Access to Information as a tool for the sustainable development of roads in Uganda

11 December 2014

By Sam Mutabazi

The author is Executive Director of Uganda Road Sector Support Initiative (URSSI). This is a chapter from a recently issued State of Right to Information in Africa Report 2014 and is reprinted with permission. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)

Information exchange is vital in setting the development agenda of a country. Governments that are liberal in sharing information with citizens are more likely to develop faster than those that withhold or give piecemeal information. The United Kingdom has, for instance, made access to information an important foundation of delivering public goods and services to its citizens. According to the guide to freedom of information produced by Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in the UK, the country’s information openness is fundamental to the political health of a modern state. Public authorities spend money collected from taxpayers and make decisions that can significantly affect many people’s lives. Access to information helps the public make public authorities accountable for their actions and allows public debate to be better informed and more productive. Unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance in governance and defective decision–making. Access to official information can also improve public confidence and trust if government and public sector bodies are seen as being open[1].

The culture of information exchange in Sub Saharan Africa to a large extent is still quite limited although there are clear signs for faster adaptation. Governments are recognizing the importance of sharing the information with citizens because the same information is only held in trust and on behalf of citizens. According to the Carter Centre[2] access to information is one of the keys to democracy. Allowing people to seek and receive public documents serves as a critical tool for fighting corruption, enabling citizens to more fully participate in public life, making governments more efficient, encouraging investment, and helping persons exercise their fundamental human rights.

The Government of Uganda has since 2008 prioritized road development and maintenance by committing a substantial part of her budget towards the same. From a mere 300 billion the sector was receiving in 2006/7, roads received a much–needed boost during financial year 2008/9 to 1 trillion shillings (380 million US Dollars). Since then, the percentage of budget allocation has been progressively increasing, with the subsector set to receive the highest allocation of 19% of the national budget during the financial year 2014/15. The construction industry contributes over 12 percent of Uganda’s gross domestic product (GDP) and has witnessed a steady growth for the last 20 years.

Budget literacy in Uganda is still very low. The masses are not aware about budget proposals let alone sector allocations. Civil society has been critical in addressing this challenge by providing simplified versions of budget estimates to the citizens as a way of awakening their interest, but also of empowering the people to demand for accountability from the government and its representatives. Bearing this in mind, therefore, the large sums of money allocated to roads have not had strict citizen scrutiny to ensure appropriate spending, transparency and accountability. Uganda Road Sector Support Initiative (URSSI)[3] working under the auspices of Uganda Contracts Monitoring Coalition (UCMC)[4] has been spearheading efforts geared at unmasking the roads subsector and accessing information from government agencies responsible for road development and maintenance.

Initial efforts by civil society geared at seeking for a partnership with the government were slow and non–yielding. It took civil society more than two years to get access to contracts from Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA). The memorandum of understanding (MoU) between UCMC and UNRA is yet to be signed, two years after the draft was forwarded to the road agency. UCMC and URSSI in particular are seeking to demystify contracts in roads, agriculture, health and extractives. UCMC has already developed a road–monitoring tool that is simplified and easy to use by the citizens. Initial tests have been carried out on specific ongoing and completed projects. In the coming months, road monitors will be trained on how to use this tool before they are sent out to different areas to monitor roads and provide feedback.

Uganda has been known for projects that are never completed on time. Before the creation of UNRA no single road project had ever been completed on schedule. The famous 21Km Kampala Northern Bypass whose construction started in 2003 was completed almost six years after the expected date of completion. Even then it was opened due to public pressure; lights had not been fixed, the drainage was not done etc. Yet it remains one of the most expensive roads in the country to date. Why was this project messed up? Because the public did not have any information about it! The expansion of this road to make it dual carriage is meant to commence in September 2014. Civil society will be vigilant to ensure that the mistakes under the first phase are not repeated.

Civil society is yet to be fully accepted by the government as a strategic partner in project performance and delivery. It is, for instance, important that civil society is represented on contract committees of various agencies. Civil society is currently not involved in pre–contract actions or activities. There is need therefore for CSOs to be part of contracts committees so as to be part of the contracting process from the onset. There is need for capacity building for CSOs and multi–stakeholder coalitions to create an effective lobbying and influencing platform that can lead to greater transparency and accountability for public contracts.

Uganda was recently admitted into CoST (Construction Sector Transparency Initiative)[5] and is thus expected to greatly improve its information sharing and accountability mechanisms and practices. CoST is a targeted initiative that seeks to improve the value for money spent on public infrastructure, including road construction, by increasing transparency in the delivery of construction projects. CoST works with governments, industry and civil society to disclose information on public investment in infrastructure and promotes disclosure of project information with the aim of reducing mismanagement, inefficiency and corruption and improving value for money.

An empowered citizenry with basic information will go a long way to demand for services the population is yearning for. Citizens need to be granted an opportunity to get all the information about a project although they may not necessarily go into technical details. This helps them to own the outcome of the project. The role of civil society in contract monitoring cannot be over emphasized. If contracts are for the welfare of the people, then civil society, which is supposed to be part of the people, must take a leading role in ensuring that contracts are delivered according to agreed terms.

Recommendations

Uganda’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and sitting President of the United Nations General Assembly, Mr. Sam Kutesa, in his maiden address to the United Nations General Assembly promised to fast track MDGs and post–2015 discussions. The September 2011 MDG Summit identified lack of transparency and failed commitments as the main constraints to the attainment of MDG targets. In this regard Uganda should lead by example by ratifying and fully implementing African Union treaties, particularly the one on Democracy, Elections and Governance.

Information without the right to freedom of expression defeats the purpose of access to information, yet over the recent past numerous observers have expressed concern over shrinking civic space in Uganda. This has taken the form of draft bills to restrict activities of civil society, control of the media, militarising civil spaces and denying sections of the population the right to express themselves on important social, economic and political matters. It is recommended that Government recommits to citizen freedoms by expanding civic space to realise the true goals of freedom of information.

 


 

http://www.ico.org.uk

http://www.cartercenter.org

http://www.ugandaroadsector.org

http://www.ucmc.ug

http://www.constructiontransparency.org/

Be Sociable, Share!

Filed under: Latest Features