Tackling Corruption with People-Powered Data
By Sandra Prüfer
New transparency platforms are creating opportunities for marginalized communities to access and collect data and ensure inclusive growth initiatives reach the people they are supposed to help.
Informal fees plague India’s “free” maternal health services. In Nigeria, village households don’t receive the clean cookstoves their government paid for. Around the world, corruption – coupled with the inability to find and share information about it – stymies development in low-income communities.
Now, digital transparency platforms – supplemented with features illiterate and rural populations can use – make it possible for traditionally excluded groups to make their voices heard and access tools they need to grow.
Mapping Corruption Hot Spots in India
One of the problems surrounding access to information is the lack of reliable information in the first place: a popular method to create knowledge is crowdsourcing and enlisting the public to monitor and report on certain issues.
The Mera Swasthya Meri Aawaz platform, which means “Our Health, Our Voice”, is an interactive map in Uttar Pradesh launched by the Indian non-profit organization SAHAYOG. It enables women to anonymously report illicit fees charged for services at maternal health clinics using their mobile phones.
To reduce infant mortality and deaths in childbirth, the Indian government provides free prenatal care and cash incentives to use maternal health clinics, but many charge illegal fees anyway – cutting mothers off from lifesaving healthcare and inhibiting communities’ growth. An estimated 45,000 women in India died in 2015 from complications of pregnancy and childbirth – one of the highest rates of any country in the world; low-income women are disproportionately affected.
“We knew illicit fees were a problem preventing the access women could have to maternal health services,” says Yatirajula Kanaka Sandhya. SAHAYOG project coordinator. “But any time we presented cases to government officials, they were able to brush it off as being anecdotal stories.”
Mera Swasthya Meri Aawaz platform provides a way to track the extent and amount of illegal fees. Women’s anonymous reports populate the map, showing hot spots of corruption – while also identifying clinics where pregnant mothers can access healthcare for free when needed.
“Documenting illegal payment demands in real time and aggregating the data online increased governmental willingness to listen,” Sandhya says. “Because the data is linked to technology, its authenticity is not questioned.”
Following the Money in Nigeria
In Nigeria, Connected Development (CODE) also champions open data to combat corruption in infrastructure building, health and education projects. Its mission is to improve access to information and empower local communities to share data that can expose financial irregularities. Since 2012, the Abuja-based watchdog group has investigated twelve capital projects, successfully pressuring the government to release funds including $5.3 million to treat 1,500 lead-poisoned children.
“People activate us: if they know about any project that is supposed to be in their community, but isn’t, they tell us they want us to follow the money – and we’ll take it from there,” says CODE co-founder Oludotun Babayemi.
Users alert the watchdog group directly through its webpage, which publishes open-source data about development projects that are supposed to be happening, based on reports from freedom of information requests to Nigeria’s federal minister of environment, World Bank data and government press releases.
Last year, as part of their #WomenCookstoves reporting campaign, CODE revealed an apparent scam by tracking a $49.8 million government project that was supposed to purchase 750,000 clean cookstoves for rural women. Smoke inhalation diseases disproportionately affect women who spend time cooking over wood fires; according to the World Health Organization, almost 100,000 people die yearly in Nigeria from inhaling wood smoke, the country’s third biggest killer after malaria and AIDS.
“After three months, we found out that only 15 percent of the $48 million was given to the contractor – meaning there were only 45,000 cook stoves out of 750,000 in the county,” Babayemi says.
Their investigation found that the environment ministry was neither able to answer basic questions about how it is using the money allocated for the program, nor had it delivered the promised cookstoves to rural women. Because of CODE’s grassroots campaign, the government canceled the project and the contractor, Integra Renewable Energy Services Ltd., filed a lawsuit against the ministry. The Nigerian anti-corruption agency was able to locate 50 percent of the remaining funds; the rest of the money is still under investigation.
Designing for Rural and Illiterate Populations
Despite the power of digital information platforms to fight corruption, they must be made accessible to users with lower education levels and those living in rural areas.
CODE publishes its research material online and advocates on social media, but access to the Internet is very limited or nonexistent in most Nigerian villages; only a quarter of Nigerians use the internet.
“We do outreach on Twitter and Facebook with engagement and conversations, and also conduct offline advocacy through stakeholder meetings and monthly TV and radio appearances to reach those not on the internet,” Babayemi says.
To connect communities to the data, CODE’s network of 60 local reporters visit villages that have been promised specific funding and inform beneficiaries about their entitlements. “It’s important to create a link between opening this data and the people themselves,” Babayemi says.
Many women SAHAYOG serves are illiterate, so Mera Swasthya Meri Aawaz uses an interactive voice response, in which an automated voice in the local dialect greeted and guided the women through the process of making a report. A simple printed pamphlet empowered women to advocate for themselves: if a clinic demanded informal fees, the women simply showed the pamphlet to the provider that stated their rights. Without this information, Sandhya says, “they aren’t in a position to demand what is rightly theirs.”
“Technology by itself cannot create the mindset shift that’s needed to end illicit payments,” she says. Going after specific providers will not solve the problem, in her view: the system that facilitates these activities needs to change. “The digital component gives us the means, but we also have to keep putting pressure on the government.”
Published in partnership with News Deeply.