Unexpected Collaboration: ‘Follow The Money’ Initiative and Magamba Network Keep COVID-19 Funds on Close Check in Africa
By John Masuku
Digital platforms have become critical watchdogs in closely monitoring and recording the receipt and utilization of COVID-19 funds from different donors and government budgets, amid secretiveness by public bodies. Their scrutiny boosts accountability while shortchanging of desperate beneficiaries, particularly poor communities on the African continent, is reduced.
Unusual Partnerships Monitor Pandemic Relief Funds
In Zimbabwe, Magamba Network, an independent online comedy television network, amplifies voices speaking the truth about various social, political, and economic issues including the COVID-19 health crisis. In a largely conservative and timid society Magamba Network is spearheading the local chapter of the Follow The Money initiative.
“We speak truth to power through satire. We challenge the government using humor,” says 41 year old Farai Monro, a comedian and creative director at Magamba TV, who is known by his stage name Comrade Fatso .They sometimes suffer consequences for their work, as they face pressure from officials for being outspoken about the government’s shortcomings. Memories of police arresting a Magamba TV producer in 2017 , after raiding network offices and confiscating laptops still linger, but the network has not relented in its truth telling mission.
Due to such resolve and creativity Magamba Network became trusted partners of the pan-African ‘Follow The Money’ project that keeps check on the receipt, usage and accounting of COVID-19 funds on the continent. Being a leader in Zimbabwe’s digital media world and online activism, contributed to enhancing their watchdog role. According to Monro some of their skits, interviews and news updates also help to remind authorities that the nation is watching how they receive and use the Covid-19 relief funds.
What is the ‘Follow The Money’ network?
Nigeria-based nonprofit ‘Follow The Money’ heads a crucial oversight process of compiling lists of all the funds donated to governments to minimize the spread of the virus in Africa. It is also tracking how the money is spent by monitoring donors and government agencies and their spending patterns. The project is expanding on the continent and already five countries namely Kenya, Malawi, Gambia, Cameroon, and Zimbabwe are being monitored by the organization.
“Follow The Money tries to answer where funds that have been donated to rural communities in Africa are coming from, where they are going and most importantly, how they are being utilized, particularly at the grassroots level,” according to Nigerian co-founder, Hamzat Lawal, whose group monitors actual announcements of grants and donations for low-income communities, and for transparency. They contact the government, agency, or individual responsible for the grant to provide a breakdown of how they intend to spend the money.
“We also visit these communities to find out if they have received any funding or palliatives based on the information we get from the donors. We make sure we empower them with information we have on the donation so that they are able to demand accountability from the government or agency involved in the donation,” Lawal told CNN.
Enter Magamba Network
Using one of their open data platforms, Open Parly, Magamba Network created a coronavirus public-fund website that compiles publicly available information on commitments, actual financial donations, and medical supplies released in response to the coronavirus crisis in the country. Financial donations for COVID-19 relief account for 97% of the monitored funds, the total to date being over US$76m.
How does the collaboration work?
Information on grants and donations, said Monro, in an interview conducted for this article, is collected from news sources and the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (ZIMCODD), a social-economic justice coalition established to facilitate citizens’ involvement in making public policy and practice pro-people and sustainable.
“We update and add new elements using digital means thus putting together information gathered from pronouncements, news bulletins, a variety of digital platforms so that all is in the public domain and can be tracked down to the hospitals and communities. It is not easy, because generally our government departments are not very open in giving out public information like one would experience in South Africa and some Western Countries”.
In most cases government-controlled media in Zimbabwe is generally conservative in openly and truthfully reporting the state’s mismanagement of funds but digital platforms including Magamba Network widely exposed cases such as the Draxgate scandal, in which a US$60 million Covid-19 supply contract was awarded to a shelf company called Drax without going to public tender, resulting in the health minister being dismissed from work after negative publicity on social media platforms.
Under the Magamba Network ‘Follow The Money ‘ project, Munya Dodo, the organization’s team leader, also revealed that their tracker also allows one to use Google maps to see if they would have been in a place where a COVID-19 patient has been flagged. The data comes from the Ministry of Health and is updated daily according to the latest statistics. It is aggregated according to gender, province, and source of infection, like community transmission, contact with an infected persons or public transportation.
When the Zimbabwe Parliament went on recess at the peak of the pandemic, Magamba’s Open Parly launched a campaign together with ZIMCODD in calling on Parliament to reconvene and meet virtually. The #ReconveneParly hashtag was extensively pushed through social media platforms while an open letter and an online petition were initiated where Magamba Network called on parliament to resume work so the public can scrutinize the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The government was already receiving criticism related to negligence, shortage of ventilators, and disputable reporting on the availability of drugs and the spread of infection in the country after one of the first victims, a popular young journalist had died of the COVID-19. The campaign proved to be successful.
“We ran a vigorous campaign for our parliament to reconvene because they had gone on recess at a time where they were really supposed to be interrogating the government’s COVID-19 strategy and scrutinizing budget allocations,” explained Monro.
“The next thing we will do will be for us to organize an Africa wide hackathon, basically getting developers and techies to hack together to develop and be able to expand the Follow The Money COVID-19 tracker as part of an ongoing process” said Monro, whose Open Parly is also currently partnering with ‘Bloggers of Zambia’ to establish Open Parly Zam to promote the ideals of the pan African ‘Follow The Money ‘ project.
“One finger cannot kill a louse” so goes an African proverb commonly used in Zimbabwe and other African countries, which appropriately describes the ‘Follow The Money’ collaborations. Each partner brings their own unique skills and experience to ensure the oversight of vulnerable COVID-19 funds. Although countries face different challenges in dealing with transparency, accountability, and service delivery there is still a lot to learn from each other in the long run.
“In a crisis people get scared, a lot of rumors and half-truths get spread around. That is why we see false messages and videos circulating on social media and unfounded theories about how the virus is transmitted. We are not only facing a health crisis but potentially an information crisis” said Dr. Alex Gasasira, the World Health Organization representative to Zimbabwe during virtual training on COVID-19 reporting for journalists. Gasasira’s message reinforces the importance of projects like ‘Follow The Money’ to journalists who require readily available fact checked data from credible sources since their stories need to be properly contextualized for better comprehension. If only the media is well capacitated and up to date in reporting detailed fact-checked news fast, rumors, lies and falsehoods would be averted considerably.
John Masuku is a Zimbabwe-based broadcast journalist and Executive Director of Radio Voice of the People (VOP). He is a Fellow of the CEU Democracy Institute’s Center for Media, Data and Society (CMDS) in Budapest, Hungary. John can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @john_masuku.