Over the last decade, Africa has experienced previously unseen levels of economic growth and market vibrancy. Developing countries can only achieve equitable growth and reduce poverty rates, however, if they are able to make the most of their available resources. To do this, they must maximize the impact of aid from donor governments and NGOs and ensure that domestic markets continue to diversify, add jobs, and generate tax revenues. Yet, in most developing countries, there is a dearth of information available about industry profits, government spending, and policy outcomes that prevents efficient action.

ONE, an international advocacy organization, has estimated that $68.6 billion was lost in sub-Saharan Africa in 2012 due to a lack of transparency in government budgeting. This lack of available information limits the ability of both citizens and NGOs to hold governments and companies accountable, track corruption, and fight poverty. The issue is particularly salient in the sub-Saharan African Region. In the 2009 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures citizens’ perceptions of public corruption, almost all countries in sub-Saharan Africa received “poor” or “extremely poor” scores.

Transparency in government budgets, on the other hand, allows citizens to better understand which policies are working to improve development and how they can make informed choices. As Archon Fung, a Harvard Kennedy School professor and co-founder of the Transparency Policy Project, told the HPR, “it’s important that citizens demand the information they feel they need to improve their lives.” A study by Right2Info, an organization that advocates the public’s right to information, found that transparency initiatives in developing countries have led to a 20 percent reduction in the number of people hospitalized for food-related illnesses, increased flows of foreign investment, and more efficient financial markets.

For sub-Saharan Africa specifically, increased transparency in the public sector and medical and agricultural information could help combat some of the most pressing challenges to development, such as poor health services, weak agricultural production, low-quality education, and underdeveloped infrastructure. “Transparency really can make a difference,” Fung explained. “I believe that in the sub-Saharan African context, there is information that, if it were available, people could act on it to better their lives.” The key to unlocking this information may lie within the Internet and mobile technology. Recent projects have demonstrated that digital tools can enlist the eyes and ears of citizens to help spot public problems and provide citizens with resources to improve their own lives.

The Importance of Technology

Increased visibility of problems exerts pressure on politicians and other public sector actors to adjust their actions. This process is known as social monitoring, and it relies on citizens or public agencies using digital tools, such as mobile phones, Facebook, and other social media sites to spot public problems. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, traditional media companies and governments have not shown consistency in reporting on transparency issues.

New technologies offer a solution to this problem. Philip Thigo, the creator of an online and SMS platform that monitors government spending, said in an interview with Technology for Transparency, “All we are trying to do is enhance the work that [governments] do. We thought that if we could create a clear channel where communities could actually access data, then the work of government would be easier.” Networked citizen media platforms that rely on the volunteer contributions of citizens have become increasingly popular. Given that in most African countries less than 10 percent of the population has Internet access, mobile-device-based programs have proven the logical solution. About 30 percent of the population continent-wide has access to cell phones.

Lova Rakotomalala, a co-founder of an NGO in Madagascar that promotes online exposure of social grassroots projects, told the HPR, “most Malagasies will have a mobile phone and an FM radio because it helps them in their daily lives.” Rakotomalala works to provide workshops and IT training to people in regions of Madagascar where Internet access has been recently introduced. According to him, “the amount of data that we can collect from social monitoring and transparency projects will only grow in the near future. There is much room for improvement.”

Kenyan Budget Tracking Tool

The Kenyan Budget Tracking Tool is a prominent example of how social media technology can help obviate traditional transparency issues. Despite increased development assistance and foreign aid, the number of Kenyans classified as poor grew from 29 percent in the 1970s to almost 60 percent in 2000. Noticing this trend, Philip Thigo created an online and SMS platform called the Kenyan Budget Tracking Tool. The platform specifically focuses on the Constituencies Development Fund, through which members of the Kenyan parliament are able to allocate resources towards various projects, such as physical infrastructure, government offices, or new schools.

This social monitoring technology has exposed real government abuses. Thigo cited an instance where a church representative asked via SMS for information regarding a project that had supposedly been funded but actually did not exist. The incident escalated to the provincial level, at which the Church is organized. The Church representative on the budget committee was made to resign because of laxity of oversight.

Jennifer Shkabatur, who works at the World Bank’s Information & Communication Technologies department, told the HPR, “Kenya is a very interesting country because it launched the first open data policy in Africa in 2011.” And even though the policy was halted only a few years later, Shkabatur explained that the Budget Tracking Tool has made up lost ground and facilitated civilian engagement. “Technology is just another channel to encourage grassroots presence and an active civil society. Its real function is creating opportunities for citizens to get engaged in problem solving as it pertains to government.”

Saving Lives

But public transparency is not the only obstacle to development in sub-Saharan Africa. Medic Mobile, an SMS platform that connects rural communities to hard-to-reach healthcare providers, is trying to reduce the rates of disease incidence in Namitete, Malawi, a community where there are 250,000 people per single hospital. Health providers and community members can use Medic Mobile to report symptoms to the nearest clinic, receive advice about treatment, and provide information about a disease to the local community to help stop its spread. A service like this could have been hugely beneficial if it were properly utilized during the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, for example, where a lack of healthcare infrastructure severely delayed diagnoses. A clinic in Malawi recently implemented the Medic Mobile platform to prevent tuberculosis in the region. Over the six-month trial period, workers identified 130 patients needing immediate attention without having to travel to the homes of the sick, saving hospital staff over 2,000 hours of follow-up time and $3,000 in fuel.

Another mobile tool, Question Box, allows Ugandans to call or message operators who have access to a database full of information on health, agriculture, and education.

But tools like Medic Mobile and the Kenyan Budget Tracking Tool are only the first steps in solving the problems that plague corrupt governments and underdeveloped communities. Improved access to information is no substitute for good leadership. However, as Rakotomalala argued, it is an important stepping-stone. “While legally binding actions are the hammer to the nail, you need to put the proverbial nail in the right place first. That nail is transparency.”

Image Source: Wikimedia/Omaranabulsi

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