Information poverty

“Google: The right information at the right time in the hands of people has enormous power.”:

bq.. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent each year on providing basic public services like primary education, health, water, and sanitation to poor communities, poverty in much of Sub-Saharan Africa persists. *Where does this money go, who gets it, and what are the results of the resources invested?* That’s where we find a big black hole of information and a lack of basic accountability. *How do inputs (dollars spent) turn into outputs (schools, clinics, and wells), and, more importantly, how do outputs translate into results (literate and healthy children, clean water, etc.)?*

We simply don’t know the answers to most of these basic questions. But what if we could? What if a mother could find out how much money was budgeted for her daughter’s school each year and how much of it was received? What if she and other parents could report how often teachers are absent from school or whether health clinics have the medicines they are supposed to carry? What if citizens could access and report on basic information to determine value for money as tax payers?

The work of The Social Development Network (SODNET) in Kenya is illustrative. They are developing a simple budget-tracking tool that allows citizens to track the allocation, use, and ultimate result of government funds earmarked for infrastructure projects in their districts. *The tool is intended to create transparency in the use of tax revenues and answer the simple question: Are resources reaching their intended beneficiaries?* Using tools like maps, they are able to overlay information that begins to tell a compelling story.

p. In Pakistan, a lot of information is available – but piece meal, grudgingly provided, and is not easily accessible, Sure, I know that the Rs. 29 billion spent on providing clean drinking water to the people by Musharraf was a complete fraud, eaten by the usual and the rest thrown away on useless plants – but people in general don’t know. It’s not easy to find out, and there is so much distrust that people can’t trust any facts – so the end result is that even the truth loses its power, as no one trusts anyone else.

There are so many people desperate for water in Pakistan, that if a community knew that 5 million rupees was allocated for a plant in their area, and knew the company was providing the plant, which builder was building it, and who was servicing it, they would be camped outside everyone concerned, from the govt functionary cutting the checks to those receiving it. Since none of this information is public – and given it’s all public money it should be – no one even knows that the govt. allocated (and spent!) millions of rupees in communities around Pakistan to provide them drinking water. This lack of transparency enables corruption at a massive scale – to a extent which is unbelievable – and given the drought of facts, people just don’t realize the scale of corruption in Pakistan. It’s a lot more than what most people think, or even realize possible!

You end up with a lot of scattered data points, with no verifiable information at all, and no trust in the largest information provider of all, the government. In other countries, the media serves a role in data gathering and analysis, through journalism and investigative reporting – but due to various reasons the fledgling Pakistani media was never able to develop that role, and in truth gave it up – sacrificed on the altar of ever cheaper content. They report only the surface symptoms of the disease, and never look at the underlying causes. Looking takes time, money and effort, all three of which the local media strenuously avoid.

Pakistan allocates a lot of public and foreign aid money to schools, building roads, lining canals, providing clean water, building sewage systems, subsidizing school books, and so many other things – yet the actual, concrete numbers are all missing.

A village will (sometimes) know there some govt. money being spent in their area, but they never know how much and on what exactly, so it can’t be monitored. Generally, the local politician steals most of it, and makes the population feel indebted to him/her for whatever little is actually spent. Part of the reason the same crooks keep getting elected is that they’ve managed to fool the local population into identifying the politician with what govt. spending is taking place in their area, while behind the scenes stealing most of it.

A more Googly world might change some of this:

bq..’s role, through our partners in East Africa and India, is to support, catalyze, and widely disseminate this kind of information to public, private, and civil society stakeholders that can use it to see more clearly what’s working, what’s broken and what are potential solutions. Leveraging platforms like Google Earth and Google Maps can help organizations disseminate their content widely and let people see and understand what was once invisible. *Once information is visible, widely known, and easy to understand, we are betting that governments and citizens will pay more attention to leakages in the service delivery pipeline and feel empowered to propose solutions.*

You can’t change what you can’t see. The power to know plus the power to act on what you know is the surest way to achieve positive social change from the bottom up. And when we consider the magnitude of resources invested in delivering public services each year, a 10% improvement globally would exceed the value of all foreign aid. We believe that is a bet worth making.

p. Information illuminates the dark corners the Pakistani bureaucracy and politicians hide in, and makes them inhabitable.

h4. links

* “Info Activism”:

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