Covid-19: The New Approach to Safeguarding Aid Money in Africa

The Nigerian activist Hamzat Lawal presents a new approach towards more transparency in the utilization of Covid-19 funds.

Image: of David Dosunmu Where will the debt relief money flow? Fumigation of ATM-machines in Owerri, Nigeria

In 2019, the majority of sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries registered a fiscal deficit. Nonetheless, with the emergence of COVID-19, aid has increased to flow from many sources. The international community and development partners are mobilizing billions of dollars in grants, loans, and debt relief and/or cancellation to enable Africa to put up a contest against the pandemic. It is estimated that SSA countries would need up to 3 % of the continent’s GDP in additional health financing resources alone over the next 250 days. But in the midst of all these, can donor funds in Africa work for targeted populations and for the purpose for which they are instituted?

In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, ‘Follow The Money’ (FTM) launched a project dubbed #FollowCOVID19Money - a campaign to torch-light and scrutinise the utilization of emergency funds and donations against corruption and abuse in Africa. The campaign is used to aggregate, analyse data and demand transparency and accountability on COVID-19 funds and donations.

In Nigeria, prominent private-sector leaders, under the auspices of the Coalition Against Covid-19 have donated N27.160 billion (approx. 64 million Euros as of 23rd April). In addition, the central bank announced a N1 trillion (approx. 2.4 billion Euros) stimulus package, and then the Federal Government asked the National Assembly to approve a N500 billion (approx. 1.2 billion Euros) intervention fund; it also withdrew $150 million from the Sovereign National Fund and borrowed $6.9 billion from IMF – all purportedly to cushion the effect of COVID-19.

Just like in Nigeria most countries have started distribution of funds in the form of palliative, but transparency and accountability remain hard to obtain. Freedom of Information requests sent to the Nigeria Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs hardly get replies or treatment. In Nigeria, out of over 90 million poor Nigerians, only about 2.6 million are captured in the social register. Nevertheless, disbursement remains sketchy, opaque and hugely problematic.

With a harmonized strategy and engagement process, the FTM movement in Nigeria, Kenya, The Gambia, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Malawi and Liberia is putting pressures on national and regional/state governments and agencies to transparently account for every penny received for development interventions and emergency relief during this global emergency. With a network of volunteers of data journalists, researchers, storytellers and activists, FTM tracks, monitors, investigates, reports and exposes discrepancies in the management of donor funds to state institutions responsible for prosecution. In addition, FTM is conducting verification and monitoring of actual disbursements - cash and in-kind transfers to poor and vulnerable populations.

FTM is deploying digital solutions to mobilize citizens and engage with authorities on moderation and due diligence on new legislations and executive orders and encouraging collective action in holding governments accountable deploying online and offline engagement and advocacy strategies in conscientizing the public on post-emergency recovery postulations and attitudinal responses that would enhance quick healing and recuperation.

In Liberia, despite ongoing efforts, the government is yet to update the public on the total amount of funds donated to the fight against Covid-19 to date. Also, it has refused to be open about the current health constraints or clearly articulate to Liberians why the death toll is so high compared to countries with far higher numbers of infected persons. Liberia is shackled by secrecy in the administration of COVID-19 donations and it would be worse if the civil society community is forced muzzled or gagged by authorities.

Procurement accounts for the largest share of grand corruption in the continent. On 05 May 2020, FTM led a coalition of anti-corruption organisations in Nigeria (in a webinar) and mounted pressure on authorities to open up procurement processes during this emergency. Surprisingly, in a twin response (within 24 hours), the Bureau of Public Procurement released guidelines on COVID-19 Procurements to ensure transparency and minimize corruption. Also, Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission published guidelines for Presidential Task Force Management of COVID-19 Relief Funds. However, policy intentions in the continent always sound good; it is at implementation stages that things fall apart. Also, the Federal Ministry of Finance, Budget and National Planning has released its guideline on the management of COVID-19 funds and resolved to be more FOI compliant.

Like in Nigeria and Gambia, FTM is arming citizens with data on public finances to enable them to “confront” or engage underperforming leaders and extract stewardship or accountability on public spending and the system is opening up no matter how sluggish. This attempt is not without risks, often there are threats to life and physical harm. Campaigning for transparency and accountability on public expenditures in Africa is a dangerous hobby. In the field, we have received contradictory figures, incomplete information and at other times outright negligence and threat. Like many other intervention funds (e.g. North East Development Fund in Nigeria), COVID-19 funds are highly susceptible to abuse and corruption.

In The Gambia millions of dollars have been spent on motor vehicles and hotels whilst identified treatment centres and isolation centres are in dilapidated conditions. As an underdeveloped country with high poverty rate, mandatory stay-at-home orders have resulted in record high unemployment, jeopardized the sustainability of small and large businesses, and citizens are left to their fate. During global crises, priorities and resources are often diverted, paving way for those on the fringes to move into the mainstream through systematic acts of corruption.

Africa should be looking at COVID-19 as an opportunity to reset our politics, policies and economies and public health systems. One way this can be achieved is by mainstreaming transparency and accountability in public expenditures. This would free up money for investment in critical sectors and social development. This requires synergy and cooperation of informal institutions (e.g. community development associations, NGOs, traditional institutions, etc.) with authorities and state agencies. FTM is part of the thinking and New Approach by mobilizing grassroots for social accountability. Post-coronavirus recovery policies will be the litmus test if African leaders can arise and be the solution and not the victim. And all that is needed is the political will.

Hamzat Lawal is a Nigerian anti-corruption activist. He is the initiator of the campaign ‘Follow The Money’ and the founder of ‘Connected Development’, a non-profit organization that comprises data analysts, journalists, activists, and students.

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