15 February, 2010

The information gap | Oped | ekantipur.com

The information gap | Oped | ekantipur.com

FEB 14 -
On a recent consultation between donors and grassroots groups, in which I was a participant, it was interesting to note that the tenor of the conversation hadn’t changed much in the last ten to fifteen years I’ve been involved in Nepal’s development world. The donors still said they were giving a significant amount of money to government (20 percent of the budget at last count), and the grassroots and community groups continued to claim that very little was reaching them. Where, then is the gap?

Is it the fault of the government, ridden with inefficiencies and corruption? Is it the lack of monitoring and evaluation on the part of donors, who hand out large grants to government and organisations without a great deal of track-back information? Is it the fault, perhaps, of civil society, which should have (but hasn’t) demanded greater transparency and accountability from government and NGOs?

How can people in Humla or Dolpo know what grant has been allocated for hydropower in their district, and ask questions regarding the allocation? Donors claim they have public information outlets — the World Bank, for instance, has a public library that stores all of its grant information and which is publicly accessible by everyone from journalists to regular visitors. But other donors have been reluctant to share information for a range of reasons, extortion and threats being one concern. Journalists say they don’t know the in-depth specificities of each grant and what it means, so they are in no position to track down projects as they are implemented.

On one hand, donors felt that there had been a lot of progress — the death of children under five, as well as the death of mothers in childbirth, had been cut in half in the last ten to fifteen years. So why is this information not being highlighted with the same enthusiasm? Why is there a general sense of malaise regarding work accomplished? Surely roads and bridges and schools have been built in the past few decades, and much of it supported by multilateral and bilateral donors? Why then do people at the grassroots still feel there is a gap in their access to resources, and that it’s not reaching them as much as it should? The government needs, perhaps, also to cultivate its media connections and highlight its accomplishments, which it has been slow to do.

I was also struck to see how women were still asking for support for single women’s groups, for free health care to female reproductive health care, for medication for HIV positive individuals, and for the end of discrimination between girl and boy children. Surely one would have thought about a billion dollars has already been poured into these issues in the past two or three decades? If not in actual material terms, the media and publicity would certainly make you think so. I don’t know the actual figures but there seems to have been a large amount of interest and concern about these issues at international levels.

And yet, as one woman from Jajarkot told me, “There was funding for single women run groups affected by conflict, but it all went to people in the district headquarters. Those faraway from the centre, who were more affected, didn’t get funded.” How can this be? How can the donors not be aware that it’s more urgent than ever to fund community-based organisations and not just national level networks, and at the same time also take note of this dynamic of elite capture at the rural level?

What can be an effective way to ensure that the funds for the conflict-affected, or marginalised social groups, or HIV positive, or women’s reproductive health, ends up where it’s meant to, and not in the local Pajero dealership? The questioning has to start from civil society — everybody from journalists to those closely associated with projects must start to ask questions and demand answers about the actual allocation of funds and their disbursement.

A young friend of mine recently came to visit me with a request to support him — he was in the process of setting up a rehabilitation centre for HIV positive people. When talking about funds, he said: “I’ve heard you need an inside person in order to get the funds. I just heard of an NGO that got a million dollars, but they had to pay 50 percent of it to a broker inside the donor organisation. The foreigners as well as the Nepalis share the money. I hear the foreigners fight to come to Nepal because one year here means they can buy a home back in their country.”

I don’t think that’s likely, I protested, having worked in a donor organisation myself and seen the great care and impartiality with which funds were disbursed. But no, for this young man, the impression is that the foreigners as well as the Nepalis are involved in a giant for-profit business in which the overhead is very, very high and most of the funds ends up in the contractors’ pockets. This may not be true, as I said from my own experience. But just the fact that many people think this is the case should be troubling enough for donors and government to make their information of grants and funding publicly accessible for civil society to monitor and track.

Rumours, as one knows, breed where information is stagnant or unavailable. It appears to me, after listening in to this conversation, that the key to greater clarity is more information. There should be a free flow of information of what goes on between donors and government and NGOs, including their accomplishments and failures. A government gazette which notes all contracts, grants and funding initiatives, along with whom it was allocated to, and distributed to all districts, would certainly help to clear the air and give people a greater sense of control regarding state initiatives.

Once this information is easily accessible to the public, it will be easier to monitor and assess. Currently, our country is still in the “hallai hallo ko desh” (a country of rumours) phase. Some initiative on the parts of donors, government, NGOs, and CBOs on social auditing and budgeting of funds, along with greater public information, would help everyone get a clearer picture of what was given out, and how much of it reached the intended recipients.

Sushma Joshi blogs at:



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