Accountability. It’s something we often only think about when it’s lacking, often when news of a massive political scandal or corporate corruption breaks. These failures in accountability shake our confidence in the system. But, for Edinburgh alumnus Blair Glencorse, it’s much broader: “Accountability is more than a theme or process. It’s a value – something you live by and adhere to.”
Each time sleaze, bribery and fraud rear their ugly heads, we demand transparency and honesty and for those involved to be held accountable. However, while naming and shaming may address our inherent desire for short-term justice, Blair believes long-term accountability requires more than pointing fingers.
“Accountability isn’t always something we can create in others,” Blair states. “It’s abundantly evident that the threat of publishment and public embarrassment doesn’t always prevent people from being irresponsible. The way to help all of us to live accountably is to support each other to understand why we should.”
A vision for a fairer world
Blair founded Accountability Lab in early 2012 with a vision to create a world of active citizens, responsible leaders and accountable institutions, where we use resources wisely, make decisions that benefit everyone fairly, and people lead secure lives.
Like most great ideas, it started small.
“I was working for the World Bank on development projects with young people in southern Nepal, talking about the challenges they face and asking what they needed to improve their lives,” Blair explains.
“I expected them to say clean drinking water and schools. In fact, they wanted people in power to be responsible,” he continues. “However, they didn’t have the power or resources to make it happen. A bell went off in my head. We need to fill that gap by supporting amazing young people to come up with solutions to the challenges they and their communities face, then provide the space and access to help them have their voices heard.”
More than a decade on, the non-profit organisation has evolved into a global network of local Accountability Labs involving more than 25 million people in twelve countries from Mali to Mexico.
The Labs work with young people to develop new ideas for accountability, transparency and open government. It helps them find new ways to shift societal norms, solve intractable challenges and build networks between people who would be unlikely to meet were it not for this global network for change.
Treating the cause, not the effect
“I’m increasingly convinced every day that accountability is the issue that matters most,” says Blair. “At Accountability Lab, we get to the causes of the problems, not just the symptoms. To solve these challenges, we must take it a level up. For example, the lack of a school in a community is not necessarily an education failure. It may be due to decision-makers not consulting citizens or corruption diverting essential money.”
From his Washington D C office, Blair is conscious of his responsibility and role in the organisation, which operates through co-management and collective decision-making.
“I’m acutely aware that I am a privileged white person in the Global North,” he says. “Systems of power are not structured to give everyone the same access I enjoy. I act as a door opener whose purpose is to mentor and support people to gain access to power to build greater equality and inclusion in decision-making.”
Blair credits his time as a history undergraduate in Edinburgh as igniting a passion for accountability that would see him cross the pond in 2002 to pursue a postgraduate degree in international relations and economics and then enjoy an international career in international development before founding Accountability Lab.
“History is a fantastic subject to get you interested in all sorts of things and teaches you to balance different points of view,” he says. “It helped me understand the past and consider how accountability and governance have shaped countries’ development. For example, studying Russian history with Professor John Gooding made me consider how these factors can shape a country’s values and statecraft.”
Walking the walk
Integrity is crucial to any organisation, but none more so than an organisation working to build accountability worldwide.
“Lack of trust is one of the greatest challenges we all collectively face and was certainly a challenge when we started Accountability Lab. No one knew us or recognised what we did,” Blair recalls. “Even for our local teams, building trust in countries where there’s conflict, social cohesion issues, and a lack of governance is challenging, and without it, it’s tough to get anything done. We’ve gone through a decade-long journey of building relationships, ensuring repeated interactions and keeping our promises to build the credibility we have today. But you can’t take it for granted. One mistake can instantly undo years of hard work, so we’re cautious and intentional in our work with communities.”
Integrity also underpins one of Blair’s favourite Accountability Lab projects. “One of the ideas we’ve come up with I’m proudest is Integrity Icon, a competition to celebrate honest, hard-working government officials. Think ‘Pop Idol’ but for public servants,” he explains.
Beginning in Nepal in 2014, the grassroots programme has since expanded to 14 countries, from Ukraine to the US. It invites the public to nominate outstanding public servants in various government sectors who demonstrate honesty and integrity under challenging circumstances. “We’re reframing debates around corruption by ‘naming and faming’ do-gooders, rather than naming and shaming wrongdoers,” Blair continues.
The Lab then works with the winners to shift norms within institutions, build coalitions for reform and encourage young people to serve with integrity.
“One of our greatest successes came in Pakistan, a country I have a close connection with, having lived there for a long time and my wife being from there,” Blair says. “Through Integrity Icon in 2018, we found Batool Asadi, the first female district officer in Balochistan, a traditionally very conservative and patriarchal province, working to reform government from within. Not only did she win, but her success inspired more women to enter public service and little more than five years later the province now has eleven female district officers. These women have changed the face of governance and are pushing for a more gender-balanced civil service through demonstrating integrity.”
After earthquakes devastated communities across Nepal in 2015, Accountability Lab’s network of local volunteers moved quickly to facilitate vital communications between citizens and decision-makers. “These early Civic Action Teams solved thousands of problems for victims – on everything from finding missing relatives to accessing aid to rebuild their lives to having a say in the reconstruction process,” Blair explains.
The networks these volunteers built have also supported Nepali migrant workers during the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, working under challenging conditions to understand their rights and make the migration system more transparent and accountable.
The Lab also runs Accountability Incubators to support civic activists in developing ideas. “It’s like a business incubator, but for people with an idea to drive positive change in their communities. More than 300 people in ten countries have completed the year-long programme, leading to everything from successful digital tools to help citizens navigate government agencies in Nepal, to the foundation of Liberia’s first film school.”
Blair takes every opportunity to give back to the University, which he credits as a significant part of his intellectual and career development. “I work with the Careers Service as a mentor, talking to students in meetups and events, online and in person when I’m in town, to explain my path, listen to their ideas and discuss how I can open doors for them. I also regularly connect with students on LinkedIn and catch up by email.”
He and his team have also taught classes at the Edinburgh Futures Institute in the University. “The institution is very intentional about how it focuses on its accountability. And the students I talk to today are much more diligent and aware of collective issues than I ever was. They’re switched-on and thoughtful – it makes me hopeful for the future,” he says.
The UK hasn’t escaped Accountability Lab’s attention. Blair and his team are in early discussions with potential partners.
“Accountability is universal, not just particular to certain countries, and the UK needs it as much as any other. Unfortunately, the financial and legal systems in the Global North continue to perpetuate corruption in the Global South, so we must address it in Europe, the UK and North America.”
As just one of eight billion people on the planet, making the world more accountable may feel beyond our influence or capabilities, but Blair believes it starts with small steps.
“The best way for people to support Accountability Lab and live its values is to think about accountability every day. None of us are perfect, but if we can each get the small things right – from doing what we promise, turning up on time, to realising our rights as citizens and voting – we can build the accountable culture we need to live better, more inclusive and fair lives.”