Transparent Money

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This blog post is an analysis of an article from The Economist Magazine (Nov 4-10).

Open government, where government publishes budget documentation on expenditure – primarily online, has taken time to gain traction but is gathering momentum worldwide. As more countries and organizations join the information transparency club, Warren Krafchick of the International Budget Partnership (IBP) believes political will is the primary hurdle to full compliance. A survey of African states by IBP showed that 24 national governments already publish the 58 documents required. Liberia, an opponent in the past, began publishing budget documents online in 2008 and has gone further by erecting an electronic billboard outside its Ministry of Finance in Monrovia for public viewing.

In countries like Nigeria and Mexico, the data is used by groups and organizations to hold governments accountable and highlight ineffective use of finances. BudgIT, a Nigeria-based group, uses budget data in infographic form to illustrate how the $144 billion from oil revenue money can be channeled to paying fertilizer costs for 14m farmers or provide free university tuition for 1.5m students. Mexico’s Fundar, a think-tank, highlighted the growing discrepancy in distribution between rich and poor states by exposing the Procampo farm-subsidy’s allocation favoritism to rich states.

Lack of openness can negatively affect governments: the International Monetary Fund (IMF) published a study in 2012 linking the absence of financial openness and scrutiny to reduced lender credibility. Ironically, the same IMF’s openness track record is not stellar: it ranks 28th out of 67 donor organizations for aid programme transparency – the Millennium Challenge Corporation ranks 1st.

Open government (OG) rest on three pillars, namely – transparency, participation and accessibility: transparency of public body activities, public participation in policy debate and decision-making, and accountability of government bodies to the public. In furtherance of OG, governments pass Freedom of Information (FoI) acts and join international partnership bodies. President Jonathan passed the Freedom of Information Act in 2011, granting the public access to information and protection for whistleblowers. Nigeria is not a member of the Open Government Partnership which aims to “foster a global culture of open government that empowers and delivers for citizens, and advances the ideals of open and participatory 21st century government”. Certain questions arise:

What use is it if governments publicize information but no one reviews and asks questions? OG rests on the assumption that transparency will lead to scrutiny – monitoring – which will bring about accountability and participation. The assumption has been correct as in the examples given in the article. But Nigeria has the opposite: the public has been reviewing the limited information provided, asking questions and requesting answers, yet there has been little government response.

What use is publicizing information if the intended public does not understand what is being shown? Budgets and financial information can be complex. This is where civil society interaction has played a significant role. Civil society organizations are engaging with the information in innovative ways.

Is there a danger of too much information? At this present moment, when the Nigerian government has repeatedly failed to furnish the bare minimum, this question is moot.

If the Nigerian government was truly committed to open governance, it would be proactive rather than reactive, and would actively publish the information before it is requested. Currently, even with FoI requests, journalists and members of public are often not granted access to such information. Making the national budget accessible for all is a red light measure – the minimum, and specifics of how each Ministry, Department, Agency and other initiatives account for the monies should be made public. Today, we cannot say for sure the salaries and perks of National Assembly members, despite the public clamor and pressure for access and the government’s commitment to OG.

The secrecy surrounding public expenditures and monopoly of information allows for the corruption cycle to continue, paves the way for black market activities to rise (based on the monopoly of information by the government) and can create havoc for the media in establishing and maintaining credibility.

As such, public information should be public, and the government must comply with the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act as mandated. There is no need strengthening the Act if it has not been implemented to full capacity. Finally, the government must hasten its transition to e-systems in order to respond quicker to public demands-within 7 days as stipulated by the FoI.

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