WATCHDOGS

Data transparency is being used to tackle Nigeria’s corruption problem one report at a time

Obsession
Africa Innovators
Quartz africa
Obsession
Africa Innovators
Quartz africa

For years, stories of major corruption in Nigeria’s government, at federal and state levels have filled the pages local media. One factor in fueling corruption, as well as its perception, has been entrenched opacity and limited access to information on government spending. But that’s starting to change with a crop of organizations focused on analyzing government through the lenses of data rather than rhetoric.

One of those is BudgIT, a six-year old Nigerian civic social enterprise which started operations incubated at Co-Creation Hub, a leading technology hub in Lagos. BudgIT has been at the forefront of campaigns to improve transparency and accountability in government. It has focused on ensuring information on government budgets and spending is more easily accessed by Nigerians through its published reports and infographics.

Its work has won the conviction of Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm and The Gates Foundation which both decided to back BudgIT to the tune of $3 million late last year.

Organizations like Omidyar Network and the Gates Foundation have been keen to invest in social enterprises in Africa to help build capacity to support local development and democratic institutions. There has long been concerns by everyone from financial investors to non-governmental organizations that there is a lack of transparency and data with many institutions in Africa, particularly in government, leading to poor decision-making.

Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, ranks number 136 out of 176 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception index with a lowly 28/100 score. “The people of Nigeria are suffering from the economic downturn. They need to know that the government is using all of its resources to benefit public services,” said Chantal Uwimana, director of Africa for Transparency International.

That’s where organizations like BudgIT come in.

Oluseun Onigbinde, co-founder of BudgIT says the new funds will be dedicated to deepening BudgIT’s work with Nigeria’s 36 states. To do this, BudgIT will be expanding one its projects, Tracka, an online tool which allows citizens to “collaborate and track capital projects in their community.” “Less than 20%” of community projects with budgetary allocations get delivered, Onigbinde tells Quartz.

Orodata, another Lagos-based civic startup, also focuses on “simplifying and democratizing public data.” Notably, it has developed IDP Tracker, an online tool which provides crucial information on camps of internally displaced persons in Nigeria’s northeast. A lingering humanitarian crisis, million of Nigerians displaced by the Boko Haram insurgency are scattered across overcrowded camps and shelters with little access to food and clothing.

Several reports over the past year paint a grim picture of the reality in the camps despite relief efforts. Blaise Aboh, lead data analyst at Orodata says the goal of the IDP Tracker is help provide relevant context for the scale of the problem as well as enhance transparency around relief operations. In December, Nigeria’s senate uncovered an $8 million relief fund fraud. With its IDP Tracker, Aboh hopes Orodata will eradicate such instances.

While organizations like BudgIT and Orodata are working to combat a tradition of institutionalized opacity in government from the outside, there are champions of better transparency within government itself.

Since 2011, Yemi Kale, head of Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) has pushed the agency to be more efficient with improved, wide-reaching research accompanied by detailed and frequent reports and presentations. Kale’s work was rewarded last year as he was reappointed as Nigeria’s chief statistician making him the first person to serve two terms in the role. Currently, NBS reports are providing government with relevant data to shape national policies and help put the state of Nigeria’s economy in context, such as announcing last year that Nigeria had slipped into its first recession in two decades.

But despite the revamp at NBS, data transparency remains anathema to decades of organizational culture at many government offices. Despite the 2011 Freedom of Information Act, a law to make public records and information more freely available, startups like BudgIT and Orodata still often struggle with accessing key information from some government agencies.

“Most people in the civil service are stuck in the mindset of not providing information to the public,” Onigbinde tells Quartz. “It’s a relic of the military era.”

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