Open Data for Transparency and Accountability in the Covid-19 Response

In contexts where the rule of law is weak, anti-corruption laws and policies are in most instances ineffective in reducing corruption. For that reason, development interventions are moving away from focusing on law and policy reform to designing and adopting interventions that are not necessarily grounded in law and policy, but on best practice, expressed in log frames and theories of change to promote transparency and accountability. They include the use of technology and principles of open and accountable governance to place checks and hold actors to account. This blog focuses on the use of Open Data as a means of advancing transparency and accountability efforts in Sub-Saharan Africa in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Previous public health outbreaks are often used as examples to explain the consequences of not opening up data, such as delays in treatment discovery, disease management, and increasing pandemic-profiteering. They also inform smart strategies for promoting transparency and accountability. Champions of open data often advocate for the release of information collected by governments in formats accessible to all citizens. This presents multiple benefits including the provision of meaningful evidence on government activities, budgets, resource allocation, and expenditures; enabling more informed decision making, and also helping to deter cases of corruption. 

The global crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has forced governments across the globe to react in quick and equal mitigation measures to save lives and protect livelihoods. To ensure that the economy stays afloat and at the same time the poor and vulnerable who suffer disproportionately during such times are protected from the effects of this crisis, governments have had to embark on large scale emergency spending and procurement. However urgent, this emergency spending and procurement has been without proper controls thus exposing governments to corruption risks undermining their response to the pandemic. For Sub-Saharan Africa, a region with the lowest score according to the  Corruption Perceptions Index of 2019 (CPI), this paints a bleak picture when contemplating an equal recovery.

Over the past few months, there has been a vast amount of money flowing in financial systems in the form of loans from multilateral institutions, debt relief, and government stimulus packages. The total government expenditures in Sub-Saharan Africa, as a result of emergency spending,  are projected to be on average 4% higher in 2020 than in 2019. There has also been a spike in the demand for masks, gloves, and protective gowns and other life-saving protective equipment, medical supplies as well as medical equipment such as ventilators calling for emergency procurement. 

This unprecedented emergency spending and procurement in response to the pandemic has been cited as a reason to ease regulatory oversight and relax procurement rules designed to curb corruption. Accordingly, most countries across Sub-Saharan Africa have been unable to account for billions worth of Covid-19 funds. This is in part attributed to the loss of funds through relief payments to illegal beneficiaries, theft in the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE), contract awards to anonymous and incompetent contractors, price gouging of medical supplies, and the squeezing out of small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) from the procurement system.

Corruption during Covid-19 has been identified as a pandemic within a  pandemic compromising the effectiveness of the pandemic response. It reduces the number of available resources for life-saving operations, impacts on quality of products and services, and diverts aid from those who need it most.

Opening up government data presents itself as a means of advancing transparency and accountability efforts during and after pandemics. In this regard, stakeholders have made available several resources that can supplement government efforts. One such tool is The Guide to Open Government and the Coronavirus, published by the Open Government Partnership. The guide provides recommendations to support transparency and accountability efforts during and after the Covid-19. Apart from imploring the government to publish data on budget allocations and expenditure for the emergency response, the guide urges that donor agencies and Governments should publish timely open data on pledges, commitments, planned disbursements, and disbursements in line with aid information standards, in machine-readable formats and under an open license. It also highlights the vital categories of open data that can contribute to transparency efforts such as data on medical resources and economic data that is data on recipients of emergency funding, register of PPE suppliers, supply chain data, and price gouging.

It is expensive for governments to ignore corruption during the Covid-19 response. Transparency and accountability are crucial for governments to play their role and for the public to trust their decisions. Governments must demonstrate accountability and fairness by sharing information on what the sources, expenditures, and direct and indirect beneficiaries of resources directed to the Covid-19 response. It is also important that governments, form more long term solutions, implement anti-corruption laws and policies, and other enabling legislation such as the Access to Information laws to guide and strengthen the use of open data for transparency and accountability efforts.


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