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Empowering local action against corruption in COVID-19 responses

Ediane Lima, Observatorio do Marajo project manager, presents the results of the Index in the Federal University of Pará. Photo: Observatório do Marajó

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Thirty-year-old Luiz Carlos Guedes – known to everyone as Luti – lives near Marajó, a picturesque but remote island in the northeast of Brazil, where the rivers of the Amazon basin meet the Atlantic Ocean. Marajó belongs to the federal state of Pará, which has one of the lowest human development index scores in the country. Throughout the island’s modern history, its largely Black and traditional population has frequently been left out of decision-making that impacts it, leaving communities vulnerable to risks like food and livelihood insecurity, says Luti.

This, in part, is why in 2020 he founded Observatório do Marajó, a grassroots organisation promoting government transparency on the island.

As the COVID-19 pandemic reached Brazil in 2020, Luti watched with concern. The disease was relatively slow to arrive in this isolated region, but even so the local authorities did not seem to be taking the opportunity to prepare. When cases started to quickly spread, it seemed to Luti and his colleagues that public resources were being used more to strengthen political leaders’ positions than help the most vulnerable.

“We were very, very concerned because there were no structures in place to assist communities in the most rural areas, and no strategy for how resources would be used,” says Luti. “Local politicians just wanted to connect their own image to the response to the crisis.”

A small organisation like Observatório do Marajó could not easily reach or influence local officials. Despite their best efforts, they still did not have a seat at the table.

Meanwhile in São Paulo, Transparency International Brazil had similar concerns about how the government’s response to COVID-19 was playing out at the local level.

Municipalities in Brazil have vastly differing levels of transparency and openness. Many did not publish even the most basic information about their activities and use of public resources on their websites. As local government offices became the front line in the fight against the pandemic, it became more vital than ever to ensure that resources essential for the wellbeing of the many were not abused for the benefit of the few.

Yet, even identifying where the gaps lay was an enormous challenge.

To overcome this, Transparency International Brazil developed a system of over 90 indicators to assess municipal transparency – asking whether information like officials’ schedules, department budgets, and public contracts are published online. The chapter partnered with eight local non-governmental organisations around the country to put the methodology into practice. Observatório do Marajó was one of them.

These local grassroots organisations eventually assessed over 180 municipalities using the framework developed by Transparency International Brazil. Members and volunteers from the grassroots organisations received training in how to apply the survey, and classes to develop their skills in areas like communications, fundraising and advocacy.

With alarm bells ringing worldwide over corruption in responses to COVID-19, other Transparency International chapters were also harnessing the power of engaged citizens on the ground.

In Honduras, La Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (Transparency International Honduras) tracked the government’s roll out of COVID-19 vaccines. Their staff and volunteers around the country presented their findings to local health officials and pushed for greater transparency about how vaccines were being allocated, distributed and administered. The meetings put engaged local citizens in direct contact with officials and backed up their efforts with advocacy and expertise from our chapter in Honduras.

Transparency International Zambia, meanwhile, kept watchful eyes over 4 million Zambian Kwacha (over US$200,000) that the World Bank had allocated to dozens of local health offices to support the country’s fight against COVID-19. Local teams in 13 districts and seven provincial capitals helped monitor how these funds were actually being used, with support from our Zambian chapter to verify data and ensure accuracy.

Together with the people in these regions, Transparency International Zambia revealed that some districts had not yet received the funds allocated to them. In others occasions they could show that the funds had been delivered but had not yet been brought into play.

As in other countries, even obtaining information about the use of funds at the local level was a challenge. Fortunately, our Zambian colleagues were able to build on the earlier success of local monitoring teams that had tracked donations pledged to the fight against COVID-19. Thanks to these existing relationships, health offices more readily shared information about the World Bank funds. As in Brazil and Honduras, the monitoring project became a way for local communities to engage with local public offices, sharing findings and proposing improvements that benefit public health.

Back on Marajó, Luti got a seat on the table and brought his organisation’s findings to officials at meetings attended by Transparency International Brazil. Positively, 12 of the 17 municipalities assessed by Observatório do Marajó have engaged with the findings and recommendations for more transparent local government. All over Brazil, municipal governments have responded to the transparency assessments carried out by grassroots organisations. Some have already begun making improvements, such as posting officials’ schedules online and creating digital scheduling tools to improve public access to health services.

This, in turn, has opened doors for the local civil society organisations. Observatório do Marajó now has a bigger platform for its other work on deforestation and corruption – which is vital not just for Pará and Brazil, but the entire planet: in 2021 alone, the state of Pará lost 692,000 hectares of natural forest – equivalent to about a thousand football pitches.

Crucially, says Luti, the project put power in the hands of people who have not normally been able to influence the decisions that affect them. “It was rare and powerful to see our project manager Ediane Lima – a Black woman from a traditional riverside community – leading a process with the municipalities in her region, who listened to her recommendations on how to improve transparency.”