The foundation of a healthy public realm is effective accountability of governments, businesses and organisations. Each day, there are reminders of how much goes wrong when this quality is absent - not least in corroding the trust of citizens, employees and consumers in those who govern, employ, or sell to them. When accountability practices fail, individual rights quickly erode in the face of those in power pursuing personal agendas and enrichment over the common good.
Simon Zadek is chief executive of AccountAbility, a senior fellow at the Centre for Government and Business of Harvard University's Kennedy School, and an honorary professor at the University of South Africa
Among Simon Zadek's articles in openDemocracy:
"Reinventing accountability for the 21st century" (11 September 2005)
"China's route to business responsibility" (30 November 2005)
"Accountability: the other climate change" (31 October 2006)
"Davos: changing the world from within"(22 January 2007)
"The four faces of the World Economic Forum" (9 February 2007)
"Reinventing global trade: the MFA Forum" (15 April 2007) The absence of effective accountability is the trigger that eventually leads societies to fail - sometimes in dramatic ways (civil unrest, wars, and disease), sometimes via incremental decline (involving a series of "small" steps - withholding savings from banks or critical health details from insurers for fear of penalty, giving up voting) that has the same cumulative effect.
If societies work best when people at the sharp end of power are able to civilise those who hold it, then an accountability health-check for 2007 suggests that it was a pretty uncivilised year. The period ahead promises a critical challenge: how to entrench accountability in principle and in practice as part of the common sense of the age. The stakes - from global public health to political corruption, from corporate responsibility to a new climate-change regime - are very high.
A fivefold test
Indeed, gross accountability shortfalls are the thread that connects some of the biggest challenges of the era. Here are just five examples, which together demonstrate the sheer scale of problems the world community faces if it to pass the "accountability test".
First, lack of accountability is the source of the turmoil in global financial markets, which is affecting the lives of hundreds of millions of people across the globe. Many of the more technical explanations of the crisis evade one simple fact: that many of the fund-managers entrusted with people's savings have taken irresponsible risks with the money - and been rewarded with obscenely large bonuses for it. They have been incentivised in ways that allow for massive profiteering as the markets have risen, but zero accountability as the over-hyped market takes its inevitable dive. Real accountability would mean fund-managers returning their bonuses to investors, their ultimate clients, now that both the profits and chunks of the original capital on which they were earned have vanished.
Second, the spreading global awareness of the threat from climate change underlines the importance of accountability mechanisms. The award in October 2007 of the Nobel peace prize to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Al Gore itself represents a form of accountability; equally, slow and uneven progress at the United Nations-sponsored talks in Bali in December highlighted the difficulty of translating this into practical action for the collective common good. It is intriguing to see that the most vocal champions of such a shift have been business and their historic opponents, non-profit organisations (for example, through the United States Climate Action Partnership); the issue of climate change will be the ultimate accountability test of the incoming US president in both representing his or her country's true interests and offering coherent, intelligent leadership of the international community.
Third, a clear lack of effective accountability across the global community is exemplified by the continuing failure to agree on a new round of international trade liberalisation - the so-called Doha development round. In stark terms, the combined narrow interests of American and French farmers have condemned millions of rural folks in developing countries to continued impoverishment by not allowing the products of their labour to compete fairly in US and European markets. The sustained subsidies to these rich-country farmers make a mockery of development aid from the same states, while denying basic livelihood opportunities.
Fourth, the series of scandals and disputes over "toxic toys" and other allegedly unhealthy Chinese-produced products has been seen as a failure of Chinese producers to observe basic standards. Mattel and other brand importers have exhibited surprise at these "revelations", as if this was the first time they had bothered to visit their Chinese suppliers or apply basic technical product-checks. But as in every marketplace, you get what you pay for: consumers cannot complain if they remain unwilling to pay enough to secure safe and acceptable conditions for workers in the supplying factories and an adequate margin to ensure that quality can be sustained and monitored. China's own industrial and environmental problems - including grave pollution and damage to the health of its people - owe much to the unaccountable entrails of western consumerism. There are vital accountability issues on both sides here.
Fifth, people's trust in democratic governance has (according to several international surveys) never been lower - and worst of all is the collapse of confidence in democracy itself. Voting levels in Britain and elsewhere continue to decline just as the Latinobarόmetro poll of political attitudes across Latin America found in November 2007 that unprecedented numbers of the continent's citizens are disaffected with the politics of their newly emerged democracies.
openDemocracy writers seek to make sense of long-term shifts in global politics, economics and the environment:
Avinash D Persaud, "The dollar standard: (only the) beginning of the end" (5 December 2007)
Tom Burke, "The world and climate change: all together now" (7 December 2007)
Ann Pettifor, "Globalisation: sleepwalking to disaster" (11 December 2007)
openDemocracy, "The world in 2008: a year and an era" (21 December 2007) - reflections from twenty authors, including Rajeev Bhargava, Mary Kaldor, Ivan Krastev, and Michel Thieren
Paul Rogers, "A century on the edge: 1945-2045" (29 December 2007)
David Hayes, "A world in contraflow" (3 January 2008)
Saskia Sassen, "The world's third spaces" (8 January 2008)
The Edelman annual trust barometer, a global survey of more than 2,000 opinion leaders, places democratic governments at the bottom of its league table: well below a business community which regards itself as accountable only to its shareholders, and non-profit organisations which (notwithstanding a claim to represent a semblance of the collective moral compass) essentially have no accountability to those in whose names they speak. The accountability challenges to government, business and NGOs alike are steep.
The stakes are high
If governments' reputations in particular have fallen further into disrepair, the condition of "people power" - citizens' collective attempts to challenge entrenched state control - is faring little better. In Burma, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, and Russia - to name only a few - pro-democracy protestors have found themselves brutalised and jailed, with western hand-wringing serving little or no purpose. Amid this gloomy picture, it was Venezuela's Hugo Chávez - assailed by the international media for his autocratic style and practices - who in December 2007 provided the world with a refreshing lesson by accepting with grace the narrowest of referendum results against him.
Thus, the project of "civilising power" is bruised and badly in need of regeneration. Political leadership is either lacking altogether or profoundly part of the problem; business accountability has been defined by the cynical profiteering of the global investment community; and non-profit organisations (some progress on climate change excepted) have proved unable to avoid the collapse of trade talks or ensure any breakthrough in people's efforts to unseat undemocratic and oppressive political leaders. The unlikely current heroes of accountability - Al Gore and Hugo Chávez - set an example but do not alone make a trend. The world's accountability practices need to get a lot better in 2008 and beyond if its situation is not going to get very much worse.
Get our weekly email