Nigeria as well as South Africa have the largest national economies in Africa. But given widespread corruption in Nigeria, most of the wealth there bypasses the general public. A major hindrance is the government's lack of transparency. Although the national government has made a commitment to join the Open Government Partnership lower levels of government have no plans to provide open data on their budgets and spending. Follow the Money, however, is a project that's striking back. Using a combination of grassroots and online activities, it tracks whether government funds officially allocated to health, education and development projects do in fact reach their targets. If they do not, Follow the Money launches campaigns and demands government accountability.
"We focus on extensive social media activities and also bring in traditional media and hold local hearings," explains Oludotun Babayemi, co-founder of the project. This way, he says, Follow the Money can exchange information with citizens across the country and learn about shortcomings.
When a major flood in 2012 destroyed the Gutsura community in Nigeria's northwestern state of Zamfara, the government announced it would provide emergency relief, allocate funds and relocate the 3,000 residents. "But one year later, not even a cent had arrived," recounts Babayemi. "A citizen reporter of ours in the area told us what was happening and we started informing people via Twitter, Facebook and the radio," Babayemi says. "We told the stories about the people there and demanded that the government act." A few months later the residents were relocated to another community and were given new housing.
Being held accountable
Other cases taken on by Follow the Money have also attracted wide attention. As a result schools, for example, have been built and children with lead poisoning have finally received medical treatment. The project continues to launch new campaigns and encourages people to get involved and increase pressure on the government. The core team of citizen journalists, development experts, lawyers and data analysts processes, vizualizes and publishes data and information, and demands responses from the political decision-makers.This way, Nigerian citizens become part of a movement. "Digital technologies and open data enable people to get involved and become better informed," says Babayemi. "These channels are a mouthpiece for society's marginalized groups."
Follow the Money is a showcase of support for digital participation, says Jan Lublinski, Head of Research and Evaluation at DW Akademie. "It's creating a new type of public space where people's rights as well as state and government obligations are discussed." Channels like these do not exist in many countries because people cannot access information and as a result are often unaware of their rights. This makes it all the more important to support the development of new public spheres through digital technologies, Lublinski says. It's also part of DW Akademie's digital strategy which aims for people to exercise their right to speak out, to seek information and share knowledge. And it's also about informing others about important issues and concerns, just as Babayemi is doing with Follow the Money.
Digital tools can help create a larger public sphere, particularly in places where corruption is widespread and government activities lack transparency. Looking at the success story of Follow the Money one could argue that the Nigerian government is heading towards more transparency and openness. Follow the Money has created a new public sphere that could make things increasingly difficult for the government.