Using the RTI Act to prod governments into action

I was reading an article on Haiti and this sentence struck me “Only 15 percent of the aid pledged by countries and organizations around the world has reached the country so far”.  A comment went further, stating:

There was a total of $9.9 billion pledged for Haiti–emergency aid to reconstruction and democracy/institution-building. … Conferences follow the public’s concern about a disaster and countries rush to the podium with seemingly generous pledges that they either can’t or won’t fulfill. ..I’ve seen these for over 30 years in the international aid arena…when 2 years afterwards you approach an official and ask how much his/her country received or whether a particular country’s pledge was ever met…it’s always the same…”Our Congress/Parliament never appropriated the pledged amount”

I know that Indians are using their RTI Act to prod the government into action and there are a number of forums discussing what questions should be asked to receive a specific response.  Asking specific questions and fixing responsibility are the two key areas. With those thoughts in mind I wondered whether it was possible to prod the Australian government into action.

According the latest media release on the topic, Australia has pledged a total of $AU24 million to Haiti. 

Australia’s commitment to rebuilding Haiti includes a contribution to the World Bank’s Haiti Reconstruction Fund, a multi-donor trust fund which will coordinate international support for recovery and reconstruction.

Australia is also working with countries and regional organisations in the Caribbean and Latin America to support Haiti.

Australia will work with Brazil to help revive the agriculture sector, which accounts for more than 25 per cent of Haiti’s economy, and with the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) to help improve their ability to respond to disasters in the region.

From what I’ve been able to find, Australia pledged $AU10 million to the World Bank Reconstruction Fund, and has provided that money (one of only five countries to do so).  Encouraged, I went looking further.  The Caribbean Community was pledged $AU1million, but I couldn’t find whether it had been provided.  And that was all I could find.

So I’ve decided to use Australia’s new FOI Act to see whether I can find out where specifically the other $AU13 million has gone.  If it’s been pledged but not paid, maybe I can imitate the success Indians and prod the Australian government into action.    I’ll let you know how I go.

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So, you want to be an international aid worker?

In my last journal post, I noted I have no experience in international aid work. So I did some research on what the entry requirements are and what the major paths are.  From what I’ve read, someone in my position needs to:

  1. Volunteer overseas for one or more assignments
  2. During this time, build up a network of associates
  3. Apply for entry level jobs with NGOs
  4. Continue to network
  5. Though your network, build up further experience as you progress your career.

Now, this all seems very reasonable.  But it isn’t something I can start right now. Being seven months pregnant means the airlines won’t let me onboard, let alone the more prosaic concerns of a new baby in the household. 

Not to be deterred by the fact I can’t complete step one in the plan, I thought to look into NGOs located here in Canberra who may be interested in having a volunteer.  So far, I’ve found two.  Care Australia has an office here in Canberra, which is brilliant.  It’s a large NGO with work in areas I am interested in.  On the downside, they “occasionally accept volunteers to assist us with administration or specific projects in both our Canberra and Melbourne offices on a needs basis. Volunteering opportunities are normally advertised publicly, and are listed on our vacancies page.”   And there are no opportunities on their vacancy page.  So, while I plan to contact them and enquire, they are second on my list.

First on my list of NGOs to contact is Australian Business Volunteers.  They “promote stability and prosperity through enterprise development.  This is achieved through volunteer led programs and training courses”.  They’ve nothing on their website discouraging me from volunteering with them, so I’ll make contact and see if they are willing to take on a new volunteer.

Cross fingers for me please 🙂

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Reflections on India’s Right to Information Act

The cost of corruption is significant. For example, a survey of firms in Uganda in 2002 showed 80% of them paid bribes, which amount to 8% of their total costs. 250 primary schools in 2005 in Uganda received on average just 13% of the money they were supposed to get. In India in 2005, more than 50% of people have had to pay bribes to get a job done by a public office, while truckers were calculated to have paid US$5 billion.

But also in 2005, the Right to Information Act came into force. This act gives citizens the right to obtain information from any level of government within India and is used as a transparency and anti-corruption tool. The Act ensures a timely response to questions. Indians, in the Act’s first two and a half years of operation filed about two million requests for information.

The proponents of the Act state that it:

  • Makes government administration more accountable to citizens
  • Facilitates better delivery of goods and services
  • Facilities intelligent and constructive criticism of government administration
  • Reduced arbitrariness in decision making
  • Reduced the scope for corruption, and
  • Promotes openness and transparency in government dealings.

The Act has been used to deliver food, pay pensions, complete road projects, restore electricity and take action against teachers. One RTI application discovered that 41 families had been allocated 1,300 kg of wheat over a period of a few months, of which the shopkeeper claimed that 1,210 kg had been stolen. Needless to say, none of the families involved had seen any of the wheat. The Act is also being used to get things done. A 30 year old man, suffering from kidney stones, used the Act as a way of getting an operation after a year of being given the runaround from hospitals.

Despite these success stories, a corruption study done in 2007, notes that the Below the Poverty Line households had to pay around US$212 million in bribes to get access to basic services. A 2010 study noted that the

“Use of the law has been constrained by uneven public awareness, poor planning by public authorities and bureaucratic indifference or hostility…. mechanisms for enforcing the new law are strained by a growing number of complaints and appeals”

A 2009 study noted only 15% of general citizens were aware of the law, and frequent follow-up visits were required to get an issue sorted out. But how the Act is perceived by officials is equally of concern – it is seen as an attack on the existing power relationships (particularly in rural areas). With the majority of enforcement officials being recruited from retired public servants, it is hardly surprising that the appeal decisions broadly favour the government rather than the individual.

According to the Transparency Index, in 2001, India scored 2.7 on the Corruption Perception Index (with Finland being the least corrupt country at 9.9). In 2009, India scored 3.4 (with New Zealand being the least corrupt at 9.4). So there has been an improvement in the perception of corruption within the country. But Indonesia, who according to AusAID’s Office of Development Effectiveness is one of the “most corrupt countries in the world” went from 1.9 to 2.8 in the same space of time. While there is a margin of error in the figures, the fact that both went up (and Indonesia went up by higher although it doesn’t have a similar Act to the RTI) begs the question of whether the RTI Act benefits has benefited those it was supposed to help.

I think the answer is yes. Between 2007 and 2009, nine studies were undertaken on the operation of the Act. In general, they found that citizens have been successfully using the Act to fight corruption and improve government responsiveness. The second reason is that the Act is directly challenging entrenched cultural behaviour. Cultural change isn’t something that is going to happen in five years, advocates of the Act acknowledge this and enthusiasm remains high.

Give it time for awareness to penetrate in the community, tools for Indians to learn how to use the Act to fight corruption, then I think we’ll see improvements start to accelerate.

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Resume writing

I have been researching the best style of resumes for people in my position. The examples articles gave of people changing careers were things such as an engineer wanting to move into technical sales or a graphic designer wanting to move into creating greeting cards.

They suggested that people in the examples might want to use a skill based resume, outlining the relevant skills a person might have accumulated, rather than a role based or more traditional style of resume. This struck me as odd – I felt the examples were a natural progression of a career path rather than a change of career. Where’s the advice for an engineer wanting to move into creating greeting cards?

I do think however, the skill based resume might be a good idea for me. From my reading, the skills looked for in these styles of roles are mostly transferrable from my professional experience.

I am a project manager who works on highly visible whole of government projects. That means senior executives want fast turnarounds whilst ensuring that all stakeholders are consulted and have their expectations met. I work in an area with no budget, but one which has continuing demands placed on it by senior executives. I realise this might come across somewhat whinging, but I’m not writing it as a complaint or a as a play for your sympathy. I’m just outlining that as outlined in the recently advertised Australian Civilian Corps selection criteria I have:

  • High level analytical skills
  • High level strategy development
  • Planning and project management
  • Strong inter-agency liaison and coordination
  • Strong leadership skills
  • Excellent team based skills
  • Adaptability and perseverance
  • Resourcefulness
  • Sound judgement and common sense
  • Resilience, stress tolerance and the ability to work under considerable pressure

Did I mention I work on whole of government projects? I also have a degree in Third World Development and Anthropology. Therefore I have an:

  • Ability to work with others, particularly in a cross cultural and in a whole of government/international cooperation environment.

You’re just going to have to trust me that I also have:

  • Robust physical and mental health

But that still leaves:

  • Experience in capacity development

Which is the main criterion really.

Capacity management is defined a number of different ways, but the definitions all have in common the ability for people, organisations and the society at large to achieve their development goals.

I believe the closest I currently have is from change management, with an emphasis on education (at the individual level), organisational change (at the organisational level) and cultural change (at the societal level). But it’s not really the same thing and I acknowledge that. I know about capacity management from my degree, but I don’t have experience in it. Something I need to address.

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Why the wrong wall?

There are two main purposes in setting up this blog, which are encapsulated in these Stephen R. Covey quotes

Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall

Over the years, a great many initiatives have been funded, all of which held the base principle that these initiatives would help make the lives of those they supported better. There are many issues here, but I want to go into depth with two of them.

Sadly, corruption means that the initiatives provided did not necessarily make the impact that the donors would have hoped for. While this has long been acknowledged within aid spheres as part of the history of development, it is still an issue today.

On two recent disasters, the Haitian earthquake and the Pakistan floods, there have been accusations of corruption by insiders.

That’s not to say that there is nothing to be done about corruption, Ausaid in 2007 put out a report on their corruption lessons learnt as I’m sure have other organisations. However, as you can see from the recent disasters, it’s still an issue.

But that’s not the only issue here; there are other questions on even initiatives which have been delivered successfully. Those question are – did the initiative result in improvements to the people it was delivered to? Was that initiative really the one that was needed? Just because someone has delivered a new widget somewhere, there’s an assumption that those people needed that widget, that they can make good use of the widget, that the widget has improved their life somehow.

Wine to water is a small NGO. It goes around fixing existing water pumps which have broken down. It has discovered that some villages who do not have the skills to fix their existing water pumps have simply applied to get new water pumps, which go in next to the existing broken ones. I would strongly argue that those villages need someone(s) local trained in the repair of water pumps rather than new water pumps which are going to break down in the future.

Givewell is a charity evaluator. They came from an investor background, wanting to give money to organisations who had proved they had made a difference, rather than simply assuming that the new widget would improve people’s lives. They discovered that on the whole, there wasn’t a lot of research done on this question. Some of it was that funds and time required to do this style of research was thought to be better placed out in the field. Some of it was in order to gain research of the highest calibre, randomised trials should be done and it is inhumane to withhold aid to people in need. But some of it is just assumptions that ‘all aid is good’.

So part of this blog’s purpose is to talk about how aid can do good, how it doesn’t always create improvements in people’s lives. Continuing to provide aid in the same old ways is climbing the same ladder on the wrong wall.

If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster

This is the personal side of my blog. I have been working in the IT world for over 15 years, which comes as a strange thought to me when you consider that my degree is in Anthropology and Third World Development.

I have wanted to work in the aid sector for a long time. However my ladder was against the IT wall and every step up that ladder has meant that the next step is a little easier. I couldn’t drop everything and head off overseas to volunteer on some aid program (the typical entrance route to aid work). I have kids and a mortgage, jumping off that ladder and starting at the bottom of another one simply wouldn’t work.

But this is what I want to do, so I just need to figure out how to do it.

So the other part of this blog’s purpose to track my journey across to the right wall.

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