TAI Weekly | October 31, 2017
By TAI
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TAI spotlight…

In an adaptation for the Weekly, we start close to home with updates from TAI members.

Biologist accused of copyright infringement for sharing scientific research online. What does this mean for the open access movement in Colombia?

Learn about Omidyar Network’s perspective and programmatic approach to digital identity and privacy

OSF grantee World Resources Institute reports on transparency and access to clean water in selected countries in Asia

In case you missed it…

What do most Americans fear? Not monsters apparently. A Chapman University survey found that 74.5 percent of Americans cite being afraid or very afraid of corrupt government officials. This is by far the biggest fear of Americans, representing a 14-point jump from last year. Interpret as you wish. A great idea for a scary Halloween costume perhaps?Certainly, events this week might only have reinforced those fears.

It was only thanks to a leak that public attention focused on a $300m public contract awarded to a small contracting company in Whitefish, Montana to restore power in Puerto Rico and led to it being rescinded.  Probably just as well given that under its terms the government had “no right to audit or review the cost and profit elements” or to make any claim “related to delayed completion of work”. Check out Ken Klippenstein’s twitter feed for screenshots of the now dead deal. Just one more example of why open contracting is needed.

 

Rather than relying on leaks, how to strengthen Right to Information laws that are either non-existent or weak in many parts of the world? In Ghana, the RTI Coalition has urged the UN to intervene for the government to pass a long-pending RTI bill.  In Pakistan, the country’s Right of Access to Information Law is “disappointing” as per the analysis of the Centre for Law and Democracy, while in Nigeria the federal Attorney General finds that no one is using the Freedom of Information Act six years after its enactment. More than half of government agencies received one or no request for information from 2014-2016. Potential reasons? Lack of public awareness and lack of institutional frameworks on the part of the government. These resonate with some of the findings of a new report on collective action approaches to fighting corruption (supported by MacArthur Foundation) that emphasizes shifting social norms. The authors note that while the focus on transparency and legal sanctions are critically important, “there is need for innovative and complementary approaches to foster a comprehensive shift in deeply ingrained attitudes to corruption at all levels of society.” [We look forward to digging deeper in our December Nigeria visit]

Perhaps the donor community and non-profit sector can improve anti-corruption programming through better monitoring? Here are reflections on potential bias in Most Significant Change stories that emerged from anti-corruption efforts, and the role of group dynamics.

It is hard to talk about corruption in the Nigeria context and not think of extractive industries. Recent events continue to lay bare the sector’ governance challenges. Mining giant Rio Tinto’s executives are accused of fraud for allegedly inflating the value of a coal asset in Mozambique. More positively, Priscila Rodríguez Santamaría, adviser to the Mexican government talks to positive steps to meet governance challenges in the country’s oil and gas industry. Equatorial Guinea’s Vice President Teodorin Obiang received a 3-year suspended jail sentence from a French court for plundering his country’s natural resource wealth.

The extractives sector is often the beneficiary of tax breaks, but citizens rarely connect it to fossil fuel subsidies. IMF economists estimate these totaled a staggering $5.3 trillion in 2015. John Abraham breaks down the negative impacts and why they are so hard to eliminate. How much is the subsidy for US fossil fuel production alone? $20 billion annually and that is a conservative calculation, claims Oil Change International.

Is Canada “a kind of tax haven” for its own gas and oil companies? Analysis by The Guardian indicates oil giants pay lower taxes in Canada than in developing countries. Might there be consequences for companies in ruthlessly minimizing tax payments? After further revelations in Australia, some politicians claim citizens are “wising up” to company tactics. But is being a tax haven bad news for a country? Maybe – Nicholas Shaxson explains in the context of Britain.

Our number of the week? – 905. That is the number of Goldman Sachs groups’ tax haven subsidiaries. This puts the firm top of the list of Fortune 500 companies in this regard.  The role of enablers of tax avoidance was one topic at the 7th Financial Transparency Conference in Helsinki this past week where debates again focused on the true size and definition of illicit financial flows and the merits or not of a UN tax body. But there were encouraging examples of local groups pushing for change – be it successfully advocating for a tax on vanity license plates in Uganda or tracking Foxconn tax payments in China.

How do you do development work effectively in fragile contexts? Duncan Green of Oxfam GB reflects on the first year of the Action for Empowerment and Accountability project. His main takeaway? Thinking about power and complex systems is paramount. How to strengthen positive shifts within a challenging bigger picture? Against the backdrop of the Rohingya crisis, Open Myanmar Initiative (an Omidyar Network grantee) offers the Budget Explorer for citizens to explore Myanmar’s spending data.

Of course, crises of democratic legitimacy or citizen engagement are not confined to fragile settings.  Hollie Russon-Gilman and K. Sabeel Rahman propose a framework on how to build civic capacity in the US, while this article from the World Economic Forum proposes five ideas on how to revitalize citizen involvement in the EU.

This month, we’ve been monitoring all too common attacks against human rights defenders, anti-corruption advocates, and journalists. The Hungarian Prime Minister ordered spies to map networks supported by Soros. The Albanian Prime Minister insulted journalists for their coverage of alleged corruption by a parliamentarian. Government clampdowns on international and local NGOs have been happening in Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt and other parts of the MENA region. Institutional responses need reviewing, including whistleblower protections. One can be encouraged by the interventions to the European Court of Human Rights by free expression organizations in support of detained Turkish journalists, and the World Bank is strengthening its accountability mechanisms to address attacks against critics of its projects.

Harnessing the “power of the crowd” for good has great potential but Jake Orlowitz cautions – these do not always succeed. So what makes or break a crowdsourcing initiative?

Helpful reads on data for accountability and results – a brief focused on financial inclusion but offering a potential model for reassessing governance data efforts, while Mark Thompson reflects on UK experience at the intersection of open data, democracy, and reform, and argues that “a public discussion is needed around objectives, definitions, good practice and governance, one that addresses what people gain, as well as give up, by sharing data.” A new report talks about the importance of data and transparency by the US Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking. Also, check out this guide for policymakers on the using administrative data, plus a reading list on evidence, data and results.

Were any of you or your colleagues among the 1400 or so at the Independent Sector conference this past week? With growing support from the likes of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, it hopes to become the “SXSW for the social sector” and be a platform for smarter learning among nonprofits.  We’re intrigued by the potential for transparency and accountability groups to plug into conversations and to see what modes of engagement are truly useful.  Too many governance-related conferences are still dominated by panels when there are other ways to leverage all those in the room and evolve the debates beyond the superficial (no pressure then for those holding upcoming events!)

 

Of potential interest…

Call for field-wide proposals…

On the Calendar…

 

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The TAI Weekly is an informal recap of news, research, and events relevant to our four work streams: data use for accountability, taxation and tax governance, strengthening civic space, and learning from improved grant making.The Weekly is in no way a reflection of TAI member views or thinking. The Weekly now goes to our mailing list and live on the website every Tuesday.

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