#Impact365: How this team of young Nigerians tracked billions of diverted funds

Follow The Money is a nongovernmental organization founded by a team of young people to advocate, track and visualize government spending and international aids. The initiative tracks public funds by engaging with local communities and using open source technologies.

In this interview with YNaija’s #Impact365 series, Hamza Lawal, the Director of Follow The Money, talks about how the initiative is fighting to ensure transparency, accountability and open development.

Lawal talking a miner at Bagega during the #SaveBagega campaign
Lawal talking a miner at Bagega during the #SaveBagega campaign

Could you tell us more about the Follow The Money program? How was it formed?

Follow The Money advocates, tracks and realize funds meant for local communities. We try to answer were funds are coming from, where it is going to, whether it is making impact and being utilized in rural communities. When we talk about funds, we are talking about government funds, international aids meant for rural communities.

Follow the money is an initiative of Connected Development. And Connected Development, itself is, is an NGO that tries to empower marginalized communities by providing access to information while ensuring transparency and accountability.

Follow The Money was started in 2012. Basically, because we are tired of hearing about government’s irresponsiveness in terms of committing billions and billions of naira and overtime you won’t even hear how the funds were used and then when you go to these communities, you’ll be shocked that you’d why they are still in abject poverty. And where is this school? Where is this hospital? And how has it improved the environment.

So for us, we keen on three key areas in Follow The Money the child, education and environment. And we look at both government intervention in this areas and international aid organizations.

Discussing with community head and miners
Discussing with community head and miners

So basically you deal with local communities and not big cities?

So this is it. We deal with federal, local and state government authorities but it has to be funds meant for local communities. If they are not intervention meant for specific local community then we will not get involved because if you look at the trend now there is a huge rural-urban migration -everybody wants to go to where you’ll find the basic amenities – but if we ‘re able to ensure the judicious use of public funds in this communities then you’ll see tht every communities will have this basic amenities and nobody will want to leave where they are to find greener pasture where they can access good services, as the case maybe.

So could you tell us how you track money?

Okay, I will give two or three examples. It started in 2010 when there was lead poisoning outbreak. Then in 2012 – and this is how Follow The Money stated. You know for us we are looking information and usually we call it data around what has happened since 2010, 2012, on the funds that has gone into Zamfara state for lead poisoning. So what we now did was to go to the community to get firsthand information about what has happened over time, how did this happen, and how has it impacted the community. This shocked us because nothing really has happened since that time. This now instigated us to launch a campaign called Save Bagega and basically what we do is to document the voices of the people in this communities using social media to amplify these voices and get government to respond.

In 2012, I remember, 24 hours after our campaign, it started trending and in less than 48 hours the then President released the funds that were needed. And for us then we got to understand that there is a difference between approved, released and usage. And that’s another dimension of it because then we were excited that yes this funds have been approved but for this funds to be released became another issue. Ministry of Finance don’t even understand what this funds are meant to do but then, again, there is a political undertone to all this because everybody wants to have a share of the money irrespective of what it is meant to provide in the community -they don’t really care. And again these funds were meant to be used by the ministries of health, environment and mines and steal development, so that’s three MDAS of government. So what we now tried to do is to integrate what we call Stakeholders Engagement, where we bring together all these ministries either the directors, in some cases, there ministers to come and share knowledge and information on: 1) what are their plans to use these funds. 2) How are the voices in these communities captured?

Again, what we understood is that in most cases interventions that are given are not what the community wants. In some cases, you’ll see that some communities have so many school infrastructure they have primary schools, secondary schools, but there are no pupils in these schools and then you have government budget provision saying that it wants to build more schools. And then you wonder why are you investing in capital projects when pupils are not even in the school? Why not provide this funds for incentives to drive pupils to go to school?

IMG_3621So that’s one example.

In 2015, the federal government then approved the sum of 9.2 billion for the procurement of 750,000 clinical stoves and 18, 000 wonder bags for rural women. For us we got interested because it was for rural women. Most importantly is the death of over 95, 000 women annually due to open smoke fire from cutting down of trees, So what we now did was to engage in the process and started with the stakeholders meeting and visiting some of the rural communities in Sokoto, Zamfara state. One for us to prepare these communities and make them aware what government have put together for them. It would shock you to know that the communities are not even aware that there is 9.2 billion meant for them. These announcements are made in Abuja and then this information doesn’t tickle down to the state and local government level.

So what we try to do is to also bridge this information gap, prepare them and also even document their voices. Do they really want the stoves, can they use the stoves most importantly because for us, it’s about the effectiveness of these funds not just releasing.

What was exciting for us, was when the president made that announcement, he said that it was the minister of environment that would coordinate the implementation, which gives a direction. What we did was reach out to the minister of environment leveraging on the freedom of information and also the president then announced the name of company that would implement the contract. So we also reached out to the company and leveraged on the freedom of information.

IMG-20160114-WA0023What’s the name of the company involved?

Integral Renewable Energy. Recently, there was a lead poisoning outbreak last year in Niger state that killed 28 children so what we then did was to amplify the hash tag called #SaveSikira and what we successfully did was to get this new minister of environment to put it in their own budget that was to be sent to the National Assembly where it got approval. Over 250 million was to remediate the community. These funds signed under the 2016 budget. As now as I say to you, they have completed 95% of cleaning up the community. What this means is after the cleanup, over 300 children that are in urgent need of healthcare services would get it because “Doctors without Borders” are currently on ground, waiting to treat after the completion of remediation. So, that is some of the things that we do at “Follow the money”.

So far, have you faced any form of stress, violence with parties that are involved in all this?

Yes of course. I remember when some government official was telling us that money was involved so anything could happen. Indirectly, they were telling us money was involved and they could just dash it out to people to come and kill us.  Another instance I remember in Zamfara state is that the state security team tried to arrest us because they said we were trying to instigate violence and portraying Zamfara as a violent state in the federal government. Under the freedom of information ac, we were empowered to ask those types of questions because it’s about ensuring transparency and accountability.

These communities that we try to empower, they don’t speak English and only speak their own local native language. So, what we try to do is put the budget fee data into info graphics and visualization, which makes it easy for them to understand because then it delivers them to people who don’t even have formal education. We also translate some of this information into the local Hausa language because when we hold town hall meetings, we can speak to them in Hausa and share this budget information. They feel empowered and have the right to speak to a councilor, chairman and federal state government authorities. One thing we leverage on is  the Emirates council.

In northern Nigeria, we have the Emirates council, the District Head, the Village head under the council and it’s more like a very coordinated and respected council. We leverage on them for communities and build partnerships to get concrete information from the community. The Emirates council helps to build the capacity of the community because any information that we want all the villagers to hear, are either at the village square or the palace. We call and they allow us to tell them why we’re here, how we can empower them so that they can ensure their voices are captured in the decision making process.

IMG_20160503_134942So, basically, you all go into local communities and not just send people?

We call it ground truth because in some cases the government would respond that they are already working in a particular community, what we then do is to get there ourselves to verify. All information put out there are ones we personally verify ourselves. Today, we have over 60 reporters in 26 states. We have limited resources so we can’t be in every state and community at the time. When we also go the communities, we recruit other young passionate people who integrate technology.

Today, in Nigeria, every household has mobile phones but not all of them have access to the internet. A lot of people are on Whatsapp, which is an open and free platform if you have data on your phone so we are coordinating a “virtual newsroom” where we follow the money and have porters giving us live updates on what is happening real time in the community. We also have ways of verifying as we leverage on local NGOs and communities where we can reach out to and have them verify such information. We’re just calling for openness in government.

Do you only work in the North or do you come into the South?

Just until the second quarter of this year, we’re now moving into the South and the West. Now, we’re hearing Follow The Money should go through the Ogoni cleanup and ensure transparency, accountability and engaging stakeholders. We might also monitor and evaluate how the funds would be used, but we’ll see. We started in the North but now we’re conquering the entire country and hopefully we can go into West Africa and have the entire continent because now we’re getting people in Cameroon, Ghana and Niger who want to join Follow The Money. Its just for us to share the model with them and build their capacity. We want see how we can refine our model and work in every society. We all have similar problems with corrupt governments and mismanagement of public resources.

It is easy to assume that the public has been receptive about everything you are doing so far, right?

Yes they have been really receptive. It’s just exciting that when we started, we were scared that the public would not want to embrace this but they were actually waiting for someone to let them know it was doable. During the 2015 elections, people felt empowered to ask them what their plans were for the next 3-4 years in their community. Then it used to take us 5 hours from the capital to the community, now it’s less than one hour because we now document storytelling of how we travel, the challenges and so forth. Now, the demand from the communities has increased because they understand what governance is all about and how they can actually add their voices.

How did you start?

Two people founded Follow The money”. Hamza and Oludotun Babayomi and it started in 2010 where we just jumped on a bus going to Zamfara to find out firsthand what had happened there and particularly in…. where there was a reported lead outbreak that killed 400 children.

You just use technology to follow the money and ensure everything is done…

Yes and amplifying the voices of those in these communities.

You follow the money, find where it is, what happens after that? Is there a way to make sure the money is actually used and serves it purpose?

When government makes an announcement that they are releasing the money for these communities, its given to the ministry of environment for remediation and we go there to ask about their plans to give it to the communities and when they would carry it out. We don’t follow paper trail because paper trails could be forged so what we follow is what is happening on the ground. How many trailers are on ground? How many caterpillars are cleaning up the community? How many laborers have been engaged and empowered to clean up the community? During remediation in a particular state, they were supposed to pay every laborer 3000 naira daily but then the officials came and was giving them 1500 Naira instead, they rejected and said according to Follow the money, we were meant to be paid 3000 naira.

What we did was to get the ministry’s budget for implementation and break it down into specific info graphics and share it with the people in the community. They even got the information on their mobile phones. It will interest you to know that they have phones and show to the officials from the ministry of environment because they felt empowered to demand what was rightfully theirs. All we do is take amateur pictures and videos to put them on YouTube and twitter and it creates a lot of noise.

Travelling and making all the social media buzz, wouldn’t it be very expensive on your part? Do you have investors or supporters?

Before we started getting donor funding, what we tried to do was leverage on what the community could offer us. If you want to build trust and bond, you have to tell them that you are not just there from fancy Abuja and you want to take a picture with them as they have such perception, so we just eat their food and sleep there. We tell them that we are visiting them but would need somewhere to sleep, can you provide a house for us? They get excited and do that and more! All we have to worry about is our transportation and that is through motorbikes.

Are you using the Ushahidi model of technology that is being used in Kenya?

Yes we used the Ushahidi platform to map these funds. We leverage on this technology because its free, usable and even comes with technological support. We even used it to monitor the 2015 general elections because we got accreditation to do such. We carried out an Education budget tracker using data from the World Bank. Its to then share the information to colleges and universities. Gone are the days you get the announcements and they would think they could squander the money because people are keeping them on their toes.

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  1. Well done guys!

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