Publically-funded rural works programs are popular means for governments to provide social saftey 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.
- 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.
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.