For nearly two years, government schools in the Kasungu district of Malawi faced regular shortages of textbooks and other teaching materials, affecting the students’ ability to learn.
To address the problem, a network of local civil society groups carried out a public expenditure tracking exercise last year. After filing access to information requests and following up with education authorities, the Kasungu Education Network discovered that the supplier who won the contract had already been paid for the job, despite failing to deliver the materials. In fact, the company had no prior experience in supplying school books; its core business was phone and electrical supplies. Thanks to the investigation, the company had to refund the payment.
This experience shows to me that access to information has a positive and concrete impact on communities. It is central to development, as recognised by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the African Union’s Africa Agenda 2013. When people know how to use request mechanisms, they can apply them to resolve issues in their daily lives and hold their public services accountable. A demand for information promotes responsiveness, policy reviews, and improvements in the delivery of public services.
Over the past five years, we at the Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) together with our members have been working with the African Union and other stakeholders to advocate for the adoption and implementation of right to information frameworks at both national and continental levels.
There are promising signs of progress. As of 2016, 19 African countries have right to information laws, compared to just five in 2010. However, the implementation of right to information legislation across the continent has been challenging. It is common for public institutions to deny access to information requests without providing any explanation. In other cases, confidentiality clauses can prevent public servants from disclosing the information. Furthermore, many citizens don’t understand the process, which can be long, tedious and costly.
Across all sectors, public contracting is the main channel through which governments deliver goods and services to their populations, significantly impacting the lives of ordinary people. Yet, problems such as shoddy works, inflated costs, cost overruns, collusion, secrecy, conflicts, project delays, unplanned projects and unnecessary projects continue to negatively impact value for money in public contracts.
While citizens across Africa are already using access to information requests to monitor public contacts and investigate the misappropriation of public funds, at AFIC we have recently begun working to promote better disclosure and citizen participation through a new approach: open contracting.
Because open contracting is a proactive form of disclosure — governments publish information about all stages of public deals according to a universal standard — it can help to overcome some of the common challenges presented by more passive forms of disclosure like freedom of information requests. In Nigeria, the Budeshi platform has started to open up and link budget and contracts on health centres and schools showing the power of proactively holding governments to account.
This is why we have established a working group in March to promote open contracting in Africa, with a focus on improving the implementation of national access to information laws. Convened by Seember Nyagar of the Public and Private Development Centre, we will strengthen the understanding of open contracting and programming within AFIC, support member campaigns for open contracting in respective countries, promote open contracting knowledge and experience sharing in Africa, and advance open contracting on various platforms in Africa and around the world. (A full list of the working group’s members and their Terms of Reference can be found here.)
The upcoming 3rd Open Government Partnership Africa Regional Meeting in Cape Town marks the launch of the Working Group’s campaign work with stakeholders in public, private and voluntary sectors to promote the inclusion of open contracting commitments in OGP National Action Plans. We hope you will be able to join us.
Photo Credit: GPE/Tara O’Connell (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)