The watchdog society

Enforcing the Rule of Law develops a novel concept of ‘social accountability’ as an alternative form of control over politicians


Enforcing the Rule of Law: Social Accountability in the New Latin American Democracies
Edited by Enrique Peruzzotti and Catalina Smulovitz
2006, University of Pittsburgh Press
362 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

THIS IS THE book about democracy in Latin America that was waiting to be written, reconciling a failure in the region to consolidate strong institutions able to guarantee a meaningful democratisation with the reality of innovative politicisation through civil society and an activist media that is, in fact, forging democracy in concrete terms on the ground.

The novel concept of social accountability rides, as if to the rescue, into an arena in which confusion and paradox appear to reign, reorienting attention from what many of the contributors to this collection clearly regard as a misconceived focus on political democracy towards an emphasis on equally potent alternative mechanisms of holding the powerful to account.

Yet Enforcing the Rule of Law is nothing if not an honest account of the vigorous debate that has been raging between different schools of thought about accountability and its importance, and contains contributions that challenge and test the book’s underlying premise. It is academia at its very best, and this is revealed in the heavyweight line-up within this volume, which includes contributions by Guillermo O’Donnell, Adam Przeworski, Andrew Arato and Silvio Waisbord.

Suspicion of civil society

Peruzzotti and Smulovitz note in their introduction, very reasonably, how recent evaluations of the institutional performance of Latin American democracies have belittled the significance of social mechanisms of accountability, haunted by a suspicion of the relevance of autonomous civil society in shaping democratic relationships.

Thus, the absence of effective checks and balances, the lack of autonomous judicial institutions, and all-pervasive corruption and the intrinsic limitations of elections themselves are routinely wheeled out as the indicators par excellence of institutional deficits and hence of the weakness of the traditional mechanism of accountability. By these evaluations, we rarely go beyond interpreting accountability as political and legal – referring to the responsiveness of governments to electorates or the ineffectiveness of the rule of law.

Yet, as Peruzzotti and Smulovitz point out, such an approach ignores the growth of alternative forms of political control that rely on citizens’ actions and media intrusion: social accountability.

While elections are the only means of authorising political representation, they are not the only mechanism for holding politicians to account. Social accountability, they write, “… operates neither through the electoral aggregation of votes nor as part of an intrastate system of checks and balances. Rather, social accountability relies on interested, organized sectors of civil society and media institutions that are able to exert influence on the political system and public bureaucracies. The monitoring activities of many NGOs and the workings of a wide array of social movements, civic associations, and media organizations organized around demands for legality and due process expand the classic repertoire of electoral and constitutional institutions for controlling government and on many occasions might serve to improve and complement them or to compensate for many of their built-in limitations.” (p.10)

Social accountability, they argue, takes place in three main areaas: through the judiciary, through mobilisation, and through the media. In the latter, for example, an increasingly aggressive investigative journalism has emerged to allow the media in some countries of Latin America to play a key role in exposing abuse and keeping governments in check.

The individual contributions to this book combine to make it much more than the simple sum of its parts, examining both the successes and failures of social accountability across the region, but in particular in Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Mexico. The separate chapters by Peruzzotti and Waisbord on watchdog journalism and social accountability in Argentina are particularly valuable contributions not just to the debate on accountability, but also the burgeoning literature on the media and democracy in Latin America.

Although it is important not to overstate the relationship between the mass media and democratisation, an independent media can guarantee the accountability of government officials and can oversee or constrain the actions of the political class and parties – an important role in countries where parties and interest groups remain underdeveloped. The media also contribute to more traditional understandings of political accountability, because they provide the public with information. Without a relatively diverse and independent press, it is difficult to see how citizens can acquire sufficient information to make meaningful political choices or hold government representatives accountable.

The theoretical chapters by Przeworski and O’Donnell on horizontal accountability and the deficiencies – or otherwise – of democractic institutions in Latin America are also theoretically engaging and will be of great value to students. Enforcing the Rule of Law is a must-have books for students of democratisation, comparative politics, civil society – and, of course, Latin America. This text will become an important standard work of reference on all the above courses and its editors must be praised for the contribution that it makes.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books