The Budget Tracking Tool helps the Kenyan public monitor and track money allocated for development in the national budget.
Budget Tracking Tool
Posted by Rebekah Heacock on Apr 12, 2010
Despite extensive development assistance, the number of Kenyans who are classified as poor grew from 29 percent in the 1970s to almost 60 percent in 2000 (PDF). Philip Thigo, who co-heads the Budget Tracking Tool, finds this unacceptable. "Democratic governance is important, but economic governance is really at the center of it," he believes. This conviction led Thigo and partner John Kipchumbah to create a system that enables Kenyan citizens to examine the national development budget in detail, holding their elected officials accountable for the development projects they've promised.
The Budget Tracking Tool focuses specifically on the Constituencies Development Fund, through which Kenyan Members of Parliament allocate money for various projects. Thigo explains, "that amount of money is supposed to be spent in a democratic manner, meaning that the constituents or the communities have to be consulted." The Budget Tracking Tool provides information on how much money has been allocated and for which projects, allowing Kenyans to see whether Members of Parliament are following through on their promises.
Simply in terms of access: the cost of technology is still expensive. We would love people to access our tool on the web and also give feedback on the web because giving feedback on SMS is a bit difficult for a lot of people.
We currently operate via private sector infrastructure. To extent that there may be mobile phone outages, we must think about how our tool will continue to work.
Another challenge is more contextual, and this is interestingly enough at the level of civil society. There is a territorial culture in terms of organizations that still do not work openly. The tool that we developed is an open tool that we think will enhance the ability of civil society and communities to engage and to enforce transparency and accountability. But then you find that all these organizations around are not open to using the tool. We've had a lot of meetings with big organizations in terms of telling them that these tools are out there, it's a tool that can actually enhance your work or that you can leverage on, but I think organizations are still fighting around funds. For us that has been a challenge.
Another I think is at the level of data, and that borders on capacity of government. I think in terms of prioritizing — not necessarily access to information laws, I wouldn't go that big — I would go simply in terms of organizing information. Organizing information and then being open to sharing that information. It took us one and a half years to get that data, and that I think is ridiculous.
There's a lot of talk around political participation, and Kenya's a very political state in the sense that everybody holds a political opinion, but this never translated into economic emancipation. Poverty was still there, especially in urban poor and rural areas. It wasn't only escalating, it was actually intensifying. Our view was that even though we were looking at a period where democracy was flourishing and there was a really open space in that context, people were still poor.
So for us it was immediately obvious. How do you begin to address those inequalities? We started looking at economic governance and seeing what would it mean for the people of Kenya in terms of power. How could we begin to turn the discourse on its head and transfer power to the individual person?
We were also seeing how groups were dispossessing community members. There were a lot of people who were speaking for communities. If it wasn't NGOs it was a private sector entity. If it wasn't a private sector entity it was a foreign donor who was working there on a little project. So it never really translated into a transfer of power to the community.
The Budget Tracking Project was a vision between myself and my colleague John Kipchumbah. It started out of a project called Infonet. We were part of a group that had been called back to Kenya to work on the World Social Forum. They were a bit understaffed — they were having difficulty keeping deadlines, and other challenges were emerging, for example with registration. John and I had been called in to see how to bridge those challenges.
Based on our experience there and working with technology and tools, we thought, why are we working abroad? Why not begin to use this technology in Kenya? That's how we founded the Infonet program.
For us it was then how do you deliver technology, given that people are poor and have access issues, and while understanding the power dynamics in terms of trying to create a middle ground in which the community really have a voice. How do you amplify those voices to where it matters, but without any middle man that tries to speak for the community? That is how the Budget Tracking Tool came in: looking at issues of economic governance but rooting it at the local level.
I think the government and the NGOs are not friendly in a way. The government always feels that NGOs are quick not to look at the best or good practices but just to take data and sort of throw it out in the media to give the government a bad name.
That's the kind of contextual problem that we had, but in the whole negotiation process of one and a half years we tried really to tell government, "look: we have this technology tool, all we are trying to do is enhance the work that you do."
We thought that if we could create a clear channel where communities could actually access data, then the work of government would be easier in terms of trying to get those numbers out. And so for us that was actually the punchline: "we are not in competition with you, but we are trying to make data accessible."
The government also had capacity issues in terms of technology. We were more savvy in technology than them. In that sense we were saying, "We'll get data from you, we'll try to clean it up as much as possible, we'll make it accessible to communities in a way that it is not altered, we'll credit you in the system where we're saying that we are getting secondary data from you, and then you are at liberty to actually point out if there are any inaccuracies in the data." And they accepted it, but it took one and a half years.
We started by engaging the community, saying to the NGO community or people working around budgets, what is it that you think you need at this time? So it was based on need. I think a thing about technology is uptake. If there's no need then you'll just have a tool that will be wowed, wowed, and then just go dead. So we looked at need, and everybody said, "we need to know how much."
That's what we focused on for the first query script we wrote. Simply people texting in and learning how much. And then how much per sector, if it's education, water, health or infrastructure. Those are the four basic areas that people are interested in. And that's how we developed the first phase of the SMS tool, and there has been an overwhelming response simply based on that.
The budget of the constituency is overseen by a committee that is selected from the community — community representatives. You have a youth representative, a church representative, a women's representative and representatives from other sectors.
What had happened was that somebody had queried our tool and had found out that a project that supposedly had been funded did not exist. He queried via SMS, then went to the web and actually got the particular project fund information and data. It escalated to the provincial level, where the church is organized, and what happened is that the church representative on the budget committee was made to resign, based on his laxity of oversight.
Another instance which was quite fundamental was budget allocation on water. Our guys actually traced it down and did some research and found corruption within the level of the ministry. He prepared a letter that we supported with data. He wrote a letter to the prime minister's office and the office of the president because it was really a huge amount of money that was missing. What happened after that was that in one week the store where the records are kept mysteriously caught fire.
A week after that some bigwigs in the ministry were fired, seven or eight. Either the prime minister's office or the office of the president actually leaked that letter to the press. We never gave that paper to the press, but then it was in the media that a large amount of money was missing. We think the impact in this case is in that somebody also within government was tired of either the impunity or the extent to which corruption was at that level and decided to leak the letter to the media.
Full time. It's our flagship project, so this is full time.
Gathering the data. Nothing else, that's it. Because it's also boring: spending time negotiating for something that I know in my head is quiet essential and that's not controversial, I mean it's something that has been approved by Parliament so it's not controversial to give that information. But you still have to negotiate. I just find the bureaucracy time-consuming. A lot of calls, a lot of letters that are not responded to.
In Kenya it's easy I think because of one, a relatively independent press; two, a very much open democratic space; and I think three, the level of awareness in terms of rights. For us it's been relatively easy in the sense that there are a lot of organizations that are working on the budget, and because I think there's already a clear understanding now that democratic governance is important, but economic governance is really at the center of it.
One of our weaknesses is in terms of advocacy and publicity. Our initial grant was only for populating the tool. Still, we've been able to get to the point where we get more than 5700 web site hits and between 4000 and 4500 SMSes per month. We hold outreach meetings, and when we've had an outreach then we see spikes in these numbers.
We also work with organizations, which becomes an additional complement to the outreach. For example an organization that works on governance, like Plan International, if they have a governance outreach then they let us send information or packs that tell people how to access the Budget Tracking Tool and give feedback.
The hazard has not been on the system but rather on the individuals who act on that information.
First of all, the government is always uncomfortable with misrepresentation of information. That is the level where they will probably shut you down, if you're misrepresenting the kind of information that they give you. We seem to have overcome that hurdle in the sense that we are telling them, "we need your information so communities can better engage," either in dialogue with their members of parliament or other authorities. So they're comfortable with that. So the system has never been under threat, but individual actors have. And that is the challenge.
We're developing a hotline now so that if you access information in the Budget Tracking Tool and then use it or turn it into action, and then you face some kind of hazard, whether it's personal or family, you can call a number to a particular hotline. We've been engaging with the big organizations: Transparency International, for example, they have a legal program. We also work with Kituo cha Sheria, which is an organization that specializes in legal representation, and the Legal Resource Foundation. They help with litigation and support.
In the short term, which was quite unsustainable, we were using M-Pesa to send bail money to some of those activists who had been thrown in jail by politicians who wanted to intimidate them. Not much would happen, basically they would throw you in jail and intimidate you for two or three days and you'd be released, but for us, once community members know that someones has taken action on particular information and then is in custody, it sort of kills the whole reason of empowering communities to act or to hold government accountable.
We'd started with a two-year, $149,000 grant with Google.org, and I think they were supposed to upscale the grant, but then they kind of shut down, so it put us in a little bit of a situation. We're working on partnering with additional funders soon.
We are also starting to work with Twaweza, which is a new initiative.
Directly, the key partners for mapping are Google, because they gave us this seed grant for the project, then Map Kibera which is leveraging on OpenStreetMap. At the organizational level we have the Social Watch, which is a program of the Kenyan Social Development Network (SODNET) that has about 52 monitoring groups in Kenya, so that's quite a big network. Then we are working with MS Kenya. MS Kenya is a Danish funder. They work on something they call building local democracies, and they focus on local authority and budgets. Then of course Hivos, which is a funder, but for us it's beyond a funder but also a partner in the way that they help us in strategic thinking.
We've developed our own SMS engine. We do use Frontline but more or less at the local level in particular constituencies because its cheaper for community members to send SMS-es locally.
We don't have a freedom of information law and it's not in the constitution, and there's a pro and con for that. The only two countries in Africa that have freedom of information laws are Uganda and South Africa. We've seen they've actually been having a lot of difficulties because it kind of limits the nature of information that you can access. So we think it's a good time now for us to engage in both ways, both talking to government in terms of developing systems of accessing information and then building towards the legal framework itself.
If they're going to put a law they're simply going to copy something that already exists from one country to another. But if we build it the sense of building a system within a community, already engaging in government, and that becomes the basis of building the law, that would be interesting.
If you look at M-Pesa, which is our mobile money transfer, they never waited for legislation. The legislation caught up with M-Pesa, so that's what we think, this is the way to go. And this is a way to build a community thinking around access to information so that you're actually building systems that the legislation needs to adopt. I hope we'll be successful in this. It's sort of a very subversive way of thinking, but I think it's the best way to go.
We're making the project more robust and building the tool in such a way that it can be replicated. For example there's a lot of demand for it in Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. We're looking at how you make a tool that can simply be plug and play — just code and deploy.
We've had an initial exchange with Rwanda already. A group of civil society representatives in Rwanda came to our office. In May I think is the actual field work in terms of scoping in Rwanda how it would work, looking at the the Internet and telephone infrastructure and then deploying there. In South Africa there's also been demand for a similar project.
I know of one called Arid Lands Information Network. I think this would be interesting because they're known for working in areas where a lot of us wouldn't normally go. They work around technology. There's a system they've built to document information for communities, especially around agricultural and social issues.
Budget tracking. I'd put it toward the Budget Tracking Tool.
Based on evidence which we have in our database, it could be easy for us to develop scorecards. Our idea is at the end of the day, each constituency would have a scorecard or report card that would say, "this is how this person spent his money, this is the level of community engagement." We are coming up with indices ranking all the parliamentarians. Based on that data I think we can begin to bring in some sobriety around political governance. So that's where I'd put my money.
We'd done an election monitoring system in 2007, and now I think we are getting together with Ushahidi to actually develop something around that for 2012. I think all these big tech organizations can come together and develop a system that can eventually help create transparency and accountability around the election system. I think that's important for us.
Another system that we are working on now is for HIV and AIDS. There's not been enough budgetary allocation for pediatric AIDS — the entire HIV/AIDS funding is donor-funded. It's not locally funded, not a cent. And that we believe is a problem. We are working with the government, UNICEF and UNAIDS to develop a system, both web and SMS, to begin to track the whole issue of funding and possibility of funding around pediatric HIV. We'd like to look at the chinks in the supply chain and at alternative funding bases that are in-country, not globally funded or PEPFAR-funded. Then we can scale that up to education or to the other key areas.