THE 14TH CENTURY ARAB historian and founder of sociology, Abdul Rahman ibn Khaldun, postulated that civilizations inevitably collapse from within as a result of corruption, moral decadence, and a disintegration of the institutions of accountability.’ Four centuries later, Thomas Jefferson offered a similar warning against the abuse of unlimited powers by elected despots and foretold that there would come a time “when corruption in this . . . [land] . . . will have seized the heads of government, and be spread by them through the body of the people; when they will purchase the voices of the people, and make them pay the price.”2

In our time, these sentiments were expressed with vigor and tenacity by great freedom fighters, such as Simon Bolivar, a leader of freedom movements in South America; SunYatSen, a Chinese revolutionary; Jawaharlal Nehru, former prime minister of India; and Nelson Mandela, freedom fighter and former president of South Africa. The shared experiences of these great luminaries make it abundantly clear that a society that nurtures the self through civic engagement and guards against tyranny is a universal aspiration not confined to the East or West.

Ibn Khaldun and Thomas Jefferson would marvel at today’s plethora of institutions and mechanisms in place and designed to control power. Yet, even the most mature democracies arc susceptible to excesses. In many other places, institutionalized corruption is factored merely as a cost of doing business, thereby sapping accountability of its ethical and moral imperative.

The current crisis of accountability is deep enough to lead us to reflect upon what that term truly means. If by “accountability,” we refer to a measure of compliance with the law, we would fall short of conveying its true scope. While enforcement of the law is to yield obethence, giving rise to what we regard as law-abiding citizens, accountability exists to secure integrity in the relationships that govern and delineate society.

There are no islands of integrity from which blame can be righteously laid. Ministers, civil servants, CEOs, and NGO activists are all equally accountable to those over whom they yield power. Accountability goes beyond compliance and carries a moral imperative: Power is a trust and with it comes a responsibility that must form the bedrock of governance.

Some may see it as a contradiction in terms to waive the flag of accountability and at the same time cheer for freedom. We might summon the help of Isaiah Berlin, the eminent 20th century philosopher and historian, in resolving this matter. He argued that freedom is essentially the absence of constraints imposed by others. In his view, I am free to the degree to which no man interferes with my activities. Political liberty in this sense is the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others. In reading Berlin, however, we must not forget that his tradition of political liberalism has at its heart the need for a social contract that enables individual freedom.

It follows that a meaningful social contract must be rooted in a deal that legitimizes power and so sustains it by being held accountable for the manner in which power is exercised. There is no contradiction if we recognize that, in fact, it is not accountability, but rather the desire by those who yield power to crush and evade accountability that leads to unfreedom. In its widest sense, therefore, accountability is about civilizing power for the preservation of freedom and justice.3

In the case of unfreedom, the constraints are imposed on us by the powers that be. In the case of freedom, the constraints are imposed by us on those who hold power. Without constraints, those who hold power will gravitate toward despotism, and as Dr. Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian writer, said, an individual tyrant or a small clique of looters in power can destroy the lives and the future of whole countries and whole populations by their greed. “The consequences of these actions can be of genocidal proportions.”4
Of the billions of dollars pledged annually to support economic development, huge sums are squandered. African economies alone lose over Si 50 billion every year to corruption. Politicians and corporate executives harp on the importance of the integrity of public office and the need for corporate social responsibility while they exhibit lifestyles beyond their means.

The current malaise of poverty and environmental degradation that remains high on the agenda of almost every major multilateral conference in the world cannot simply be blamed on a lack of funds. It can be argued that unless strategies are devised to prevent the enormous leakages, abate corruption, and quell the rampant exploitation of our natural resources, the developed world and multilateral institutions will soon lose credibility in their mission to help the poor and protect the environment.

Development’s intrinsic relationship with freedom, the brilliant thesis proposed by Nobel laureate and Indian economist Amartya Sen,5 might therefore be prefaced with an even more fundamental observation of “accountability as freedom.” In spite of the strongest political will in over 50 years and the vast sums of money pledged to support poverty reduction, preventative healthcare, and education throughout the developing world, the situation in many places seems to grow worse by the day. As the Commission on Africa recently stated, “Without progress in governance, all other reforms will have limited impact.’

Accountability measures have been invented and reinvented by man since time immemorial. Herein lies proof that the challenges of governance are not static and the prosperous society, as defined not only by economic strength but also by moral excellence, must respond adeptly to new challenges of governance. It could therefore be argued that democracy is the world’s greatest accountability innovation.

A constitution represents the quintessence of the people’s compact with the state and the statement par excellence of accountability. In this compact, fundamental liberties are guaranteed and the separation of powers delineated to safeguard these guarantees through a system of checks and balances so that the holders of power are held to account for their policies and actions.

From a purely political perspective, the imposition of democracy on the Muslim world has been met with opposition, not because Muslims have an inherent disposition against freedom, but rather because popular sentiment against Western imperialism runs deep and authoritarian leaders have capitalized on distrust of the West to solidify their rule.

From an ethical position, however, freedom, and by extension accountability, is engrained in the foundational principles of governance and law. The farewell address given by Prophet Muhammad in 632 was a compelling statement that affirmed justice, equality, and the rule of law.

The later exposition of the higher objectives of the Shari’a (Islamic law), known as the maqasid of Imam Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi, a medieval Andalusian jurist, further enshrined the centrality of the preservation of religion, life, intellect, family, and wealth in Muslim society. It is worth noting the striking resemblance of the precepts of the maqasid to ideas the British philosopher and political theorist John Locke would express centuries later.

It should come as no surprise that early Muslim societies placed a high degree of importance on hisbah, the formal means of enjoining what is good and forbidding what is wrong. The Prophet himself can be seen as the archetypal muhtasib (person who practices hisbah), who, in a famous hadith, commanded the Muslims to change an evil by action, speech, or at the least, be opposed to it in principle and heart. The formal institutions oí hisbah that crystallized during the early Abbasid period and in Andalusian Spain were certainly instrumental in ushering in a Golden Age in which muhtasibs ensured confidence and integrity in commerce, healthcare, construction, public services, and taxation.

But just as Ibn Khaldun predicted the eventual decline of a civilization, it is no surprise that democracy, too, is a work in progress in countries that claim to have invented it as much as it is in those nations struggling to break the enduring chains of authoritarianism – whether there is complete media control or the presence of a media bias, whether we face blatant violations of human rights or the suspension of civil liberties, or whether corruption runs rampant and unchecked or is institutionalized.

It is during these dark moments when the ossified and stale practice of governance must be renewed and invigorated by the spirit of accountability. The crisis of legitimacy facing governments and multilateral institutions places us in a unique but not unfamiliar historical moment. Just as yesterday’s innovations were once a sign of great hope, we must reinvent accountability for the 21st century.

For many years, multilateral institutions have balked in the face of recalcitrant governments and politicians disinterested in accountability. Disillusionment and popular distrust of organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is common in developing and developed countries alike.

People’s suspicions are rooted both in the legacy of flawed policies, and, more fundamentally, in the weak stance taken on governance and accountability. For a good example, look to East Asia where the World Bank contributed to the euphoria surrounding the economic miracle of the 1990s and praised the strong performance of these economies while ignoring fundamental weaknesses of fiscal policy, corruption, and governance.
For these institutions to have a viable future, they must no longer be lured by the acquiescence of those who subscribe to the mantra of privatization, deregulation, and liberalization, and at the same time, act with impunity in denying basic human rights to their people. With no transparency or free media to report on the excesses of their rule and with a compliant judiciary, the proceeds of their economic and fiscal policies are funneled into the pockets of friends and cronies a classic example of the American social scientist and economist Mancur Olson’s “stationary bandit.”7 The nation’s wealth is squandered while the people are made to suffer for the excesses of their political masters.

It would be unfair to negate the vast contributions that multilateral institutions, such as the World Bank, have made to development around the world. But it would be unjust to ignore the loopholes and leakages that have dealt a harrowing blow to their credibility. It is imperative that these criticisms be addressed with clear and definitive measures.

Development as accountability can be a rallying cry for multilateral development organizations. By broadening the rigid technocratic and economic framework from which policy has traditionally issued, the World Bank, for example, can engage with countries on issues of how governance is tied to their development objectives. Operational innovations such as a reorientation of staff incentives, a commitment to greater disclosure, and achieving greater public participation and civic engagement are measures that have already been taken to promote governance and accountability. Through these efforts, civil society may reengage with multilateral aid agencies as allies and not view them as enemies.

Institutional change and reform must also remain high on the agenda. Multilateral organizations would benefit from establishing independent oversight bodies that are truly autonomous from the political and financial interests that grease their daily operations. This move would satisfy both aid givers and aid recipients equally disillusioned with the other’s complicity in the web of corruption and poor governance.

By demonstrating that self-reflection and evaluation, or muhasabah as espoused by al-Ghazali, is a noble trait and not just something prescribed upon others, multilateral organizations can lead the way in convincing governments and NGOs of the need to revisit accountability. In the discourse of civilizing power, we must never lose sight of the power that we ourselves yield.

As Lord Acton, a 19th century English historian, once said, authority is legitimate only by virtue of its checks, in as much as the sovereign is dependent on the subject. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that we sit on a precipice whereby the efforts of the international community to wage war on poverty, strengthen the institutions of governance, and protect the environment stand to suffer a crippling blow in the absence of measures that will reestablish its credibility and capability. This renewal, if it is to succeed, will draw on the traditions of freedom, justice, and compassion, which are shared by the great civilizations of the world.

This essay is based on the World Bank Presidential Fellows Lecture given June 19, 2006, in Washington, D.C.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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