From the Imported Term “Accountability” to Democratic Public Control in Latin America
Versión en español: De “la accountability” y la rendición de cuentas al “control democrático de lo público” en América Latina
- The start of the journey
The trajectory of the term accountability’s adaptation in Latin America stems from three points. The first is the importation by academic communities and civil organizations that initially referred to the term directly in English. A significant share of this literature and these actors imported the term with little effort for “translation” – both of the concept itself and of its implications for Latin American political communities, whose features differed from the European and Anglo-Saxon regimes from which the main ideas were taken up.
The debate’s second point of departure involved decision makers and technical experts in public administration and public sector oversight (e.g., lawyers, accountants, managers, and auditors) – [individuals] who were strongly influenced by discussions from the ‘global North,’ educationally, ideologically, and professionally. At the regional level, technical agencies such as the Latin American Center for Development Administration (CLAD) and the Latin American and Caribbean Organization of Supreme Audit Institutions (OLACEFS); multilateral organizations such as the World Bank, the United Nations (UN) or the Organization of American States (OAS); or (public and private) foundations dedicated to international cooperation, were also clear reference points.
Finally, the third point of departure involved think tanks (public, private, and social) that reformulated the discourse about democratic deepening, which referred to experiences of (social or citizen) participation focused on the oversight of (elected or professional) public servants and of public policies. This third point effectively organized local concepts and social movements that would later become part of the global legacy of debate and repertoire for more critical appropriations (Isunza 2012; Isunza and Gurza 2010, 2018). The multiple meanings of “accountability” produced during this period can be explained by this diversity of actors’ political projects and by the overlap of narratives in this semantic field. More than a problem of translation between languages, its relevance stems from how a concept such as “accountability” became central to various debates and to the narratives of social and political actors, linking diverse fields such as: democratization, transparency, good governance, participation, accountability, the public, the state, and the non-state.
In contrast to some initial suggestions that the concept of “accountability” did not have an equivalent in Spanish, the term “rendición de cuentas” conveys the same idea. The word is formed by “rendición,” derived from the Latin reddere – that which “together with some nouns, takes the meaning of the one added to it.” Thus, “rendir gracias” means “to give thanks,” and “rendir obsequios” means “to give away.” On the other hand, “cuentas” has its root in the Latin computare, a word formed by com-, “together, collectively,” plus putare – ”value, judge, calculate, verify (an account), clean.” Therefore, “accountability” is the action of calculating, that is, of collectively evaluating, judging, or verifying something. It follows that accountability has collective control-evaluation characteristics (Isunza 2006, 288).
Image credit: Ricardo Sánchez Esteva and Alfredo David Hernández Hernández.
- Ideas and adaptations during the alternation of parties in power
Mexico and Latin America adopted the debate over how to hold public actors accountable from two very precise academic approaches – Guillermo O’Donnell (1994, 1998) and Andreas Schedler (1999). These two formulations led to a very wide range of adjustments and innovations. Catalina Smulovitz and Enrique Peruzzotti adopted these references outright to broaden the debate towards what they called “social accountability,” referring directly to the diverse contexts of Latin American societies (2002).
The debate in Mexico also took up the ways in which authors thought of, on the one hand, the role of active citizens in public sector oversight based on Mexican experiences (and experiences of other societies of the ‘global South’); on the other hand, the debate considered recovering the idea of subjecting those in power to the will of the people (Ackerman 2004; Cunill 2000; Fox 2002, 2007; and Isunza 2002). From the narrative and political criticism of Zapatismo, with its maxim of “lead by obeying,” to the bureaucratized version that became the “social comptroller” – Mexico experienced an increase in studies, essays, and publications, as well as regulations in all areas of public power that called for a vision of “authorities that are accountable to the population.”
This debate was met with two processes of institutional innovation, which broadly altered the popular notion of the terms of the debate on accountability in Mexico. First, a system of open government information was defined and implemented; second, the obligation of “social comptroller” committees was instituted in a substantial portion of the federal government’s social programs (Aziz and Isunza 2017).
Three complications were defined in the specialized and public debate by (social and civil) organizations and decision makers. We refer to a process in Mexico between 2000 and 2018 that entailed moments of expanding opportunities for regime transition. This process resulted in local social actor participation becoming increasingly irrelevant, while the public sector discussion focused on relatively few technically skilled actors with more human resources, financial support and networks.
The first problem is the level of demand-making necessary to define when there was an authentic exercise of “accountability:” making public information transparent or having access to such information, obtaining explanations from leaders and representatives, or relying on whether those explanations would have positive or negative consequences, as appropriate. Everyday language often referred to whether the accountability mechanisms “had teeth or not,” meaning the ability to exercise authentic democratic control of the public sector.
The second complication was the way in which social and civil representatives demanded accountability and at the same time had to be held accountable to those they represented – in a country where privatization of the public sector also implied making political representation of society exclusive to the elite, as well as increased inequality in channels of participation. In the early years of Mexico’s transition, opportunities for dialogue, consultation, and (less often) control by beneficiaries of social programs expanded in various areas of public policy. But as of 2006, due to both political polarization and the spread of violence through much of the country, various channels of participation were stripped of their effectiveness (as in the case of the social comptroller) or made more technical so as to sideline social representation.
Finally, the third trouble spot was recognizing the disconnect between various sophisticated mechanisms of transparency and access to public information, a national system of high-level oversight and anti-corruption bodies, and the government’s offer of limited channels of participation without power. This system of oversight was incapable of exercising democratic scrutiny that would protect State and society from the decomposition caused by the corruption and violence that engulfed Mexico less than a decade after the alternation of parties in power that began in 2000. The set of institutions was useful to a regime that made efforts to democratically control power apart from elections irrelevant.
- Accountability in times of transformation
The Mexican elections of July 2018 – which presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador won by a large majority and with support from a diverse alliance of social and political actors – departed from the general tone of political groups that led Mexico’s period of alternation of parties in power in the national government since 2000. The 2018 turnaround was also fueled by the recognition that vested interests and criminal organizations shape public and private life for large segments of the population: this explains the effectiveness of then-candidate and now president López Obrador’s narrative against corruption, violence, and impunity.
Currently, the accountability agenda in Mexico is clearly in dispute. Whether expressly or implicitly, the notions of what “transparency,” “access to information,” “political representation,” and, above all, (civic, social) “participation” should be are at the center of the national political debate. No relevant national political actor has clearly shown, in narrative or practical terms, an articulated and coherent idea involving these concepts. In some policy areas and institutional mechanisms (e.g. social oversight committees or roundtables), we find examples of improvements and best practices; in others, we find setbacks and paralysis. Yet a strategic commitment to methods of participation with consequences that broaden the vision of accountability is not yet in sight. This is the importance of viewing experiences as occurring locally within a particular field, while also considering intersections with other arenas, so that the concept of accountability may be understood as democratic control of the public sector.
Translated by Megan DeTura
 In detailed terms of the relationship between accountability and (social and civic) participation, the literature focused on cases from the ‘global South’ to propose new definitions includes Goetz and Jenkins (2001) on “diagonal accountability” and Isunza (2002) on “cross-cutting accountability.”
 New agendas such as that developed by the Open Government Partnership (OGP), were paradoxically used by the corrupt and repressive Mexican government that, first, limited the issues and problems along with a reduced representation of civil organizations, but later subjected its partners to a process of harassment and espionage that, when discovered, led the participating civil organizations to suspend their participation in the OGP during the Peña Nieto administration.
 The so-called “Pact for Mexico” that supported the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) President Peña Nieto between 2012 and 2018 expressly included what had been gradually constructed: the return to power of a pragmatic and corrupt PRI with the support of equally pragmatic and corrupt members of the PAN and the PRD. The polarization of the country and the generalized social sense of being fed up explain the resounding triumph of López Obrador and his movement in several areas of public power in Mexico.
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