The losing battle against corruption: why open data is important for Africa
The biggest disease of all is not a disease. It’s corruption. But there’s a vaccine for that too. It’s called transparency - Bono, TED 2013
As one of the inaugural open government fellows in Africa, I was delighted to be a part of the first Africa Open Data Conference in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, even more so because I got to sit on a panel discussing ‘Understanding Data Demand’ and I have come to appreciate the need for open governments through this fellowship.
So why is it important for African governments to open up data? And, in this case, data that is not simply public but that has been published in a manner that makes it easy to access and easy to compare and connect with other information?
While the economic impacts of releasing and re-using public sector information and open data have been on the forefront of arguments for opening government data, its potential to contribute to reduced levels of corruption is what I want to focus on.
Due to its nature, the scale of corruption is impossible to measure accurately but Africa is widely considered as one of the most corrupt places with majority of the countries scoring less than 50% on Transparency International’s corruption perception index. Botswana is rated as the least corrupt country in Sub-Saharan Africa. In East Africa, Rwanda scores best on the index, followed by Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Burundi and South Sudan.
Corruption became one of the main reasons given by almost all coup plotters from the 1970s onwards. Both Amin and President Museveni in Uganda listed it as one of the reasons for overthrowing the government in 1971 and 1986 respectively. In Sierra Leone, Captain Valentine Strasser also gave it as a reason for the coup. It was the same in Ghana and Mali in 1991.
Yet over the years, anti-corruption initiatives by African governments have shown very little gain despite the numerous organs created. Despite all the money and publicity invested in these campaigns, most countries on the continent still share glorious tales of roads worth millions of dollars not built, money allocated for poverty eradication or service delivery that never reached that village and worthless public equipment procured for six times their worth.
And this is where open data comes in. Access to public information and availability of open government data boosts public transparency and potentially contributes to increased levels of accountability and social control in a country. Openly and freely accessed information offers a new opportunity for increased public scrutiny and increased demands for accountability.
The best example of how data has contributed to the fight against corruption in Uganda is in how well trained members of parliament and journalists have used the Auditor General’s reports to call out graft, fraud and unjustified expenditures in the public sector. A big majority of the cases that end up in the anti-corruption court are those publicised by the Parliament of Uganda’s Public Accounts Committee.
Imagine if more citizens had access to this information, could understand it and scrutinise it. Perhaps a farmer in a rural area could confirm if that borehole was built or a young entrepreneur could check whether the public venture capital fund set up is actually accessible.
The government should be open to public scrutiny. But this can only happen if the current veil of secrecy is dropped in favour of transparency. And a number of governments are starting to appreciate this with open government data websites being set up in Tanzania and Kenya. But the entire continent needs to buy into the open data narrative, adopt the Africa Data Consensus and genuinely work towards making public information free and accessible to all citizens.