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Blair Glencorse: “Accountability Incubator”

We work largely with youth — and they fill me with incredible hope for the future. The creativity, resourcefulness, and dedication of young people today is fantastic. We run something we call the “Accountability Incubator” which is like a business incubator for entrepreneurs, but for civic activists that we call “accountapreneurs”. These are all young people working […]


We work largely with youth — and they fill me with incredible hope for the future. The creativity, resourcefulness, and dedication of young people today is fantastic. We run something we call the “Accountability Incubator” which is like a business incubator for entrepreneurs, but for civic activists that we call “accountapreneurs”. These are all young people working on the front-lines of social change in developing countries, including during coronavirus. And they are doing some incredible things- from crowd-sourcing information on public services to help people better navigate healthcare in Pakistan; to making films that highlight community challenges and solutions to the pandemic in Nepal; to creating local rap songs to make people aware of the dangers of the virus in Liberia. It is really inspirational.


As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 PandemicI had the pleasure of interviewing Blair Glencorse. Blair founded and runs the Accountability Lab, an organization that makes governance work for people around the world. He has grown the lab from a one-person effort to push governments to be more accountable to their people, to a global movement that now spans 11 countries across three continents. The lab has done everything from setting up the first film-schools around these issues in Liberia and Pakistan; to mobilizing citizens to push for better public services; to running a TV show watched by millions called Integrity Icon, to “name and fame” honest government officials. During the coronavirus outbreak, Blair and his teams are countering misinformation, debunking rumors related to the response and following funding flows to hold governments to account in 6 countries across Africa and Asia. Recently the Accountability Lab won the UN’s International Anti-Corruption Excellence Award. Blair is an expert on anti-corruption at the World Economic Forum; is a member of the World Bank’s Citizen Engagement Expert Advisory Committee; and in 2020 is leading the C20 process through which he is providing inputs to G20 decision-making on behalf of global civil society organizations.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?

Thanks so much for having me as part of this amazing series. What I love about it is it is highlighting positive stories and people doing the right thing, which is very much in line with our work. “Naming and faming” is key- more on that below! But to your question, I’m from the UK originally and grew up there before spending time living in Africa and the US; and I am now based in Pakistan. When I was growing up, my mum always encouraged me to live by my values and let them guide me in my decision-making- which is one reason, I suppose, why I have ended up running an organization called the Accountability Lab- which is predicated on ideas of accountability, honesty, and integrity. I believe strongly that the change we need will not come about through changing rules and institutions alone- it has to be through shifting values and norms that guide our behaviors.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Great question. Ten years ago I was working for Ashraf Ghani who is now President of Afghanistan, and helped him research and write a book called “Fixing Failed States” which looked at how to support better governance in difficult places of the world, like Afghanistan, Haiti, and others. The process of supporting this book was life-changing for me- because it made me realize that so few of the lessons we know about how to fix problems are actually applied or adapted in the right ways. After that, I set out to set up an organization- the Accountability Lab- that could work with young people to make sure their ideas for problems would actually be used to improve the way governments function for everyone.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

One of my favorite quotes would be: “The best thing you can do with power is give it away”. I think this gets to the heart of many of the challenges we face, both in our societies but also as people that might be in the position of managing or leading an organization. We have to create environments in which we trust each other and in which we feel empowered to let others take decisions and learn from mistakes- that is the only way to grow. The coronavirus crisis is a great example- it is a healthcare emergency but it is on a deeper level a crisis of trust. We worked all the way through the Ebola outbreak in Liberia and I about these issues and how they are relevant for all of us today. In the end, Ebola was beaten because citizens and communities built on the power they had to mobilize and take care of themselves- the same will be true during this pandemic.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

We’ve worked through Ebola in Liberia as I mentioned above and through the earthquakes in Nepal in 2015. What we realized in both crises is that misinformation and rumors are as dangerous as the disasters themselves. So when COVID-19 began we pivoted quickly and our teams across seven countries (Pakistan, Nepal, South Africa, Liberia, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria) began to collect these rumors from communities and debunk them with validated information and data from trusted sources. They have been putting out bulletins in local languages almost every day- which are used by hundreds of communities to understand what is happening- from movement restrictions, to accessing government services, to the use of resources. The bulletins are also shared widely on social media and Whatsapp, and are used by local radio DJs for Q and A shows with listeners that might have questions. We then work with local power holders (like government officials) to fix problems that arise and make sure they can respond to citizens’ concerns. In Mexico we have also launched an effort called Oxigeno 2030 to provide free cellphone airtime to thousands of frontline responders so they can navigate the crisis more effectively and with the information they need.

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?

A hero isn’t necessarily someone who is out front — it can be role-models behind the scenes who are doing the right thing and pushing for justice, equity, and values-based decision-making. For me, a hero is someone who is driven by their values and understands that a strengths-based approach is the way to tackle problems- building on what exists and finding solutions even when this is incredibly difficult to do.

In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.

Perhaps I can use the example of one of our programs to illustrate this? We run a campaign called Integrity Icon — that “names and fames (sic)” honest government officials around the world. These are true public service heroes — people that are not looking for recognition but deserve it for their incredible work to serve citizens. All of them demonstrate what I think could be the five characteristics of a hero.

  1. Bravery — personified by Alphonso, a Drugs Enforcement Agency official in Liberia who arrested the President’s bodyguards for smuggling drugs, despite the impact this might have on his career.
  2. Tenacity — as personified by Batool, a young woman from a conservative part of Pakistan who is pushing back against corruption and in support of women’s rights in ways no-one has done before.
  3. Compassion — like Pradip in Nepal, who fluently learns the local languages of the places he is transferred to, so he truly understands how to communicate with people about their problems.
  4. Integrity — like policeman Francis in Nigeria who has turned down huge amounts of bribes in Nigeria because he is dedicated to serving the public good.
  5. Commitment — like Janet in Mexico, who works around the clock to make sure citizens’ problems are solved. These kinds of people are my heroes because they are doing what is right, despite the pressures to do otherwise.

If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?

I think it always comes back to values. What do we truly believe is the right thing to do? I think most of us deep-down know this- but some are more willing than others to make sure that their decision-making is always driven by these values- that is what makes them heroes.

What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?

We work in difficult parts of the world through the Accountability Lab — so sadly our teams have seen their fair share of illness, violence, and natural disasters. So in some ways we have come to understand how we can adapt to these things — and when COVID-19 began we knew we needed to pivot our work to address the challenges that would begin to arise. Within days of learning about it, we had reoriented our teams, planned our new approaches, redirected finances, and built new partnerships. This was led by our country teams on the ground in Africa, Asia, and Mexico (they are the real heroes) but I decided very early on that this was the direction we needed to take and have been supporting them to do everything we can to help our communities.

Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?

I am a fan of everyday heroes. My heroes are people who are pushing back against entrenched systems of discrimination and injustice, and pushing for accountability of those in power- to make our societies better places to live. In the US, people like Bryan Stevenson come to mind. In Africa it is investigative journalists like Anas Aremeyaw Anas who demonstrate incredible bravery taking on the powers that be. Here in Pakistan, Asma Jahangir was the embodiment of someone who lived for their values.

Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?

The impacts in terms of healthcare are obviously very scary for everyone now- particularly in developing countries where health systems are largely unable to deal with crises like this. But in the larger sense, what scares me is that the pandemic is fracturing international cooperation and coordination. We are retracting into isolated, nationalistic responses in many ways, and putting ourselves ahead of others that might be in greater need. In the long-run, this will be very dangerous and will prevent us from solving other problems too. We cannot solve this individually- the way forward is always going to be collective, so we have to find shared solutions to our common challenges.

Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain?

We work largely with youth — and they fill me with incredible hope for the future. The creativity, resourcefulness, and dedication of young people today is fantastic. We run something we call the “Accountability Incubator” which is like a business incubator for entrepreneurs, but for civic activists that we call “accountapreneurs”. These are all young people working on the front-lines of social change in developing countries, including during coronavirus. And they are doing some incredible things- from crowd-sourcing information on public services to help people better navigate healthcare in Pakistan; to making films that highlight community challenges and solutions to the pandemic in Nepal; to creating local rap songs to make people aware of the dangers of the virus in Liberia. It is really inspirational.

What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?

I’m inspired most by the ways that people are coming together to help each other. It is amazing to see some of the outpourings of generosity and support here in Pakistan, for example- often from people that have very little to give. We all need to step up and do our part not just to help people now but also to change the unequal and unfair systems that led to this crisis. The behaviors that I find most disappointing are the opposite- people who are only focusing on themselves and are turning away from others. Some of the discrimination and exclusion we are seeing during this crisis is appalling.

Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.

I think what it has done is reinforce my belief that accountability is essential. We have to work to make sure those in power in government live up to their promises and that they spend resources wisely on our behalf. Even in normal times as much as 500 billion dollars is lost annually through corruption in healthcare- imagine what is happening now with all the resources that are being spent. I also hope this crisis is forcing those working for big businesses to reassess their goals and truly commit to stakeholders rather than shareholder capitalism. The world we lived in before is no longer sustainable.

What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?

First, I’d like to see a change in the social contracts in our societies to make them fairer and more equal. This crisis has shown up the elites in many countries- who for too long have avoided taxes and refused to push for or pay for investment in public services. Governments are spending huge amounts of money on the COVID19 response- now is the time to renegotiate who pays for all of this. Second, I’d like to see a shift to a more sustainable business- if there was ever a moment to reimagine our economies to make them more environmentally friendly, this is it. Governments have huge amounts of leverage to make it happen because they are putting so much money into the business — they should use it to good effect. Finally, I’d like to see us build on many of the incredible community initiatives that have grown out of this crisis- to really use the social capital that is being created (largely in new, physically distant ways) to create new networks and solutions.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I would ask them, honestly, what it is that they would like to be remembered for; or what they would like their grandchildren to think of them in 50 years’ time. “During the coronavirus, what did you do to help save the world?” I can hear those grandchildren saying; as my generation often asked our grandparents about World War II. What do they want the answer to that question to be?

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

It would be a movement for accountability, and it has already started. Join us, everyone!

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

There are so many. Right now though, John Krasinski — his Some Good News show is very much in keeping with this series of articles and our work. He is spreading joy and bringing some light in the darkness. He is also really funny. What a legend!

How can our readers follow you online?

They can find me on Twitter and Instagram @blairglencorse, and they can read more about our work at the Accountability Lab at www.accountabilitylab.org

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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