Open data and collective action: How student activists help neglected schools in Paraguay
Luiz Brizuela is an ambitious 17 year old from Paraguay’s second largest city, Ciudad del Este. The recent high school graduate dreams of studying political science or public diplomacy at college in the United States. While most students his age find it challenging enough to get good grades and decide what career to pursue, Brizuela has another passion to which he has dedicated countless hours outside class for the last two years. He volunteers for a student-run grassroots movement, reAcción, that investigates government spending on school infrastructure and uses collective action to keep the issue on the city’s public agenda.
With consistent community pressure, there has been a dramatic improvement in how funds for school facilities are allocated in Ciudad del Este over the last three years. More than 80% of the most needy schools now receive funding, compared to fewer than 20% in 2015.
Brizuela joined reAcción after meeting the group’s president, David Riveros García (then 25) at a leadership camp in 2016. He and other students visited schools earmarked to receive government funding for repairs or renovations. As a pupil at the biggest school in the region, Brizuela was shocked at how basic the facilities were elsewhere.
“We thought that we had needs, because we needed more chairs or more classrooms,” he told us. “But when we visited other schools, we realized we didn’t need this money. There’s a list of prioritized schools and those are the schools that should be getting the money.”
Except often those schools weren’t. When reAcción checked official government figures, fewer than 20% of schools selected to receive funding did so in practice (two of the 12 schools that appeared on the prioritization list in 2015).
Instead, reAcción found, there were strong indications that politics rather than need determined how funds were invested. A series of schools repeatedly received funding, despite being classified as having little need for repairs.
“We learnt that our authorities don’t allocate the money well and they don’t do it according to the law,” Brizuela said. For the schools that miss out, the students can be left in uncomfortable, unsanitary or even dangerous conditions.
One elementary school Brizuela visited didn’t have enough classrooms or drinking water. They used sandbags to prevent the dirt grounds from flooding when it rained. For years, they had been asking for something even more basic to be built: a fence for the perimeter. Without it, the principal told Brizuela, anyone could enter the school grounds, including alcoholics who would buy booze nearby and then frighten the children with aggressive behavior. Once they even broke a window.
“The director who told us this story was really scared,” Brizuela said.
There’s no shortage of other stories. Roofs have collapsed. Schools without locks have had furniture stolen or vandalized. Contractors have damaged property, leaving schools without phone lines, or fans in heatwaves. Students must use washrooms that aren’t big enough, or have broken toilets.
“We try to let people know that this is wrong,” says Brizuela, adding that the public rarely heard about these schools in the past because they’re usually in very remote areas.
But it isn’t only the community that’s left in the dark. School administrators are often helpless to act because they don’t know if their school is entitled to funding, explains another member of reAcción, 17-year-old Junior Sosa, who is known among his friends to make access to information requests in his spare time.
“Of all the administrators of schools that we visited [17 in total, from February 2017 to March 2018], only one of them knew her position on the prioritization list. Curiously, in addition to running a municipal public school, that administrator was also the president of the region’s board of [education] directors. Therefore, she knew that data because she was responsible for [choosing which schools were on] the prioritization list,” Sosa said.
In many instances, when schools do have works carried out, principals don’t have a copy of the contract, which makes it impossible for them to check whether the contractors are following the specifications. They often don’t know how to check the government’s official information online or are unaware that it exists.
“The ministry of education doesn’t train the directors, teachers and students well.” Brizuela says. “They don’t make sure they have the resources to know this information. There are some schools that don’t even have a notebook (computer) at their school.”
Instead, the 40 or so high school and university students that make up reAcción have stepped in. They teach staff, students, parents’ associations and other groups like journalists how to find the information they need about what infrastructure schools are entitled to, and to ensure contractors complete the job. They also explain the regulations so that the community has the power to demand greater accountability from authorities.
Each year, the group writes a report analyzing broad trends in the distribution of Fonacide funds, the national fund that finances local school infrastructure, development projects and other public investments with royalties from Paraguay’s Itaipu hydroelectric dam. It prepares recommendations for improvement, and invites everyone to a presentation on their findings.
The analysis is done by the university students, led by reAccion’s staff, who draw on official data from the government-run platforms that were created in recent years as part of open government and access to information reforms that aim to make public data more accessible and useful.
The most sophisticated of these is the public procurement portal, which structures important data and documents about contracts in an open, standardized format called the Open Contracting Data Standard. Since its launch in 2015, the ministry of finance has connected information on payments, allowing users to track money flows better.
In 2016, an executive decree required municipalities to publish information about Fonacide. reAcción began monitoring Fonacide funds designated for school infrastructure in 2013, before the digital platforms were available, but the data has made their monitoring faster and more efficient in subsequent years. (See reAcción’s methodology to learn more about how they conduct their analysis).
“We had two years of experience asking questions by the time the data became available,” says Riveros García. There was already an understanding in the team of how to get contracts, he says, but it could take months to get a contract through access to information requests. With the digital portals, they can analyze numerous contracts and other contracting data and match it with data from the ministry of education to produce their monitoring reports in a matter of weeks.
Before the access to information law and open data portals were established, it cost reAcción US$2,600 and took eight months to conduct their monitoring. In 2017, it took two weeks and around US$200–300.
Now, the municipality is paying attention
Open data has made the process quicker, but public pressure from the community is the main reason the municipality is paying attention to the Fonacide fund, says Riveros García.
“The data becomes a tool for translating that situation into something that can be backed by evidence from the open contracting portal and sending that to the public to harness the movement behind it.”
Although the response to reAcción of some officials from the local government has been negative, accusing the group of promoting false information and serving foreign interests, it has nevertheless taken action: the number of schools benefiting from Fonacide overall has doubled, and the government has increased its investment in the prioritized schools. In 2017, funding went to more than 80% of schools (10 of 12) on the prioritization list.
In comparison, in the capital city Asunción, where no monitoring was conducted by reAcción, there remains a large disparity between the schools earmarked to receive Fonacide funds and those that benefited from them in practice. This is despite Asunción being the country’s administrative center where open government initiatives, such as apps and open data portals, are heavily promoted.
reAcción doesn’t have the resources to monitor beyond Ciudad del Este, but they have developed a methodology that could be replicated by local groups elsewhere in Paraguay.
Recognizing the importance of community engagement (a core component of open contracting), reAcción helped citizens even when their complaints weren’t specifically about Fonacide, because they knew it would provide a benefit to their work in the long-term.
“We didn’t know we had a right to ask for that information,” observes Perla Quiroga, an architecture student who has helped to crunch the numbers for the investigations. “We are generating a positive influence on the other young people; a firm attitude against injustice.”
Their bet is starting to pay off. People trained by reAcción are using the skills to question contractors and authorities. Journalists are now carrying out their own investigations. For example, they revealed most of the companies receiving contracts had actually been sanctioned by the national procurement agency, the DNCP. Their owners were also close friends of the mayor.
“We realized there was no way to fix this if we didn’t go beyond the individual and create something bigger; to become a platform for young leaders to take the fight on and and grow in their leadership,” Riveros García said.
It may still be a long time before authorities investigate irregularities and take responsibility for the education and wellbeing of students in Ciudad del Este, but that won’t weaken reAcción’s commitment to empower citizens to make their voice heard.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, or a man or a woman, or what your religion or your sexuality is,” says Brizuela. “You can move people and you can learn about leadership; you can do things for yourself and make the place where you live better.”