How can poor people fight corruption? Contemporary ‘good governance’ policies of development agencies stress the relationship between an open official information regime – particularly transparency in official development expenditure accounts – and government accountability. However, many governments are very secretive and to obtain information demands resources that socially marginalised groups often simply do not have: organisational strength to stand up to local elites, access to official information, technical skills to analyse accounts, and legal resources to prosecute violations.
Research for this project showed that these are not insurmountable obstacles and the project team identified practical techniques for combating local corruption and enhancing public accountability to the poor. They investigated how and whether a ‘right to information’ platform was an effective basis for mobilising socially excluded groups into an effective civil society force for holding governments accountable. Most approaches to combating corruption focus on administrative and judicial mechanisms rather than efforts emanating from civil society. By charting the fate of civil-society-based anti-corruption initiatives in India over a three-year period, the research findings addressed a large gap in the existing policy and theoretical literature.
Aims and Objectives
This research project had three main objectives, each of which had implications outside the Indian context:
- To document a selection of local anti-corruption initiatives in India in which access to information plays a central role
- To evaluate qualitatively the impact of local information-based anti-corruption initiatives
- To identify the factors which facilitate or inhibit efforts to reform legislation and regulations that hinder citizens’ access to official documents.
The project team undertook case-study work in six states: Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Tamil Nadu, covering a range of activist formations. These included a workers’ and peasants’ union in rural Rajasthan protesting at officials pocketing part of workers’ wages on employment-generation schemes; small groups of women slum-dwellers in Mumbai fighting against the diversion of subsidised food for the poor to the open market; and lower-caste and women’s groups in Goa and Kerala struggling to ensure that development resources earmarked for their use were not withheld by officials.
Common to each was a protracted struggle to obtain official information on anti-poverty expenditures, and an effort to compare these against observed mis-spending or non-delivery. Each of these groups sought means of deciphering complex official information that would allow poor people to determine whether corruption had occurred. The Rajasthan group, for instance, read out official accounts and hundreds of receipts and wage-payment registers in dramatic public hearings in villages, inviting local workers and contractors to confirm whether they had indeed received the wages or payments as recorded. Where discrepancies were identified, officials were asked to explain them. If they could not, they were accused of corruption, and in some cases, admitted to it and returned monies to village coffers.
The key findings of this project were:
- There are practical and effective means for poor people to expose corruption. These include collective public audits of local accounts, informal vigilance committees to monitor delivery of services, or technical committees relying on qualified volunteers assessing the quality of publicly-funded infrastructure or services. However,
- There are limits on the capacity of the poor to hold the state to account. Challenging official malpractice poses high social and time costs on the poor, threatening their relationships with elite benefactors. In most cases, no matter how compelling the prima facie evidence of corruption, it is nearly impossible to provoke the police or local administration into making an effective formal investigation.
Therefore the main policy implication is that citizens’ accountability initiatives need to seek partnership with the state in order to be effective and have an impact beyond the local level.
Key conditions for making citizen-state accountability partnerships effective include:
- Legal standing or formal recognition for non-governmental observers within policy-making arenas or institutions of public sector oversight;
- A continuous presence for these observers throughout the process of the agency’s work;
- Full rights to official documentary information on accounts and the basis for decision-making;
- The right of observers to issue dissenting report directly to legislative bodies, and
- The right of service users to demand a formal investigation and/or seek legal redress for poor decision-making, abuse of human rights, or non-delivery of public services.
These conditions go considerably beyond the terms upon which civil society groups are currently invited to ‘dialogue’ or ‘consult’ with policy-makers to improve public-sector responsiveness. They are, however, crucial to establishing accountability: they enable people to obtain answers from officials, and to impose effective sanctions for improper actions.
The project advisors were:
- Gopal Guru, Dept of Politics and Public Administration, University of Pune
- Yogendra Yadav, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi
- John Samuel, National Centre for Advocacy Studies, Pune
- Vicky Randall, Dept of Government, University of Essex, UK