Philip Thigo and his partner, John Kipchumbah, were a part of the Infonet Project in Kenya that was hosted by the World Social Forum in 2007. The project proposed the use of technology to create an open information and communication infrastructure to enable communities to build social capital for democratic actions. The duo were concerned that no marked changes had occurred in the poverty rate in Kenya, despite the apparent economic progress in the country. The technical skills they acquired from Infonet prompted them to conceive the idea of a Budget Tracking Tool that would connect communities directly with the national development agenda, without the need for a third party or civil society organizations working on their behalf.
The duo decided to use the Budget Tracking Tool to examine the allocation of Constituencies Development Fund, which the members of the parliament use to invest in their constituencies. However, the task of implementing the tool did not prove to be easy. First, it was difficult to approach the government, who had sour experiences with some NGOs who, they believed, were collaborating with bad journalism to slander the government. The second challenge was the lack of resources within the government to provide quality data. But the biggest challenge of all was the reluctance of the government to share the information openly with the public. It took a year and a half of negotiation and persuasion before the group obtained permission to extract the government data for public dissemination.
The group profited from the government’s lack of technical knowledge to sell their tool and convince the government to open their information channel. They offered their technology to help organize government data and enhance the government’s information management system. Further, they invited the government to scrutinize and comment on the accuracy of the extracted data while giving credit to the government for making the data accessible to the public.
The project conducted surveys to determine the kinds of information that members of the public were interested in knowing and, accordingly, made data available on the total budget allocated to each constituency and how much of that money was invested in basic service sectors, such as health, education, water and infrastructure. In addition to publishing the data on the Infonet project website, the project disseminates the information over localized Short Message Service (SMS) further widening its reach and ease of use.
The public response to the tool has been overwhelming. The website receives more than 5700 hits and between 4000 and 4500 SMS usage per month. Furthermore, committees have been set up representing local leaders, women, youth, and school teachers to oversee budget implementation processes in most constituencies. Cases have been uncovered where funds that existed on paper were not translated into intended expenditures, in some cases leading to the resignation of officers’ in-charge of those particular projects.
Currently, the project is collaborating with organizations such as Transparency International to develop a hotline that will provide legal aid and counseling to encourage individuals to act upon the available information. The project is also envisioning using community scorecards to rate the quality of budget spending and the community engagement in the process, and rank the parliamentarians accordingly. The group believes that this process should establish a strong foundation of transparency and accountability in the electoral system and strengthen good governance practices in the country.
Philip Thigo believes that the (relatively) independent press and level of awareness on rights among the public in Kenya has contributed to the success of the Budget Tracking Tool. He also believes that the accuracy and cooperation in data assembling and dissemination has earned the trust of the government. He points out that although Kenya does not currently have an Access to Information Law, empowering communities through these types of actions is building up a system that will eventually compel the government to adopt transparency and accountability measures in governance processes, which may be even more effective than a mere law that exists only on paper.
Photo Credit: Development Works (Flickr)