Originally published on the 22nd of August. Videos of this content can be found on this link https://civichive.org/account-for-covid/
The urgent nature of Covid-19 has resulted in the allocation of millions of dollars to governments across the world in order to successfully combat COVID-19 and to cushion the most vulnerable populations. Corruption in public spending is and has always been a significant global governance challenge before the crisis, but the COVID-19 pandemic has increased opportunities for abuse and misappropriation of Covid-19 public funds due to the quick nature of disbursements and the loosening of oversight regulations in order to meet urgent needs. This has heightened the importance of adapting and strengthening local governance accountability and oversight strategies by accountability actors. As such the civic actors are having to devise anti-corruption strategies to combat Covid-19 related corruption. The Account4Covid initiative recently facilitated a webinar to shed more light on what civic efforts are doing to expose and fight COVID-19 related corruption.
Webinar presentations by accountability actors highlighted examples depicting the nature of Covid-19 corruption. A common denominator between the various cases is the misuse of power and political influence to misdirect resources intended to provide relief from the impacts of the pandemic to the most vulnerable. Another important thread knitting them together is the involvement of civil society actors in exposing and unravelling the webs of graft, money laundering and patronage. This, in part, is achieved through various interventions aimed at publicising allocations and tracking expenditure. The second #Account4COVID webinar brought together speakers from across the African continent to fix a lens on their experiences in implementing anti-corruption strategies.
COVID-19 has not only exacerbated weaknesses in African states’ public financial management (PFM) systems but in some cases has curtailed the abilities of many citizens and elected representatives to exert much-needed accountability and oversight. The pandemic has vividly exposed recurrent and novel corrupt practices as more and more questions are asked and closer scrutiny of the public service is undertaken by some media, civil society organisations and funding entities. How often have we heard the relatable lament that ‘COVID-19 is more than just a health crisis’? The Hansel and Gretel-esque nature of tracking COVID-19 resources is increasingly highlighting this truism. Our interventions, therefore, must – if we are to safeguard precious resources in the long-term – recognise that the problem is both about adequate health responses as it is about public resource management (PRM) systems reform.
The consequences of continued failures to stem corruption are dire; the lives of hundreds of Africans are at stake.
Amongst the #Account4COVID initiative partners is BudgIT – one of the continent’s foremost civic tech fiscal transparency organizations based in Nigeria. Founding Director, Oluseun Onigbinde facilitated the conversation – beginning by highlighting the overarching challenges introduced by COVID-19 and related emergency spending and procurement complexities. A fundamental reminder foregrounding this all – is that there are numerous dedicated, innovative civil society leaders in Africa who are committed to address corruption within the public and private sectors squarely. And their approaches are as inspiring as they are varied.
Gilbert Sedungwa, the Executive Director of the Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC), shared examples of graft in Zimbabwe, Cameroon and Uganda. His presentation emphasised that corruption related to COVID-19 need not be seen – or treated – as events that are geographically isolated or unique is a reminder of the need to deeply interrogate the systemic enablers of corruption particularly in emergency contexts. Notably – at the time of writing this article – Nigeria (US$ 3.4 billion) and South Africa (US$ 4.3) had received the two highest loan disbursements from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) out of a total of US$ 50.9 billion to African countries. The loan to South Africa, according to Bloomberg, constitutes the IMF’s largest single disbursement to any country to date.
Sedungwa cited a range of factors contributing to corruption in countries like Uganda and Mali including lack of transparency in public procurement, flouting of regulations and weak/non-existent internal controls within government implementing agencies. The innovations in response? AFIC have taken some steps to monitor international loans targeted at providing COVID-19 relief across Africa using a Relief Fund tracker. AFIC has developed: a continental dashboard to track procurement red flags as well as a separate dashboard for tracking COVID-19 support. In addition, AFIC has created a helpful checklist for proactive disclosures and monitoring of Covid-19 contracts. In addition, AFIC’s partnerships with entities such as the Ghana Anti-Corruption Coalition (GACC) and Centre for Human Rights Rehabilitation are monitoring the implementation of civic engagement commitments in World Bank supported Covid-19 response projects in Malawi, Ghana, Nigeria, and Uganda.
Leonida Mutuku, CEO of Intelipro Limited shared insights in her capacity as a member of the Africa Open Data Network based in Kenya. Her presentation highlighted the challenge of pandemic-profeetering, a label which refers to private actors’ problematic & unethical business practice driven by self-interest for profiteering during a pandemic. Some common examples of pandemic profeetering include the procurement and supply of Test Kits, PPE’s, Test-Kits Reagents at inflated prices. Mukutu emphasised the need for CSOs to ensure that their governments account for and explain their allocation and use of COVID-19 funds. In addition to touting the centrality of
open budget portals in order to track funds and expose possible misuse, Mutuku emphasised the need to combine open data initiatives with efforts to enhance the effectiveness of judicial systems. High on the priority list are functional open contracting portals in order to support forensic investigations and strengthen transparency in beneficial ownership . An important message here is that open data is merely a means to an end – not an end in itself. Mutuku shared the example of the Action for Transparency (A4T), pioneering project that fights corruption and mismanagement of government funds using mobile apps, social media platforms as well as ICT platforms
COVID-19 is often likened to natural disasters. Cyclone Idai – rated as one of most severe cyclones to ever make landfall in Africa – presented several countries in the region with a range of horrific lessons. Not least of these lessons pertains to the cost to livelihoods of countries’ inadequate disaster preparedness and management. In her presentation, Janet Zhou, the Executive Director of the The Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (ZIMCODD) described a civil society initiative coordinated by ZIMCODD to track all resources pledged, received and utilised by the government of Zimbabwe in the COVID-19 response. According to Zhou, the tool tracks cash and in-kind resources mobilised domestically and internationally. Publishing weekly updates, ZIMCODD’s Tracker provides information about resources directly or indirectly received by the government. The Tracker was developed using financial modelling with the aim of ensuring prudent stewardship of resources mobilised for national pandemic relief; tracking cash and in-kind resources
Zhou’s organisation persistently raises the lack of transparency and accountability in COVID-19 resource allocation and expenditure at both central and local government level as a concern. They raise, too, the interwoven nature of opaque reporting to systemic corruption particularly evident during times of disaster. Perhaps even more perniciously is the criminalisation of anti-corruption activists which in turn impacts citizens’ oversight and questioning of the allocation and spending of COVID-19 funds.
The role of civic tech tools and universal online connectivity is clearly vital.
Nathalie Sidibe, the founder of an anti-corruption platform focused her presentation on development aid transparency in Mali in which she highlighted the value of web-based tools. Stating that the francophone country lacks open data platforms on relief funds, Sidibe identified opportunities for developing existing platforms such as SaidMali and to monitor fiscal flows in Mali. Using the example of an open data initiative using geospatial data to provide users with information about health facilities providing screening, testing and other services – she also advocated for using this data to inform future need-based health infrastructure development in Mali.
There are clear threads weaving these pan-African interventions together. Firstly – access to information and open data where it is available is vital. Governments should proactively disclose procurement and contract data on Covid-19 response projects. Civil society organisations, too, should use already existing data to track and publicise maladministration and fraud.
A critical reminder from Sedungwa; development partners should emulate the IMF in disclosing Covid-19 support. We would add to that the need to publicise and raise awareness about loan conditions. Ensuring that the public have access to information pertaining to loans and projects should be a priority for governments and development partners alike. Similar to Mtuku’s, Zhou’s organization advocates for the urgent enactment of “fit-for-purpose whistle-blowers’ protection legislation” as a mechanism to enhance and promote reporting of crime in the public finance and economic sectors.
To date – our dialogues with frontline anti-corruptions activists illustrate not only the need to establish the terms of engagement in policy and politics – but to establish multi-pronged interventions that place access to information at the centre. We are reminded just how important the triad of transparency, accountability, and public participation (TAP) is. By involving those most affected by failures in public resource management, countries may be in a better position to adapt and strengthen their local TAP strategies particularly regarding the efficient allocation of limited resources.
This, therefore, is an opportunity not only to acknowledge the weaknesses in key planning, budgeting, and oversight systems but to utilize open government interventions to address them. TAP strategies remain critical to solving many of these challenges as well as in bolstering our health broader fiscal governance systems.
DETAILS FOR MEDIA
Since April 2020, Accountability Lab, AfroLeadership, BudgIT, Global Integrity and the Public Service Accountability Monitor have brought together various partners in Africa to share lessons in responding to accountability and governance challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. The #Account4COVID initiative aims to promote greater accountability, civic inclusion and transparency in COVID-19 relief funds.
For more information on this initiative – visit the #Account4COVID microsite: https://civichive.org/account-for-covid/
Gilbert Sedungwa, Executive Director of Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC), video presentation;
Leonida Mutuku, CEO of Intelipro Kenya and member of the African Open Data Network (AODN), video presentation;
Janet Zhou, Executive Director of ZIMCODD, video presentation;
Nathalie Sidibe, founder of Suivi de l’Aide au Développement (Said), video presentation.