At the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, many health practitioners were fond of saying, “We can’t treat our way out of the crisis.” This was the response to what many practitioners believed was an over-emphasis on drug treatment instead of prevention methods. Among people and organizations working to decrease corruption by increasing transparency and government accountability, the push for freedom of information (FOI) laws has become our “treatment.” There are several versions of the theory, but a common one goes: if a country has a freedom of information law, citizens (and civil society representing them) will be able to make requests and receive information and data, creating an air of transparency and improving their ability to hold government more accountable.
This theory may in fact hold. However, in many countries, poor implementation of FOI laws and uncooperative bureaucracies make them much less effective than envisioned. In Nigeria for example, many agencies have refused to deliver the information requested per FOI law protocol, citing poor recordkeeping or difficulty in accessing data. Additionally, since the Nigerian FOI Act was passed in 2011, several governors have maintained that the law only applies to federal agencies and not to their state. A number of lower courts have maintained that the law does in fact apply to states, however, there isn’t yet a definitive ruling. In practice, many FOI requests fall on deaf bureaucratic ears.
In spite of these hurdles, having a FOI law is one important tool. It is necessary for the creation of greater government accountability. However, focusing on this treatment isn’t sufficient. Partners’ “AccessNigeria_SierraLeone AccessNG_SL)” program is testing a different hypothesis. We believe that if civil society builds a constructive relationship with government officials based on shared interests, government is more likely to begin proactively releasing information. This can result in a culture of information sharing where citizens have more information and can begin to ask more meaningful questions. For example, if citizens know how much money the Nigerian government spends on national security, they can follow up with questions such as: what is the geographic distribution of the spending? How does that break down between the security agencies? Civil society can help analyze and make the data accessible. For example, see BudgIT’s work on the Nigerian security budget.
Partners focus is more on preventing corruption and the growth of distrust in government by making it easier and more rewarding for government officials and agencies to share information before they are compelled to by law. Our global network has successfully used this collaborative approach on many issues over the last 25 years, including various aspects of government accountability and transparency.
Training civil society to collaborate
Earlier this year, we supported CLEEN Foundation, one of our AccessNG_SL partners, to train Nigerian civil society representatives on effective approaches to accessing information from justice and security sector agencies. CLEEN Foundation is building relationships with, and then seeking information from, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC),Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC), National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), and National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA).
The workshop was led by one of our colleagues from Partners Foundation for Local Development (FPDL) in Romania, which has developed an innovative and practical anti-corruption methodology that treats corruption as a symptom of organizational systems malfunctioning. Their approach recognizes that corruption is not only a problem of nefarious bureaucrats, but also of bad organizational systems. They use a cooperative approach to recruit and empower reform-minded officials within government agencies at the local and national level. FPDL developed this methodology based on the successful anti-corruption work of Mayor Ronald MacLean Abaroa in La Paz, Bolivia, and have applied it in more than 10 Central and Eastern European countries and 20 local governments. Their methodology received a UN Public Service Award in 2011.
During the three-day workshop in Abuja, participants discussed specifics of Nigeria’s FOI law, the challenges they would face when approaching an agency, the levers of power that might unlock information within each agency, and characteristics of successful collaborative relationships. Following the workshop, each group created a roadmap tailored to the specific agencies they would be collaborating with to collect information. Their roadmaps prioritized information each agency should have in the public domain, and data that would be of most interest to citizens. Examples of these datasets include: records of cases the agencies are prosecuting in court, records of assets (or drugs) they’ve recovered, and information about their public awareness efforts.
A few weeks later, along with CLEEN, we convened another workshop for civil society representatives, this time focusing on the four agencies’ cases in court (EFCC, ICPC, NAPTIP, and NDLEA). Participating civil society organizations decided to pursue different but complementary strategies: some organizations will build relationships with agencies to gather information on what cases they are pursuing and the successes and challenges they are facing, another group of monitors will be going to court to gather information about if/how these cases are progressing through the judicial system. CLEEN and its civil society partners will disseminate the information to citizens through various channels. Over the life of the project, citizens will gain new, more comprehensive and understandable information about the agencies’ work. Similarly, the agencies will be able to demonstrate examples of proactively sharing information without being forced by a court order or any legal obligations.
Collaboration begins to pay off
Our program is still in its early stages; however, we are starting to see some signs of success. For example, one of the teams recently asked NAPTIP for a breakdown of their activities. Rather than submit a FOI request, as has been the typical approach in Nigeria, the team—which has spent the last three months building relationships with targeted officials within the agency—submitted a letter formally requesting the information and explainingwhy they wanted the info, and met with officials in the agency. Their collaborative approach resulted in NAPTIP’s release of a dataset including cases and convictions between 2004 and 2014, the agency’s activities for this year, and more. NAPTIP has rarely before shared any of this information with CSOs, nor has it published this data on its website. Our project team is now analyzing the data to better understand how NAPTIP is meeting its mandate.
Similarly, in Sierra Leone where we are conducting a parallel program, the government’sAnti-Corruption Commission (ACC) joined our AccessNG_SL partner, Campaign for Good Governance, to train case monitors who will gather information on all corruption cases going through the Sierra Leone court system. As in Nigeria, the monitoring process has just recently started, but thus far the monitors have provided information on court proceedings from 22 corruption cases in Freetown and beyond. In a country where citizens usually only hear news about indictments, we are optimistic that these case monitors can fill some of the information vacuum between indictments and adjudication.
We’re not claiming to have found the “secret sauce” for making governments transparent or less corrupt. However, we are confident that a collaborative approach is another tool which will enable citizens to gain access to more complete, understandable information, building their trust in government in the long run. By building cooperative relationships with government officials, civil society can be more effective in its efforts to prevent and reduce corruption.
– This Best Outside Opinion was written for Partners4DC by Kehinde A. Togun, Senior Program Manager, Sub-Saharan Africa and Europe at Partners for Democratic Change with contributions from Nengak Daniel Gondyi, Program Manager, CLEEN Foundation,Nigeria, and Olivia Baciu, Executive Director, Partners Foundation for Local Development. Access Nigeria/Sierra Leone Project is a dual country specific approach in amplifying discussion and institutional engagement in justice and security sector. The Nigerian project is led by Partners for Democratic Change and has CLEEN Foundation and Campaign for Good Governance as its Nigerian and Sierra Leonean strategic partners respectively. Institute of War and Peace Reporting manages the investigative journalism component while BudgIT provides technical support in terms of technology, incubation of civic startups and Open Government Initiatives.