In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Informal Practices of Accountability in Urban Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Electoral Accountability
  • Principal-Agent Models
  • The Role of Information
  • Information Experiments in Africa
  • Clientelism
  • The Logic of Collective Action and Political Protest
  • New Approaches to Accountability
  • A History of Accountability in Africa
  • Cultural Practices
  • Social Practices
  • Informality in Urban Africa
  • Democratic Practices

Political Science Informal Practices of Accountability in Urban Africa
Jeffrey W. Paller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0172


Political accountability has since the late 20th century emerged as a central tenet of democracy. Accountability is typically understood as individuals being called to account for their actions, and in politics this refers to representatives informing their constituents about their activities in office. Political accountability provides the key mechanism for citizens to make sure representatives do their jobs, and it often involves sanctioning leaders out of office, ensuring transparency of government funds, and incorporating the ideas of citizens into political decision making. Across Africa, accountability is usually seen as lacking in African political systems, contributing to a missing, though crucial, element of democratic governance in the region. The study of accountability in African cities is particularly understudied, as rapid urbanization, proliferation of informal settlements, and growing populations of the urban poor lead to new political communities being formed, to shifting forms of identity and claims to citizenship, and to new relationships between leaders and followers. How citizens actually hold their leaders to account in urban Africa is largely unknown and is a key question that guides this article. The article examines informal practices of accountability that extend beyond elections and formal institutions to include the social practices and collective endeavors between residents and their leaders in the context of daily life. Examples of these informal practices include appealing to leaders’ moral standing in daily activities such as town hall meetings, nighttime chats, and house visits, as well as civic activism and street protests.

General Overviews

The concept of accountability is borrowed from theories of public management and accounting. A number of works explain the importance of accountability to democracy. Warren 2014 explains that societies are made up of webs of accountabilities between peoples, and that democratic accountability involves public justifications for these uses of power. Lindberg 2013 justifies the use of accountability as a concept but is clear that it must be distinguished from the concept of responsiveness. Schedler 1999 emphasizes that accountability is about controlling power, focusing on two important dimensions: answerability and enforcement. The most influential volume in scholarship on political science is Przeworski, et al. 1999, which incorporates the study of accountability into theories of representation, also clarifying that accountability is an outcome of institutional structures while responsiveness is a characteristic of a regime or politicians’ performance. Ashworth 2012 surveys early-21st-century academic scholarship and finds that formal accountability does not adequately link to citizen preferences. Though not specifically about accountability, Hicken 2011 surveys the literature on clientelism. The inclusion of clientelist accountability in studies of democracy introduces a new form of accountability based on patron-client relations, which should not be underestimated as an important way that citizens get representatives to do their jobs, particularly in young democracies. Similarly, Helmke and Levitsky 2004 provides a thorough introduction to the role of informal institutions in the study of politics, providing another avenue of power that might complement or substitute for formal accountability mechanisms.

  • Ashworth, Scott. “Electoral Accountability: Recent Theoretical and Empirical Work.” Annual Review of Political Science 15 (2012): 183–201.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-polisci-031710-103823

    A survey of political-science scholarship on electoral accountability. Suggests there are limits on the link between policies and citizen preferences, concluding that more attention should be given to political-agency approach that emphasizes separation of powers.

  • Helmke, Gretchen, and Steven Levitsky. “Informal Institutions and Comparative Politics: A Research Agenda.” Perspectives on Politics 2.4 (2004): 725–740.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1537592704040472

    A framework for the study of informal institutions, discussing the relationship between informal and formal institutions. Analyzes sources, prospects for change, and nature of persistence and stability in the informal realm, which open new avenues of accountability. Defines informal institutions as “socially shared rules, usually unwritten, that are created, communicated, and enforced outside of officially sanctioned channels” (p. 727).

  • Hicken, Allen. “Clientelism.” Annual Review of Political Science 14 (2011): 289–310.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.polisci.031908.220508

    A survey of political-science scholarship on clientelism, defining clientelism as particularistic targeting and contingency-based exchange. Discusses origins of patron-client relationships, and relationship between clientelism and democracy and development. Surveys different generations of clientelism scholarship in comparative politics.

  • Lindberg, Staffan I. “Mapping Accountability: Core Concept and Subtypes.” International Review of Administrative Sciences 79.2 (2013): 202–226.

    DOI: 10.1177/0020852313477761

    A thorough discussion of the concept of political accountability. Discusses origins of the concept and what it reasonably entails, to avoid conceptual stretching. Advocates a principal-agent model. Describes the core features of accountability, as well as various subtypes of accountability.

  • Przeworski, Adam, Susan C. Stokes, and Bernard Manin, eds. Democracy, Accountability, and Representation. Cambridge Studies in the Theory of Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    An influential volume from leading empirical and theoretical scholars of democracy. Combines analysis of political representation, democratic accountability, and government performance. Reviews role of elections, checks and balances, and mechanisms of accountability in functioning of democracies. Combines game theory, case studies, and statistical analysis.

  • Schedler, Andreas. “Conceptualizing Accountability.” In The Self-Restraining State: Power and Accountability in New Democracies. Edited by Andreas Schedler, Larry Diamond, and Marc F. Plattner, 13–28. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1999.

    A review of what accountability entails and how it should be used in the study of politics. Conceptualizes accountability as controlling power, showing that the two important elements are answerability and enforcement. Demonstrates the exercise of power as a rule-guided enterprise and provides a framework for the study of accountability in new democracies.

  • Warren, Mark E. “Accountability and Democracy.” In The Oxford Handbook of Public Accountability. Edited by Mark Bovens, Robert E. Goodin, and Thomas Schillemans, 39–54. Oxford Handbooks in Politics & International Relations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    A discussion of the theoretical foundations of democratic accountability, presenting democracy as a system or web of accountabilities. Highlights accountability as relationships between governors and the governed. Describes the key elements of accountability. Advocates an approach to the study of democracy as more than voting and elections.

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