Follow the Money, Stop Misinformation and Support Innovation: Accountability during COVID
Interview with Cheri-Leigh Erasmus. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Legacies of corruption in fragile and conflict affected states are compromising the COVID-19 response efforts at a time when countries are at their most economically vulnerable. While many corruption prevention and enforcement mechanisms by the states are suspended due to the pandemic, social distancing measures and lockdowns have pushed development organizations focusing on corruption and accountability to reinvent their programming approaches and adapt to the constantly changing situation.
We spoke to Cheri-Leigh Erasmus, the Global Learning Director of Accountability Lab to know more about how Accountability Lab has reacted to the number of challenges thrown at them by this pandemic and how their anti-corruption/accountability programming has adapted. Accountability Lab was founded in early 2012 as an effort to work with young people to develop new ideas for accountability, transparency and open government. It has evolved into a global network of local labs that are finding new ways to shift societal norms, solve intractable challenges and build “unlikely networks” for change.
1. What are some of the new governance/corruption issues that have arisen due to COVID-19?
Cheri: COVID-19 led to new streams of funding to countries to strengthen their mitigation strategies. This increased flow of money created new opportunities for corruption in spaces where leaders who lack integrity value personal gain over the health and safety of citizens. Additionally, lockdown measures created to curb the spread of the virus also gave rise to human rights violations and closing civic space in countries where citizens’ ability to speak up against corrupt practices and abuses of power were already limited. This can create situations where new resources are not allocated the way they should be at a critical time, and ordinary citizens and activists are not in a position to raise concerns openly due to fear of reprisals. As the pandemic continues, this will have to be monitored closely.
2. What have been the biggest challenges for Accountability Lab’s to carry on with its work of holding governments accountable in times of COVID-19?
Cheri: The pandemic led to the rapid creation of mitigation responses as well as flow of development funds to countries that needed support quickly. Funds from international financial institutions and government agencies that would normally be attached to longer planning processes and stakeholder consultations have been deployed with very limited input from civil society. While the urgency is understandable, this can lead to less transparent processes, which creates fertile soil for corruption. In our efforts to provide accurate information to communities around services they should be receiving, we’ve found it hard to follow exactly how money allocated to pandemic responses are supposed to be spent and have been spent in various countries, which makes it very hard to hold governments accountable.
3. How has Accountability Lab responded to such challenges?
Cheri: Our existing networks of Community Frontline Associates (CFAs) – groups of trained enumerators and information disseminators – have been a valuable asset in helping us gather information on the types of support communities are receiving. While it can be very difficult to find accurate information on how COVID-19 funds are supposed to be spent in many countries, we are cross-referencing CFAs observations on services in their own communities with data they’re gathering from civil service agencies with information on support provided by local and international donors. This gives us a sense of where and how funds are being spent and makes gaps in support to communities apparent. We publish these findings in accessible bulletins that can be used by CSOs, journalists and grassroots activists who are advocating for more transparent processes. Through their conversations with ordinary civil servants at the community level, our CFAs also gather informative stories around the challenges these individuals on the frontlines of the pandemic are facing.
4. Has COVID-19 created any new opportunities or avenues for Accountability Lab to increase the effectiveness of your projects
Cheri: COVID-19 forced us to re-think the model of our Accountability Incubator and this led to new opportunities. Over the last 5 years we’ve run incubator programs for young change makers who are creating new solutions for greater accountability in 6 countries through in-person training and networking opportunities. Forced to move the delivery of the program online to keep participants and staff safe, it opened up possibilities for the creation of incubators in spaces where we don’t have a physical presence, and even training cohorts from more than one country. Through funding provided by the Ford Foundation, we launched our first Virtual Incubator for East Africa in June, with participants from Kenya and Uganda.
Misinformation and rumors around COVID-19 has become a big challenge throughout the pandemic, and this can be exacerbated in spaces where there is a lack of trust in information coming from the government, and where digital literacy rates are low. We have used our existing networks of volunteers in communities to gather rumors and questions on the ground as part of our Coronavirus CivActs Campaign. Our teams create bulletins in a variety of local languages that provide validated data to dispel rumors and ensure that communities have access to accurate information in a format that is accessible. These bulletins are disseminated via social media, WhatsApp, text messages, community radio stations and through partner CSO’s networks. While social media definitely makes data dissemination easier, we remain conscious that this is not always the best way to reach marginalized communities and we are constantly striving to find low-tech, accessible ways to get information to communities that need it most.
5. What has been Accountability Lab’s approach to ensuring safety of participants of their projects and their staff while continuing their work on the ground?
Cheri: Our in-person interaction with program participants decreased significantly, but at the moment this varies across geographies. Where there are gatherings, teams take precautions by ensuring that attendees wear masks and adhere to social distancing guidelines. In spaces where online programming has been possible, we have invested the time to ensure that training curricula are transformed to work within a virtual environment while still retaining the same level of engagement and space for relationship-building. We also recognize that even where individuals have access to the internet, the high cost of data can hinder participation. During our virtual incubator, we are prioritizing equitable access by supporting participants with the resources needed to participate throughout the course.
About the Author
Cheri-Leigh Erasmus is the Global Learning Director of Accountability Lab. and has a spent a decade in the higher education and nonprofit management arenas. She graduated from Stellenbosch University in South Africa with a BA in International Studies and started her career in the institution’s Student Affairs Division, followed by its International Office. Her keen interest in education and experiential learning led to a position as a Guest English Teacher in Daegu, South Korea. Since moving to the Washington, D.C. area in 2013 she has been actively involved in numerous nonprofit organizations focused on education, immigration, and leadership development. She has conceptualized and implemented leadership and skills development curricula for emerging leaders geared for careers in both the private and public sectors.