Tackling corruption in Africa: Can OGP shine a light?

  • My mother: “It is already winter in Paris. If you think whatever you are going there to do is not valuable, please don’t go”.
  • Me: “It is valuable. OGP is the place where countries who want to do better for their citizens come together.”
  • My mother: “Are they the same group you said will help reduce corruption?”

I do not recall the details of the earlier conversation in which I told my mother that OGP will reduce corruption. I believe the OGP can provide “an international platform for domestic reformers committed to making their governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens.” I’ve worked with the OGP since day one. And that is why my mother’s question is now a personal challenge. Is this a group that will truly tackle corruption in Africa?

What’s at stake?

A study by the One Campaign says one trillion US dollars is siphoned out of the world’s poorest countries each year as a result of corruption. A trillion is a big number. If each of the 1.1 billion people living in Africa were to split that total equally, we would each get over $75 every month, more than $2 a day!

But - in contrast to the opportunity - is the scale of the challenge. Transparency International’s study shows that nearly 75 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa are estimated to have paid a bribe in 2015 – some to escape punishment by the police or courts, but many were forced to pay to get access to the basic services that they desperately need, and are rightfully entitled to.

The darkness and the light

Corruption is not just bribery. It is “darkness” diffused in many ways: ranging from “small favours” to huge budget misappropriations. In Africa, where “paper” often replaces what can be done online, we find the same darkness, and it is sometimes easier to hide.  Everywhere around the world though, the pattern is the same. The less light, the more darkness.The less open, the more corrupt.  The more paper, the more payment is required.

This highlights the critical role of opening up data in government as a key element in addressing the challenge of  corruption. Reducing corruption in Africa, or anywhere else, largely depends on whether data is being used to shine a light on government’s workings. Is data open or hidden, online or on paper, freely accessible or buried in bureaucracy? Can we use data to find out important facts - like who is contracting with the government, who is the ultimate beneficial owner of a company and how is spending in sectors such as education and health distributed?

 One campaing.png

Some light on the African OGP countries

African OGP members are a diverse lot: scattered across the continent, with many differences in language, economy and customs. I have been privileged to “touch the ground” in almost all of the eleven African countries that have signed up to OGP, and I have lived in four of them: Nigeria, Ghana, Tunisia and Côte d’Ivoire.  OGP’s reach across the continent is broad. The latest available population censuses show that at least 420 million, or one in every three Africans, live in OGP countries.   

But despite this, the scope for progress on open data and open government is clear.

Of the eleven OGP countries, seven were featured in the Web Foundation’s 2015 Open Data Barometer. No African OGP member, nor any African country, was among the first forty of the ninety countries studied. Meanwhile, public opinion in these countries confirms, as seen in the Afrobarometer surveys, that citizens are expecting more from their governments - in governance, in participation, in rights.

This seems to correspond with  the Independent Review Mechanism of OGP on its core values. The values of OGP have all declined since 2011, with public accountability dipping lowest at 25%. Over all, none of the key values has risen above 75%.

 OGP changes in value pattern.JPG

No longer business as usual

Poverty and inequality is rife in Africa, yes, but it is no longer business as usual. The world wide web has become a critical tool for challenging governance and norms like never before. The use of social media and the web by citizens to access information, build participation and demand accountability has become an unstoppable tide. The poverty and inequality created by corruption needs to be exposed and reduced, and the web and social media can help. Rather than trying to control the web with internet shutdowns and censorship, governments should rather embrace how new technologies can help them build a closer relationship with their people, and serve them better.

As President Obama put it,

“This inequality now constitutes one of the greatest challenges to our economies and to our democracies. An inequality that was once tolerated because people didn’t know how unequal things were now won’t be tolerated because everybody has a cellphone and can see how unequal things are. The awareness that people have in the smallest African village means they can see how people in London or New York are living.”

Where/who are the reformers?

I want to use this blog post to seek out the reformers in Africa. Commitments and engagements are one thing, but on-the-ground implementation and impact on lives is another. Web Foundation research on the  true prevalence and impact of open data initiatives shows that in cases where commitment is apparent at the highest levels of government, such commitments are not penetrating the working machinery of governments in Africa.  

We need more on the ground actors. Those who, like in South Africa, will analyse budget data, find extra funding, and work to make sure the extra is used to increase the number of children receiving support from 1.9 million  to 11.1million in 13 years. Can we have more like the Vihiga Council in Kenya, who through increased accountability and better management of public funds curbed corruption by 20%? Can we get more African countries like Sierra Leone to commit to globally accepted open data principles and join the Open Data Charter?

Where do we go from Paris?

The Paris summit, is committing to:

  1. make the public contracting process open by default,  by publishing contract and contracting information, according to open data standards, to help tackle corruption;
  2. reduce the opacity around corporate ownership, limit fraud and minimize conflict of interest by collecting accurate, adequate, and timely basic and beneficial ownership information;
  3. Data driven approaches to expose and fight corruption;
  4. improve the health, education and wellbeing of citizens by increasing the accountability and responsiveness of the public services that are delivered to them; and
  5. adopt and effectively implement the principles of the Open Data Charter by bringing these into their national action plans.

If OGP members translate these principles into action, and more local groups are inspired and equipped to make on-the-ground change a reality, then I can go home, face my mother and tell her “Yes, OGP is helping to reduce corruption in Africa”.


Authors: Nnenna Nwakanma