The Importance of RTI in Corruption fight

14 March 2014

By Zibusiso Dube

Dube is the Information Manager at Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association (BPRA). He writes in his personal capacity. This article first appeared March 3 in Southern Eye.

Zimbabwe’s terrible corruption has been laid bare for all to see.

Chief executive officer (CEO) of Premier Services Medical Aid Society (PSMAS) Cuthbert Dube allegedly earned $230 000 per month and Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation CEO Happison Muchechetere earned $40 000 a month at a time when most Zimbabweans are impoverished is nothing short of tragic.

Further reports of graft, self aggrandisement, shady dealings and mismanagement in many state entities, parastatals and local authorities including Air Zimbabwe, the National Social Security Authority (NSSA), Gwanda Municipality and Harare City Council also bear testimony of Zimbabwe’s corruption crisis.

“Salarygate” as the scandal has come to be known has vindicted critics of the government who have often accused it of poor governance and failure to develop the country. Some have blamed the rot on cronyism and camaraderie among top officials while others have blamed it on militarisation of the public sector.

Without disputing these theories, this piece however bemoans the culture of lack of accountability in the government activities which manifests itself partly in the dearth of information availability to citizens. There are four main pillars in anti-corruption strategies and these are economic development, democratic reform, a citizenry with access to information and presence of rule of law. This article focuses on an informed citizenry.

Zimbabwe needs to take measures to ensure that its citizens have information on critical issues as a step towards dealing with corruption. Reforms including the introduction of a right to information (RTI) law that will force public departments, entities and officials to disclose information to the public, thus promoting transparency and accountability are needed.

Asymmetries in access to information are Zimbabwe’s downfall when it comes to corruption. Most of what the government knows or does, the people do not know. What local authorities and service providers know or do, residents are in the dark about. There is no culture of information provision in the country.

This is mainly due to the fact that there is no law protecting or fulfilling the right of citizens to access information. The misnamed Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) in no way promotes disclosure of information by public bodies. It instead makes it a mammoth task for individuals, including journalists and other media professionals to obtain information and circulate it among the public. By extension therefore, the media and civil society are also stifled hence an uninformed citizenry.

Armed with information that the public is not privy to, public officials then have the leeway to take bribes, award themselves exorbitant salaries and get away with mismanagement of public entities. On the other side, ignorance of what is happening in public institutions and government, Zimbabweans are ill-equipped to make informed choices especially during election times. And if elections cannot remove the corrupt, then leaders do not have an incentive to do away with graft.

Like Adam Smith’s economic animals, driven by selfish interests, they continue milking the country dry while service delivery remains in the doldrums and the majority wallow in poverty. As a resource rich country, it is also imperative that anti-corruption efforts in Zimbabwe also target the mining sector. Oxford economist Paul Collier argues that lack of information by citizens often leads to high levels of corruption in the mining sector.

He notes that the Publish What You Pay (PWYP) campaign, that compels mining companies to disclose what they pay to governments and the Publish What You Earn (PWYE) campaign that compels governments to disclose what they earn from mining are key to reigning-in corruption in the sector. If companies disclose what they pay and governments disclose what they receive, then citizens are able to compare the two and hold leaders accountable for income from mining.

This is a simple illustration of the importance of information in the fight against corruption. The trouble is that Zimbabwe’s government has historically shown a proclivity towards denying citizens their right to information. Through unnecessary bureaucracy and laws such as AIPPA and the Official Secrets Act (OSA), the government has intentionally kept a tight lid on official information.

Local authorities have followed suit, erecting bureaucratic cordons that make it impossible for residents to access the most basic of information.

Thus basic information such as maps of available stands, lists of registered companies, cadastres, local and national budgets, minutes of council meetings and so forth are difficult to come by. This leaves leeway for misappropriation of funds, rent seeking and incompetence in the conduct of government business, at the national and local level.

Lack of information has been exacerbated by the dearth of the social contract that exists between the government and citizens. This has been more prevalent in local governance where municipalities have ceded their responsibilities to residents.

Consultation of residents is limited and service delivery has eroded to unprecedented levels. With erosion of the social contract, there has arisen an asymmetry in the information within the reach of residents and local authorities, allowing the latter to abuse authority.

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