“Chenji ya rada imetolewa!” – “The radar change has been paid.” So tweeted Reginald Mengi early last year when British defence company, BAE Systems, finally paid £29.5m towards education projects in Tanzania. It was not a fine, there was no admission of guilt (beyond a minor accounting irregularity), certainly no admission of corruption. But it was, at least, a settlement that channelled some funds into Tanzania’s education system.
BAE were concerned both that “their” funds should be used effectively and that this effectiveness should be seen as clearly as possible. So they worked closely with the British government’s Department for International Development (DFID) and the Tanzanian government to come up with a project to distribute desks and textbooks to primary schools throughout the country – the Primary Education Support Project (PESP). Every primary school will get text books, and desks will be delivered to primary schools in every district.
The project has been up and running for some time, and books have already been arriving in schools in many parts of the country. We know this because earlier this week a new website was launched that shows which books have been distributed by which companies to which schools, all across the country.
There is a lot to like about this attempt to be transparent. In many ways it’s a model for the kind of open government that could do so much to improve management of public services and aid projects in Tanzania.
- Detail. Attempts at open government, particularly open aid (which is arguably where this site fits), often fall down because they do not provide a level of detail that makes it possible for “beneficiaries” to see what is supposed to be happening in their village, their community, their school. This site has that detail, right down to the precise number of particular textbooks being delivered to individual schools.
- Feedback. The site is designed to encourage feedback and comments. A teacher, a pupil or a parent (or a local councillor, journalist, etc.) can report back, to confirm that books have indeed been delivered or to raise a red flag if they have not.
- Closing the loop. Details and a feedback mechanism are a potentially powerful combination: together, they make “closing the loop” possible. Consider, in contrast, a budget transparency initiative that publishes aggregated data on all projects at district level. That information is only really useful to people who have access to a more detailed breakdown of the district budget. Without that extra detail, how can anyone check whether those projects are really happening? And many open budget / open aid initiatives don’t even get as far down as district level.
- Cost. DFID Tanzania have confirmed that the cost of developing the website was under $20,000, including costs for some field monitoring. This is less than 0.05% of the total PESP budget. This kind of transparency can easily pay for itself ten times over through efficiency savings and/or better outcomes, and probably a lot more than that.
Twaweza is planning to check around 150 schools later this month, to see whether the reports on the website of books that have been delivered are accurate. This kind of independent monitoring is only possible because of this site. That’s why I think it’s a model.
On the other hand, the PESP site is far from perfect. There are errors in the basic data – I did a five-minute check on the data in parts of the country that I’m familiar with, and I found plenty of schools listed under the wrong district*, and some listed as being in two different districts depending on which part of the site you’re looking at**. That doesn’t inspire confidence in the site’s more important data. Nor does the fact that the map is out of date, using old regions (though the rest of the site uses the new regions).
But these are relatively minor issues.
More importantly, for a site that’s all about transparency, there is a worrying lack of information on some of the bigger picture issues. Nowhere on the site is there anything that explains what has been budgeted and/or spent on project administration, for example, or a copy of the MOU between BAE, DFID and the government of Tanzania. From the site, there’s no way of knowing whether BAE has effectively contracted DFID and the Tanzanian government to administer the project on their behalf, or whether DFID and the government of Tanzania are using UK and Tanzanian taxpayers’ money to effectively subsidise BAE’s reputation-cleaning “charitable contribution to Tanzania” (pdf; see page 32)?
(An email from DFID Tanzania confirms that BAE have provided a small part of the £29.5m to cover admin costs for DFID Tanzania (£150,000) and for an audit of the project by the Tanzanian Controller and Auditor General (£150,000), leaving £29.2m for books, desks and admin by the Tanzanian Government. But surely this information should be on the website, available to everyone.)
Nor does the site say whether books are being physically delivered to schools, or whether they are simply left in piles at the district education department for schools to pick up (at whose expense?) at a later date.
And of course I have some thoughts on the PESP initiative as a whole (beyond the website). But I will save those for another time.
For now, let’s just focus on what this site represents. Despite it’s weaknesses, pesptz.org is by some distance the best example of transparency I have ever seen in any Tanzanian project. It’s an excellent model for others to follow.
The Medical Stores Department should be doing the same. The Ministry of Education should be doing this for capitation grant disbursements, and Parliament for the Constituency Development Catalyst Fund. TAMISEMI should be doing it for local government projects. Subsidised agricultural inputs, rural water supply projects, TASAF projects, etc, etc, etc. I could go on all day.
The PESP site shows that transparency is possible, and that it doesn’t have to be expensive. Time for others to follow the example.
– – – – –[UPDATE: I should have pointed out that although Twaweza was not responsible for development of this site, we did provide some feedback on earlier versions.]
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* On this list of schools in “Iringa Municipal Council” (admittedly not a very useful list as there are no desks being delivered to any of these schools), most of the schools are from Iringa Rural and some (e.g. Kinyanambo and Sao Hill) are in Mufindi.
** Here’s a different list with Kinyanambo and Sao Hill Primary Schools listed in the right place – Mufindi district.