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India: Root for Transparency
Source: Times of India
Source Date: Monday, October 03, 2011
Focus: Citizen Engagement, Internet Governance
Country: India
Created: Oct 03, 2011

In view of the popular movement for a stronger Lokpal Bill, India should consider how technology can help enable accountability and transparency. It is clear to any observer that the Indian government will seek to incorporate further measures that will help restore some confidence in the system.

Some have questioned whe-ther Anna Hazare's approach of ensuring a powerful Lokpal Bill was the right one for a parliamentary democracy. High-profile scandals such as the 2G spectrum scam have rocked India in recent years. Anti-corruption protesters have had other smaller and everyday stories.

Today, India already has an impressive growth of roughly 8.5% and is one of the largest economies worldwide. It has achieved a remarkable transformation that has been much admired around the world. The economy seems poised to grow even more in the future. Given all this, the issue of fighting corruption is a serious one - one that India needs to address to maintain its long-term growth and economic success.

Transparency, of course, helps to weed out any financial irregularities. Today, transparency is a talked-about issue around the world, particularly in countries that suffer the so-called "resource curse" - the paradox in which countries blessed with natural resources are often typically economic underachievers and suffer from corruption and conflict.

In Africa today, accountabi-lity is being successfully provided using technology, and it is a model that could be instructive for the Indian government. Let's take the case of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a high-profile initiative backed by prominent leaders such as former UK prime minister Tony Blair. The initiative "encourages government, extractive companies, international agencies and NGOs to work together to develop a framework to promote transparency of payments in the extractive industriesa¦[and] seeks to create missing transparency and accountability in revenue flows from the extractive industry".

EITI is helping bring unprecedented transparency and an audit trail to important mining and oil industries in Africa. Ghana is the first nation that has adopted it, and is serving as a case study for some 20 other African nations.

Transparency and accountability always benefit the right people. Another example from Ghana has to do with software and mobile technology helping provide transparency to 1,500 impoverished rural shea nut pickers, improving their livelihoods and cutting out middlemen and reducing graft.

The 1,500 nut pickers, all women, were organised into 83 groups, with each group's leader possessing a mobile phone through which the women can get local market price information via SMS. Once they sell their produce, software helps them get a view into the global supply chain for shea butter. A Stanford University study found that the new technology has significantly improved the women's income - anywhere from between 59% and 82%.

In the developed world, government organisations regularly use technology for visibility. Government agencies that have implemented software-tracking tools have seen increased revenue from past-owed taxes and reduction in fraud. When the US Congress allocated $787 billion for the recovery of the US economy in 2009 (formally, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), it instituted technology to track how the money was being spent, not just by lawmakers but by anyone interested.

The Act said it would provide "unprecedented levels of accountability and transparency in government spending". Today, it is indeed possible to track online where that money went and how many jobs were created as a consequence in a particular region.

Information technology systems can enhance public admi-nistration by providing real-time insight into financial transactions and related outcomes, helping to manage internal risks, improving control over funds, enforcing standards and rules, and streamlining automated processes. IT systems offer countries not only the tools to make fiscally responsible policy for future generations, but also improve the abilities of policymakers to provide good public services and make well-informed decisions.

Newspapers recently carried the story of a poor man and his family committing suicide because the money sanctioned to him under the Indira Awas Yojana, a government housing programme, was siphoned off by middlemen.

India has already implemented the Right to Information Act in 2005, which enshrines the right of a citizen to seek information from officials within 30 days; there are strict penalties for those officials who do not comply.

Although technology is not the panacea for everything, it has the ability to streamline processes, detect fraud and ensure fairness, providing efficiency, transparency and accountability - things which Indian citizens all over India seem to be demanding today.

Best of all, the use of software technology plays to a key Indian strength: India's leadership in computer software.

Of course, all this transparency will not happen overnight. While human efforts such as those by anti-corruption protesters remain crucial, technology can make a real difference in making people's lives more independent from the benevolence or malevolence of any kind of oligarchy. An automated fully open and transparent pro-cess set up to show how public funds are being used and how government is functioning will convince Indian citizens that the government is serious about providing transparency and accountability, and make the great Indian success story even better.
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