say that parents do not care about the education. The very fact that they send their children to school is evidence that they care. But parents seem to feel that sending their children to school is the extent of their responsibility and what happens inside the school is not something they are in a position to assess or influence owing largely to a sense of disempowerment and lack of confidence owing to their own illiteracy. In the many meetings and informal interactions we tried to instill a sense of ownership for the school by drawing attention to the fact that parents pay for the school directly through the education cess. On other occasions we drew analogies with parental behavior when children are sick arguing that in dysfunctional schools result in ‘sick’ children and just as parents ‘act’ by taking their sick children to the doctor, they ought to act when the school does not function. It is unclear whether any of these ‘mobilization’ tricks had an impact but what the experience did teach us is that there is a need for greater investment in creating parental ownership towards the school and its everyday activities.

Second, and perhaps more important, we found that the greatest barrier to collective action is that parents simply do not believe in the efficacy of the Parent Teacher Associations (PTA’s) or other community based forms of participation. And this is probably a consequence of bitter experience. I have mentioned in a previous blog the story of Dhaba where the PTA came together and took a decision to fix a leaky roof with their school grants. But the school grant arrived much after the monsoon and the PTA found that it had very few avenues to go to in order to resolve this problem. So where’s the incentive to participate?

And it is not just about money. Parent Teacher Associations (and Village Education Committees and other similar organizations) simply have no teeth. For instance, it is widely acknowledged that the largest problem face by India’s elementary education system is teacher absenteeism and poor teaching quality. Yet, critical powers related to enforcing teacher accountability whether its appointment of teachers, distribution of salaries, imposition of penalties on errant teachers and so on are vested in the state administrative machinery. And as we know, the state administrative machinery is too far removed and has almost no incentive to regularly monitor teachers and hold them accountable for performance. So even if a PTA wanted to do engage with the school and demand accountability, in the current system they have no powers to do so. So why should they bother? Would you?

In this context, Geeta Kingdon makes another interesting observation. She argues that the large socio-economic distance between teachers and the general population can also make it difficult for mobilizing collective action through the PTA’s. Kingdon estimates that in a state like Uttar Pradesh, post the implementation of the 6th pay commission, the ratio between teacher’s salaries and state per capita income is 17:1! Since rural per capita GDP is even lower than average state per capita GDP, the distance between teachers and parents in rural areas is probably even higher. In such a situation is collective action for teacher accountability even feasible?

What the Sehore experience taught us is that the mere creation of local participatory institutions and provisioning of them with information does not in itself result in effective participation. Micro level participatory spaces like PTA’s need to be nurtured, resourced and empowered in order for them to mobilize collective action. More importantly they need to be embedded in a larger institutional structure where the entire delivery mechanism is geared to be responsive to PTA’s so that PTA’s have incentives to participate and engage with the government.

Yamini Aiyar is Director of the Accountability Initiative.