'Say What You See' Is Easier Said Than Done

One of the reasons we've got so used to our car tax discs is that it shows that we've paid our bill. It's evidence that we've paid our dues, and one of many day-to-day demonstrations of transparency that we can take for granted.

It's cheaper and easier for us to have a paperless system with the option to pay by direct debit. But I imagine that some of us will feel a twinge of nostalgia at its passing.

One of the reasons we've got so used to our car tax discs is that it shows that we've paid our bill. It's evidence that we've paid our dues, and one of many day-to-day demonstrations of transparency that we can take for granted.

From car tax discs to the Chancellor's Statements, in the UK we're able to find out how much tax is paid within the UK and how it's being spent. And if we suspect the Government isn't telling the truth about how they're spending it, we can kick up a fuss.

Sadly, at a global level, we're the exception rather than the rule.

Millions of people don't know what monies their government receives or how they're spending it. There is still far too much cash siphoned off to mysterious bank accounts held by corrupt officials who grow fat on the wealth produced by their country while their own citizens try to survive on around £1 a day.

In 2010, developing nations lost £555 billion through illicit, corrupt and secretive money flows. We'll never be able to plan for a future where overseas aid is no longer required unless we make sure that money is used to build infrastructure within those countries.

Today (9 December) is Anti Corruption Day, and some people are celebrating.

Among them, the residents in Choma constituency in Zambia who were disappointed with the poor health services available at their local clinic, originally intended for prison inmates and which people outside the prison had started to use, so they asked a few questions and found out that they could apply for government funding to improve their local services.

As the plans for the clinic progressed, local people could find out what was happening by keeping up with information published on community notice boards and reported by radio stations, or by checking a local log book which announced when materials would be delivered.

Their transparency took away the mystique that commonly surrounds this sort of project in Zambia, and so everyone had confidence in the process. There were no allegations of the misuse of funds, the expansion was completed to schedule and the clinic continues to be well used by the community.

The easier it is to see what's happening with public funds, the more likely it is that those funds won't be stolen or wasted and will be used well.

This project, which we found as part of Tearfund research into budget transparency, is a good example on a number of levels.

If the residents hadn't known how to ask questions of their public officials, they would never have found out about the funding application process. And if the officials responsible for granting the funds and planning the clinic hadn't been publicly accountable for the way they used the funds, the risks of misunderstanding and misappropriation would have been much greater.

So for some, today is a good day.

But for millions of others, including many of those who live near to mining operations, it's another reminder that their lives are blighted by the secrecy of their own governments and of the companies who rob them of the wealth beneath their feet.

In Colombia, for example, which produces 90% of the world's emeralds and has the largest coal reserves of any country in Latin America with substantial reserves of iron ore, nickel, gold and copper, the law stipulates that 80% of royalties go to the regions which produce those minerals (due to be reduced to 15% in 2015) in order to invest in local development.

But when we researched its implementation residents told us they weren't able to find out what companies were paying the Colombia government and so they weren't able to hold them to account for giving local communities their fair share.

One iron-nickel workers' union leader told us: 'It would be great to have this type of information. It would make it easier for us to analyse the activities of companies and what the government actually receives and how it is spent.'

But instead, people don't benefit from the wealth created in their own community and many of their children remain uneducated, and some are caught up in child prostitution, alcoholism and drug addiction.

Two communities, both full of people with the will to organise themselves and the energy to get involved in calling for funding that will help keep their children safe and well.

The difference is that one can get the information they need in order to ask for funding for health services; the other can't.

There's no way out of aid dependency unless we tackle this disparity.

Tearfund's Secrets Out campaign calls on the 2014 meeting of the G20, chaired by Australia, to mandate extractive industry transparency among all companies from G20 countries, wherever in the world they operate. www.tearfund.org/secretsout

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