Publically-funded rural works programs are popular means for governments to provide social safety nets for the poor while developing basic infrastructure in remote areas. These subsidy schemes are prime targets for corruption because they are administered by local governments and capacity for oversight is weak. However, when communities are empowered to provide their own oversight mechanisms – as has been done under PTF projects – leakage can be stemmed for these vital lifelines.
Many governments support publically-funded rural works programs to provide safety nets for the rural poor and to deploy the underused labor productively. The programs aim to build and/or maintain simple infrastructure such as rural roads, irrigation and drainage works—adding to the country’s productive capacity and providing much needed employment to the rural poor. It is estimated that developing countries spend over 10 billion dollars a year on such programs aiming to benefit over 100 million poor.
The rapid expansion of rural works programs has increased their importance as social safety net instruments, implying the need for increased attention to their efficiency and effectiveness. Because of their decentralized nature with activities scattered over thousands of often remote work sites and with most potential beneficiaries not used to dealing with government bureaucracies, fraud and corruption are often a major risk in such programs. Some of the potential avenues for fraud and corruption in such programs include favoritism in sub-project and beneficiary selection, leakage of program resources, inadequate oversight, and extortion of bribes for the release of wages.
PTF projects and activities combating corruption in rural works programs have been concentrated in India. PTF has provided nearly $320,000 in ten grants to five separate CSOs for projects aimed at corruption in Indian rural works programs. In addition, PTF has provided $166,000 in 7 grants to address corruption in joint rural employment and food distribution (PDS) projects. These projects often include training programs covering social audits, public hearing techniques, community score cards, and India’s Right-to-Information (RTI) law and its application.
A community based women’s organization – Nava Jeevana Mahila Okkoota (NJMO) – in Karnataka was supported by PTF to reduce corruption in basic services and schemes for the poor, especially in food distribution and public works programs at the local level. As a result of the project, the community is well organized and aware of their rights and entitlements. NJMO has been able to influence local government officials and has good rapport. Social audits have been undertaken in 50 communities, a citizens report card has been published, and a Grievance Redressal System has been established for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) and PDS. As a result, 60% community employment was achieved, all workers received their wages on time and community capacity has increased to utilize electronic fund transfer beneficiary accounts.
Visionaries of Creative Action for Liberation and Progress (VICALP) has a strong community base in 200 villages. Through PTF support, the organization was able to train 1,031 leaders on the details of India’s NREGS and RTI legislation. Soon after the initial training, 120 cases of irregularities were identified and discussed, of which 55 were filed through RTI and 25 were solved. Additionally, the trained leaders formed 12 Social Watch Committees (SWC) in 12 local communities to work with government officials to ensure families receive the benefits to which they are entitled. 390 eligible excluded families from 54 villages got job cards; 74 new NREGS projects were sanctioned; beneficiaries got their wages through bank/post office within the stipulated period of 7-15 days; and 94 worksites in the area were improved to avail workers with shade, drinking water, child care, first-aid, work assignment in closer distance and equipment allowances.
The Consumer Unity and Trust Society (CUTS), a network of trained and resourceful CSOs working together for transparency and accountability, conducted a ‘RTI Ground Realities and Corruption Vulnerability Survey’ with 600 scheme beneficiaries. The survey revealed that every beneficiary of NREGS in the target area was forced to pay bribes to obtain benefits. These findings formed the basis for evidence-based advocacy campaign and constructive dialogue with high officials of the concerned Rural Development Department. In response, one visiting official passed an order down the line in all local government and Block Development Offices to have a complaint-cum-suggestion box, fixed at some prominent place. As a result, more than 90 people filed a total of 450 RTI applications on corruption. The RTI applications were need-based, represented burning issues among beneficiaries and were filed individually, but supported collectively.
PTF’s work combating corruption in rural works in India depends critically on a positive external environment. In India this environment includes:
- Freedom of association: CSO formation and operation in India are fundamental to the working of its democracy. In countries restricting freedom of association, in particular CSOs’ freedom to receive foreign funding, the ostensible reason usually given is to enable tighter control of terrorists. But, in practice these controls are often used to stem the activities and the funding of groups that fight corruption or are seen as critical of the regime.
- Official openness: The PTF approach only works if key officials or elected representatives are prepared to engage with CSOs and if it is relatively easy to access the official information needed to probe accountability, such as under the application of increasingly widespread Right to Information laws. Of course, this openness may grow over time, as trust is created and confidence replaces confrontation.
- Freedom of the press: An important weapon of social accountability is for CSOs to be able to place prominent stories in the media and cooperate with journalists, especially where the government resists constructive engagement or facing up to well-substantiated allegations. Where journalism is repressed, and also where there is a weak tradition of investigative journalism, social accountability is greatly weakened.
Additionally, PTF has learned that women’s groups are particularly effective in combating corruption in rural works in India. Most of the CBOs that PTF’s Indian partners work with are women’s groups or are dominated by women. This is partly out of equity considerations and partly because the women are usually in and around the villages, while the men often travel far for work. In one area of India, the PTF evaluation found that women’s groups supported by PTF have forced officials to be respectful, and that MGNREGS beneficiaries have even got more than their 100 day work entitlement. They have won the right to choose the public works projects themselves, providing the district engineers approve them. Determined advocacy by the women has changed their relationship with duty-bearers. Having seen what these women’s groups have achieved has earned considerable respect from the men. This has further increased the confidence of the women activists. This has given them the courage to tackle other issues that affect women deeply.
The demanding nature of institutional change in the culture of public works programs means that two or three years of PTF support are rarely sufficient for long-term change. Furthermore, the growing importance of public employment programs imply a great and continuing need for the kinds of activities supported by PTF. To support activities along the lines of the successful projects in India, and to make them sustainable on a larger scale, PTF can work with governments at the national and state levels, with individual bilateral and multilateral donors, as well as in other forms of partnership with private firms and foundations.
Moving beyond the local level, with new funding PTF could seek to develop more synergy between grassroots activities and national-level advocacy by encouraging and helping partners to connect with national or sub-national policy networks, to share their experience proactively and to use PTF’s own web of contacts to connect partners with research centers, national advocacy groups, reform-minded officials etc. who could make good use of their grassroots experiences.