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In Uganda, politics affect the impact of open data on resource allocation

By Bernard Sabiti

“Resource allocation in Uganda is a political action”, a ministry of finance official told the ODDC Uganda researchers in Kampala. She was reacting to a question on whether any decisions on how to allocate resources for poverty eradication were augmented by available data.  

Open Data is a fairly new concept in Uganda and as a result there are few open data initiatives in place, and the connection between available data and how it is used to determine resource allocation for poverty eradication is not clear-cut.

While making a direct link between open data and resource allocation is a daunting challenge, it is already evident, from the research’s initial findings that the history of the poverty alleviation movement in uganda in the early 1990s was preceded by, and gave birth to activism that focused on information and data access that was aimed at complimenting the then development agenda. The 1997-enacted Poverty Eradication Action Plan (PEAP), which for subsequent years became the central plan for government in its efforts to eradicate poverty was supported by the Uganda Poverty Participatory Assessment programme (UPPAP). The programme was a collaboration of government, the donors and civil society and it sought to collect information from citizens with a view of deepening the consultation process and impact of PEAP. The UPPAP aimed at strengthening the PEAP by bringing the voices and perspectives of the poor into the district and national planning for poverty reduction in Uganda through, enhancing knowledge about the nature and causes of poverty and the appropriate strategies for action.

It is therefore fair to say that key government anti-poverty policies and legislation have somewhat been influenced by data. The massively funded poverty programmes also elicited tremendous interest from the civil society to know what was going on - how the monies were being spent. This again in turn made the implementers of the poverty programmes more open and to care to make sure that the investment decisions they made were backed up by reasonable evidence of necessity.

Over the years however, (and initial findings of this study suggest), politics from time to time may, especially in critical sectors, trump every other factor when it comes to what in local political slang is known as “dividing the national cake”.

Traditional resource allocation processes like the budget process, while seemingly following a formal, participatory procedure in which different stakeholders at local, regional and national levels are consulted in what is known as the ‘budget cycle’, the final document is a highly classified document which only a few high ranking government officials are privy to. There have also been complaints that the implementation of the budget is not as participatory as its planning.

For starters, the presidency in Uganda is a very powerful institution in the policy making processes. The president, according to the constitution is also the minister of finance and only appoints someone to preside over the ministry on his behalf. The Ministry of Finance, planning and Economic Development (MFPED) is, by law, the government’s key resource allocation body. The president, and his ruling party have on more than one occasion implemented decisions to fulfill election campaign promises and the ruling party caucus recently requested to be given control of the budget process so that it may effectively implement its five year election manifesto. The use of open data to inform their spending decisions is therefore likely to be less pronounced

Politics however is just one of the many factors that limit the use of data to inform allocation of resources. Sometimes the data itself is not available or when it is, it is in old school formats and is of poor quality. Collecting reliable data that informs government process is a very expensive work, says an official from the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, the government arm that is charged with data collection. The national census is for example currently behind schedule and given the fact that the National Population and Housing Census is a meticulous, extensive process that collects massive amounts of social economic data, this is affecting planning

Many government officials the researchers are talking to already laud the potential role a robust open data initiative might play in ensuring proper planning, transparency and accountability.  But they are also quick to cite potential bottlenecks such an initiative might face including but not limited to; poor internet access and connectivity across the country, resistance from government bureaucrats to whom custodianship of information is a tool of power and influence, and the start-up costs which are expected to be high, that might be unaffordable to the government.

All the respondents so far however agree in principle that an Open data initiative is a welcome idea which has potential to improve the country’s governance

The research continues with the next phase focusing on in-depth study of case studies of some open data initiatives operational in both Uganda and Kenya

 

Bernard Sabiti, a program officer at Development Research and Training, is part of the research team doing the study in Uganda