Follow the Money: How Women of Uganda Made the Corrupt Accountable

By Vince Beiser.

Several months ago in Uganda's remote Kole district, a teacher at Baramindyang
Primary School discovered that members of the local Parent Teacher Association had embezzled some 700,000 Ugandan shillings -- about $225 -- from the school. Appalled, the teacher managed to get her hands on a photo of the meeting at which the embezzlers allegedly committed the theft. She then gathered parents and local leaders together for a meeting and threatened to show the police the picture. In short order, the embezzlers handed the money back.

That happy ending is thanks to a program of the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET). The Kampala-based organization, which has long been at the forefront of using technology to promote women's rights, launched a program in 2011 to train grassroots activists and local community members to use mobile phones, cameras, and the Ushahidi mapping platform to report on corruption and other problems with delivery of government services.

The idea is that those newly-empowered citizen activists will document on-the-ground examples of government failing to do its job -- say, by taking pictures of an unfinished school or underequipped clinic. They can then transmit that evidence via SMS to Voluntary Social Accountability Committees -- groups of trusted, veteran community activists. It's then up to the committee members to figure out a strategy to take action around the problem. The Baramindyang teacher was a member of one of those committees. In that case, as in others, the digital evidence helped drive a real-world campaign for change.

The project is being run in Kole and three other rural districts of northern Uganda, where most people are illiterate and unfamiliar with digital tech. WOUGNET also provides phones and cameras where necessary, and runs information centers where people can access the Internet. "Our training is basic," says program manager Moses Owiny. "We show them step by step how to operate a camera, how to take quality pictures, how to erase, etc. All these things are quite phenomenal for them."

Issues that the local activists identify are catalogued on a Ushahidi-driven map on WOUGNET's website. Clicking around on it is like reading a news wire of unglamorous but important local issues. There's no shortage in a country rated as one of the world's most corrupt by Transparency International. In another episode in Kole last year, VSAC members took photos of a broken road culvert that local authorities were dragging their feet on repairing, and took the matter to the district government. "When there (were) further delays, community members blocked the road in a peaceful demonstration, leading to immediate action taken to repair and replace the broken culvert," wrote a local VSAC member. Elsewhere, WOUGNET-supported committees have pressured government officials into providing funds to open a new health center in Aloni parish, arresting five health workers in Amuru district for negligence, and forcing a sloppy contractor to finish a road which, thanks to a batch of uninstalled drainage culverts, had flooded so badly it prevented merchants from getting to market and forced students to wade through water to get to school. That road is now passable for pedestrians, bicyclists and vehicles.

Providing information on problems is a good start, but to actually get results, real-world organizing is crucial, says Loren Treisman, the Executive of Indigo Trust, a UK-based philanthropy that has provided funding to WOUGNET. "Because so many people have mobile phones, it's a great tool in terms of scale, cost and speed for getting and giving people information," she says. "But tech is just a tool, not a panacea. It will only work if there's a program in place. You need people doing work offline -- holding meetings, organizing marches, building trust with government officials. You need to integrate the tech into real world work."

Owiny acknowledges the program has faced resistance from some local leaders who feel "witch hunted." In response, he says, "we try to let them know that this is a joint work for the betterment of the community they serve."

Beyond specific local campaigns, WOUGNET is hoping their digital training efforts will have a broader, long-lasting impact. "The level of empowerment has significantly gone up," says Owiny. "No one can easily steal and get away with it. More community members now understand their rights than before."

To find more stories that show how citizens have used data to hold their governments to account, click here.