Ask Your Government

How transparent are African governments about how and where they spend tax money?

Image: Zouzou Wizman. Via Flickr CC.

How transparent are governments? How easy is it for citizens to get hold of information about how their governments are spending their money? It is this question that the “Ask Your Government” initiative. an international research project. set out to answer.

The International Budget Partnership along with nine other international organizations, spearheaded a civil society coalition in the Ask Your Government initiative – which set out to test access to budget information on development investments made by governments in 86 countries around the world.

In each of the countries, researchers put the same six questions to their governments. The questions ask governments to reveal how much money is being spent in 3 key areas – maternal health, the environment, and development aid. “The answer is that most of the time, governments do not respond at all or with sufficient information. In fact, when governments were asked [the] six questions by their citizens about how much money they spend on development priorities, only one of the 80 countries provided substantive answers to all six questions.” That was New Zealand.

Only two African countries were part of a second group of 22 countries (28% of the total number of countries) that “offered an official answer to all six information requests, though with varying degrees of comprehensiveness.” Most African countries were part of the next group of countries — 56% of the total — who answered some questions, but failed to provide any answer to at least one of the questions posed to them. For example,

In Uganda officials reported that information on the notification dates of aid was “practically” impossible to obtain, given existing information systems. According to the official, the request was “unrealistic.”

In a final group of 11 countries, “government agencies did not respond to any of the six information requests.”  African countries that unfortunately made it into this group, are: Algeria, Cameroon, Liberia and Nigeria.

In Nigeria officials at the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of the Environment denied the researcher access to information, while the Ministry of Finance ignored the request. Nigerian officials were reluctant to put any response in writing, treated researchers with suspicion, referred in informal conversations to the requested health information as “sensitive” and “controversial,” and indicated that officials would not be willing to “expose themselves” by providing the data on environmental spending or fossil fuel subsidies.

The report ends with recommendations, including: “People must Ask Their Governments! what they are spending on development, and how those investments are being applied in practice.”

Finally, it includes this impression from one of its Nigerian researchers of his government: “… It is always difficult to get any information from these ministries as they always view non-ministry staff or citizens as outsiders. They never see themselves as serving the people. They see themselves as being answerable only to their direct bosses.”

In Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, Malawi and South Africa, the researchers also recorded their experiences by keeping audio diaries. These diaries have been turned into a series of 5 radio programs, produced in collaboration with the International Budget Partnership.

Podcasts based on the audio diaries are available the IBP’s website – where you can meet the researchers in these countries as they tell their stories, and find out if their governments answered their questions.

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