Interview with Action 4 Transparency project lead
A new anti-corruption app, Action 4 Transparency, has been launched in Uganda this month. It is the result of a collaboration between civil society organisations and media organisations – a rare coupling. Rowan Emslie spoke to the project lead, Gerald Businge, about how the app came to be.
Rowan Emslie: I was very excited to read about this new app particularly as I saw that there was a media organisation and civil society organisation involved. How did you get involved in this project?
Gerald Businge: I got interested in digital media – I studied digital journalism in my post-grad. I am also an entrepreneur so I started a number of things, and one of the things I developed was a corruption reporting tool using Ushahidi. I gave that proposal to Transparency International. When Fojo Media Institute, sort of the mother of this project, came looking for people to implement the project those guys came to me and asked me to help out and coordinate.
Transparency International are the funders then?
GB: No it’s funded by the Swedish Government and it’s led by the Fojo Media Institute, which is situated in Sweden. The local partners are Transparency International Uganda, the Ugandan Media Development Foundation (UMDF) and the African Centre for Media Excellence [ACME].
How exactly does it all work?
There are a lot of cases of corruption in Uganda – just like many other countries. A lot of institutions have been put in place to fight corruption. A lot of efforts to provide accountability and to avail data are ongoing here in Uganda but still most of the citizens do not know about this information. And even those who know or hear about corruption that they want to report, many of them fear to report anything.
Our project is trying to solve those issues. Firstly by trying to provide disaggregated data – to break down data to the smallest unit of expenditure and show people ‘this is the money you’re missing’. Then we’ll work with different community people so that people can know what rights they have. Then through the app, we provide a safe and secure way for them to report. People can report anonymously or they can put their name down if they want.
What do you anticipate will be done with these reports?
As you already know, we are three main partners here in Uganda. Our job, as the UMDF, is first of all overall coordination: through the engagement with the community organizers, through talking with the media to spread information about the project. It was ACME who provided the training for the people who were going to check out the information gathered through the app.
We expect Transparency International to follow up these reports with the relevant authorities and take the necessary actions in terms of advocacy. They need to make sure that, where issues have arisen, they take it up with relevant government office so that action is actually taken.
ACME was providing journalistic training?
This was a consultative project. We sat down and designed a training programme so that the community organizers could, first of all, assess information. They need to work out why one district is getting more money, or any money – is it because of population difference, for example? They must be able to analyse and then communicate this kind of information.
There are many people who know about something but don’t communicate it. The training must give people that kind of courage.
Tell them about their rights – Uganda has an access to information act and a lot of other provisions to enable this to be implementable. But, still, few people can confidently go out and ask for information. So this training was half about showing people the effects of corruption, telling people about how to access data and how to analyse it; the other half was about their general rights and responsibility to report corruption.
I used to work on access to information projects with an NGO out in Nairobi. We had very little cooperation with media organisation – do you know why it was Fojo wanted to have media organisations involved? I mean, I think it’s a good idea, it’s just relatively unusual.
This is actually tech innovation, using technology tools to fight corruption. But we understand that, over here in Uganda at least, the media are still important – they are powerhouses. Without working with them you at a close level won’t be able to have a successful project. First of all, we’re trying to tell people that they data is available that’s not something you can tell people in one day! We need to keep people aware over time. Also, journalists themselves benefit from having the ability to access data in their reporting.
If journalists are able analyse this information and use it in their stories it would go a long way towards promoting accountability of these funds.
And all sorts of other issues that come along with that: whether the money is enough, who is in charge of it, whether it has arrived in time… Then, of course, also, for reporting [from the app] we need consistent information so we approached media house because, you know, we can’t advertise – this isn’t a commercial product. If we work with media houses they can commit more time and resources to investigating the data then we can.
What input have you had from any government officials?
Actually, we’ve been working with the Ministry of Finance since we started, especially the Monitoring Unit. They help give us the data but… you know, Ministries are very difficult organisations to negotiate with. It can take 6 months, 7 months to get data. It hasn’t been easy. Even now: the Minister might tell you ‘go to this file in this room’ but you just move around in circles. Of course, the fact that we had that primary cooperation – they assured us that they could give us the data – has been very useful. For us, the problem has come when they track the information at the district level – it doesn’t mean anything to the general public. When you say ‘money for the local school’ or ‘the local health centre’, things in their own experience, then they can monitor whether those funds have been utilised properly.
So it’s important to frame the issue in a narrative, rather than just giving people the numbers?
Have you noticed any difficulties between the partners – say with Transparency International being an NGO? Any difference in ways of working?
Nothing too bad. Of course, there are lapses here and there. Like, the issues come in piecemeal so we can’t expect them follow up on these early reports. There is some weird reports that come in! The government tells us they’re sending money to a school directly then you get a report from a headmaster saying that they have not received money for a whole year. Ideally, Transparency International would go and find out if it’s really true. It’s hard for us as a project to investigate these individual claims and yet people can respond very negatively, as though we are ignoring their issue.
How do you think you can get around that? I guess the responding is the bit that you don’t know too much about yet.
This is a pilot project. We want to be able to get a contact in the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health because those departments tend to have the largest budgets. Once we have real contacts who are in charge of sending money then we are able to check claims more easily – if our contact has access to the bank accounts then we can quickly see proof. We’ve found that mostly people at the Ministries will say they don’t know details. They just say that money was sent but whether it was sent to every school or if a school has accounting problems and the funds bounced back – there are so many issues in the middle that people do not know about. We need more inroads at the ministry and at the district to let us know what exactly has happened so we can feed that back to the population.
That has been a big issue in the past. People feel when they report, nothing is done, they get no feedback or follow up. If we repeat the same mistake then the project will fail.