Last week, the usual craziness of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) was amplified by a flood of Climate Week NYC events. The gridlock, the desperate hunt for an open table in a Midtown coffee shop, the lengthy security lines - these were all familiar. Less so, was the frequent reference to “accountability.”
The word was mentioned in every session I attended throughout the week. It didn’t matter if the topic was the state of multilateralism, our information environment, climate and biodiversity, future pandemic responses, or safeguarding democracy, “accountability” was trotted out regularly by panelists, speakers, and attendees.
Yes, I work for an organization with accountability in its name, so you would expect that to skew the selection of sessions that I attended. And, yes, you would expect my ears to prick up at use of the word more readily than most. Nonetheless, it was striking how often the word came up compared to discussions in past years.
It is good news. Recognizing we have an accountability problem is the first step.
What might have prompted the frequent references? Perhaps the scale of global challenges and our collective failure to progress on many of them – as discussions at the Sustainable Development Goals Summit all-too-starkly confirmed – is focusing minds on the need for accountability.
I doubt that everyone attributed the same meaning to the word. It was certainly used in reference to a wide variety of contexts ranging from donors being accountable for funding promises (and use of taxpayers' money) to corporates being accountable for impacts of their operations to investment firms being accountable to individual investors for upholding ESG criteria to national governments being accountable to their citizens for effective service delivery to communities being accountable for protecting local forests. And, yes, there was no shortage of times that the word was trotted out without clarity on who was to be held accountable to whom for what.
I was left asking myself how we can keep the momentum of calling for accountability writ large while still pushing for deeper understanding within subcommunities on how accountability enables (or not) progress in their specific context.
A case in point is the new research that we at TAI published for consultation last week together with Systemiq’s Blended Finance Taskforce and the World Bank’s Global Partnership for Social Accountability. Better Accountability, Better Finance makes the meta case for accountability across the climate finance system. If implemented, accountability measures could generate as much as $100 billion in savings a year and pay for themselves – every dollar invested should lead to between $3 and $12 in savings.
That’s important when the president of the upcoming COP28 confirms that we still face a $2.4 trillion climate finance gap. The report lays down a marker for why accountability matters and needs to be part of the global conversation. The big numbers are a conversation starter.
However, for those potential savings to materialize, we need to translate the general ask for accountability into a whole set of specific actions:
We need to find a way to hold donors to account for their climate funding commitments (currently as much as 75% of committed funds are not deployed on time).
We need countries to have accountable processes for determining the allocation of climate spending and how that spending aligns with nationally determined contributions.
We need investors to be demonstrably accountable for the integrity of green or blue bonds.
We need companies to be able to reliably account for carbon emissions down their supply chain.
We need local government and community leaders to be accountable for oversight of local adaptation projects.
Each of these is a complex undertaking that involves navigating competing interests, constraints on resources and varying capacities. Each context will demand its own variants.
And yet, on reflection, I still see value in a collective headline ask from as big a tent of actors as possible. We (sadly) still need to make the case for embedding accountability, building upon transparency and inclusive participation, as core principles for tackling today’s pressing global challenges. However, that case-making needs to swiftly unlock resources to empower those pursuing more accountable practices in their own country, market, or project setting. That is what will bring greater credibility, legitimacy, efficiency and effectiveness, and hopefully yield more stories of concrete improvements to share at future UNGAs. Here’s hoping the accountability buzz was not a one-off.