The struggles to get and use data on COVID-19 funds in Africa

Jorge Florez
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This blog is part of our series of reflections in the implementation of the Covid-19 Transparency and Accountability in Africa Project

In their efforts to increase transparency and accountability (T&A) on COVID-19 funds in seven African countries, our partners have carried out extensive in-country research to assess the use of public money and uncover abuse or waste. Our partners in the Covid-19 Transparency and Accountability in Africa Project have used a shared research framework and adapted it to their own context. We reflect on the factors that have motivated shifts in how people and organizations get data, how they use it, and how they leverage it to engage folks – and what this means for future work. 

Transparency and accountability in CTAP focus countries

We can begin to learn how existing transparency and accountability levels effect efforts to track public money by looking at the Africa Integrity Indicators (2021), which gives us a general sense on how the seven CTAP countries perform in transparency, accountability, and general procurement practices. Here’s what we discern:

Transparency is limited.

Transparency

Cameroon

Ghana

Kenya

Liberia

Malawi

Nigeria

Sierra Leone

In practice, the supreme audit agency releases frequent reports that are accessible to citizens.

0

75

25

0

0

25

75

In practice, citizens can access the results and documents associated with procurement contracts (full contract, proposals, execution reports, financial audits, etc.).

50

50

50

0

25

50

25

In practice, citizens can access legislative processes and documents.

50

75

75 

0

50

25

50

In practice, citizen requests for public information are effective.

25

25

25

25

25

25

25

Source: Africa Integrity Indicators, Round 9, 2021 

Transparency in focus countries remains low, with some bright spots. The three countries that perform better – Ghana, Kenya, and Sierra Leone – have some level of access to audit reports, contract information, and legislative documents. The remaining countries have very low or non-existent access to information, with a slightly less limited availability of procurement information. All countries perform poorly in terms of answering freedom of information requests.

Accountability is highly variable.

Transparency

Cameroon

Ghana

Kenya

Liberia

Malawi

Nigeria

Sierra Leone

In practice, the independence of the judiciary is guaranteed.

0

50

50

25


75

75

50

In practice, the independence of the supreme audit institution is guaranteed.

50

25

25

25

25

25

75

In practice, appointments to the body/bodies that investigate/s allegations of public sector corruption support/s the independence of the body.

25

50

75 

25

25

50

50

In practice, allegations of corruption against senior level politicians and/or civil servants of any level are investigated by an independent body.

25

25

75

25

25

50

75

In practice, the body/bodies that investigate/s allegations of public sector corruption is/are effective.

50

25

50

25

50

50

75

Source: Africa Integrity Indicators, Round 9, 2021 

Accountability across focus countries varies widely, with Sierra Leone performing well, Kenya and Nigeria performing average, and the remaining countries poorly. With some exceptions there are concerning trends in terms of independence of accountability bodies and audit institutions, as well as low prosecution of politicians or civil servants and effectiveness in these investigations.

Procurement processes are weak and it’s hard to assess if there’s political influence on them.

Procurement

Cameroon

Ghana

Kenya

Liberia

Malawi

Nigeria

Sierra Leone

In practice, major public procurements involve competitive bidding.

50

50

50

25

50

50

50

In practice, companies found guilty of violating procurement regulations are prohibited from participating in future bids.

50

25

25

0

0

50

0

  In practice, civil servants' work is not compromised by political interference.

25

25

50

0

25

50

50

  In practice, the asset disclosure process for senior officials of the three branches of government (heads of state and government, ministers, members of Parliament, judges, etc.) is effective.

0

0

0

25

25

0

0

  In practice, the asset disclosure process for members of the civil service is effective.

0

0

0

0

25

0

0

Source: Africa Integrity Indicators, Round 9, 2021 

All of our focus countries have, in practice, weak procurement processes with poor requirements for competitive bidding and little or non-existing sanctions to companies that have engaged in corruption or misuse of public money. There are also few mechanisms to prevent undue influence by political elites, and almost non-existing information on asset disclosure for politicians and civil servants.   

What are we learning about working across these contexts?

Incentives have not been enough to change government’s practices

In the wake of the pandemic, countries committed to improving transparency and accountability as part of receiving multilateral funding. These commitments often included the publication of procurement information including beneficial owners of companies winning bids; the introduction of improvement in budgeting and reporting processes such as creation of COVID-19 focused accounts, budget lines, and reconciliation practices; and carrying out and publishing audits (more on commitments and progress meeting them here and in this tracker). 

These commitments have led to the enactment of regulations, the production of guidelines, some changes in internal practices, and in limited cases the publication of information and audit reports. The International Budget Partnership’s rapid assessment found that in our focus countries transparency has been limited, oversight has been weak and mostly led by legislatures, and citizen participation in decisions and oversight of COVID funds has been minimal (see table below). 

Cameroon

Ghana

Kenya

Liberia

Malawi

Nigeria

Sierra Leone

TRANSPARENCY

Limited

Limited

Limited

Limited

Minimal

Some

Some

OVERSIGHT

Some

Limited

Adequate

Limited

Minimal

Some

Some

PARTICIPATION

Minimal

Minimal

Minimal

Minimal

Minimal

Minimal

Minimal

Source: Managing Covid Funds: the accountability gap, IBP, 2021

The experience of our partners resonates with these findings (as seen in  a cross country summary here and summary by country here). In the cases where our partners have seen some government actions to improve transparency the results are limited, including incomplete lists of contracts, unreadable scans of documents, or broken links, and outdated information. There have been some government actions with regards to accountability, but these actions have most commonly come about as a result of political incentives generated through media scandals and citizen mobilization. Examples of this include the termination of public officials in Liberia and Malawi due to mismanagement of COVID funds, and the initiation of investigations in Sierra leone and Kenya for similar situations.

Their experiences show that many changes on paper, like regulations and guidelines, fail to be implemented in practice, and even when implemented, the quality and coverage of the data published leaves much to be desired and/or publication is not sustained.    

There are many ways to get information but they come with significant costs  

The lack of sustained change in government transparency and accountability in managing public resources is not a surprise in governance and anticorruption work. We had hoped to see governments improving access to information and accountability in the use of public resources in the light of the pandemic, but we set in place two ways to deal with this foreseeable challenge from the get go:

  • Gathering and publishing data on COVID-19 international and local donations (here) to enable us to track the money that governments received to handle the pandemic, and
  • Envisioning the first phase of CTAP as an opportunity to learn about the challenges specific to each country, test different ways to overcome them, and craft agendas that local and regional coalitions can use to advocate for and guide collaboration with governments to bring about sustainable change.

In designing this project, we have identified the kinds of strategies that might improve citizen engagement and advocacy, as well as test methods to navigate not only a lack of transparency but active efforts by governments to block access to information – such as the use of military ordinances in Cameroon. Our partners are currently testing the following strategies:

  • Pursuing public reports as leads for further investigation. In Kenya, audit results have allowed our partners to focus on a clear list of programmes and issues to guide their research.
  • Collaborating with other CSOs, universities, and journalists. In Cameroon a vibrant network of stakeholders has used the partial information and government statements to promote dialogue and demand more details and effective action.
  • Creating relationships with government agencies and public officials to access data on programs and service delivery. In Sierra Leone, partners have targeted specific local and national government agencies to request details on their allocation and use of COVID resources in order to inform action. 
  • Using personal narratives to question government plans and/or official data. In Liberia, partners have used individuals’ stories to check on the effectiveness of service delivery and use this evidence to engage the government agencies in charge. 
  • Carrying out citizen-led audits of service delivery to question policy and recommend changes. In Nigeria, partners have checked local health centers across the country finding that many are in no condition to deliver services, let alone store and deliver vaccines.       

The data obtained through these practices does not make up for official data, given that the results of this work can be questioned or ignored by authorities. Using these alternative methods requires much more energy from our partners – especially under the current situation. They often have to go meet frontline workers and invest a lot of time in creating trust so these workers can overcome the fear of repercussions and provide information on budgets, procurement, and service delivery. There is also additional effort that needs to be invested in data validation and triangulation of findings with other relevant sources in order to build clear evidence to inform advocacy and engagement.

Photo credit to CODE/Jide Ojediran

Effective use of data requires engagement and citizen mobilization 

The journey to fight corruption and improve service delivery in response to COVID-19 does not end with getting information. Once our partners have used some of the strategies above they still need to invest time and effort in building relevant relationships at the local level, repackaging the information in ways that citizens can relate to and act upon, and disseminate this information in ways that lead to increased citizen engagement and action. These matters of coalition building, communications, and service delivery tracking are covered in detail in upcoming entries in this series, the following are some examples of the approaches partners are using.

  • Coordinating activities with other country level stakeholders has allowed partners to share existing information, avoid duplication, and generate credibility. In Cameroon, having several partners disseminating information has helped to avoid government’s dismissal of findings.
  • Exchanging knowledge and experience with peers has created opportunities to widen networks and improve techniques. In Nigeria, Malawi, Sierra Leone and Kenya, partners have created communities of practice to improve dissemination of findings and advocacy.
  • Using independent and community media to increase public dialogue about findings and raise the salience of citizen demands. In Kenya, our partners have regular community radio programs that they disseminate through their networks covering slums and local communities.
  • Building on existing social accountability efforts such as Tracka and Follow the Money networks. In Nigeria, and across countries, our partners have relied on their extensive networks of volunteers to track the completion of projects and the delivery of services.
  • Disseminating engaging stories that bring citizen voices about service delivery, or the lack thereof, and its consequences to the forefront. Several of our partners are producing short documentaries to make clear the impact of COVID-19 in vulnerable groups and demand government action.

Engagement and citizen mobilization has also been a key strategy to navigate closing civic space. Tapping into CSO networks and building trust enables partners to deal with government censorship and with the fear that many citizens feel when thinking about raising their voice. Government censorship has gotten worse over the years (see graph below with the evolution of online censorship according to the Africa Integrity Indicators). Emergency laws have become convenient to conceal information, block civil society work or make the data dissemination and dialogue harder. This is exemplified by the twitter ban in Nigeria, the arrest of Yussif Abdul-Ganiyu for covering COVID-19 measures in Ghana, and the use of military ordinance to cast a shadow over the use of public resources in Cameroon.

Why this matters

Poor transparency and accountability by governments doesn’t only create opportunities for corruption, it places the burden of identifying mismanagement and improving development results on the same citizens that should benefit from domestic and international resources and donations.

Partners are using the lessons and reflection we have got so far to carry out coalition meetings,  identify clear areas of opportunity, and develop joint and targeted advocacy strategies that can lead to actual change in how governments continue to respond to COVID-19 and pave the way to economic and social recovery. 

Jorge Florez
Jorge Florez
Manager, Fiscal Governance

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