Sunday, December 27, 2015

Constructing Transparency

“So, what exactly do you?” Even three months in, my friends and parents are asking me this – probably because I haven’t been able to give them a very good answer yet. My official title is “Research and Communications Facilitator”, while my access card says “Investigadora” – “Investigator”.

What this means in practice is a lot of reading, writing, translating, note-taking, and summarizing of long and complicated documents. It’s a desk job punctuated by regular trips and visits to everything from community youth projects to the office of the director of police* (*I still need to write about this one).

Here’s an example of what ASJ is doing, and how my work fits into it:

In October of 2014, ASJ signed an agreement with national anti-corruption organization Transparency International (TI) and the Government of Honduras (words commonly used to describe this agreement: landmark, groundbreaking, watershed). Through this agreement, the government agreed to open its books to ASJ (which acts as TI’s Honduran chapter), and in exchange, ASJ would provide detailed monitoring and evaluation of the transparency and effectiveness of some of the most vulnerable government systems: Education, Health, Tax Management, Infrastructure, and Security.

The government’s cooperation was a huge step forward. One of ASJ’s biggest hurdles previously was simply getting access to the information that could help them determine whether corruption was taking place. With more and better information than ever before, they were able to draw an accurate picture of the management of these government ministries.

What did that look like?

Almost my first week at ASJ, the TI team had a 80ish-page report for the ministries of Security and Education, the results of scanning tens of thousands of pages of documentation and analyzing them according to over 500 different criteria. (These people are absolute bosses, by the way.)

While I was still trying to master the difference between preterite and imperfect verbs, I had to read through the document and its 20ish-page summary in order to first translate the summary to English, and then summarize it even more to a more-manageable 5-6 page length.

The English summaries went back to the TI team, who checked them over, added comments, and made changes and additions. The documents bounced around for weeks as they were tweaked and altered, wording softened in some places and strengthened in others.

If it seemed like a lot of fuss for two documents, we just had to remember back to what they were saying about this document (groundbreaking, landmark, watershed).

Last month was the first-ever presentation of these reports – they would form a baseline against everything in the future would be measured. After such a public agreement, the government would be forced to acknowledge what they said, present a plan for improvements, and be checked against that plan every six months. They were a big, big deal.

So what kind of things did these documents contain? If you really want the details, you can read my summary of the Education report here – if not, I’ll catch you up.

The TI team first looked into Purchasing and Contracts in the Education system. What kinds of textbooks, classroom supplies, and computer equipment were they buying, for how much, and from whom?

With all the purchase documentation in front of them, the TI team started to see some strange things. Purchase specifications were written in strangely specific ways, ruling out companies who could have provided virtually identical products. These specifications meant that only one company fit the bill, even though they weren’t the cheapest or best-ranked company. (You see what that is, right? Corruption.)

Then purchases were delivered late and without proper receipts. Millions of dollars of goods were delivered without being registered. Textbooks were purchased from one company and delivered with labels from another company – none of this was supervised or sanctioned, which means that even if the lapses were errors and not intentional corruption, money that should have been spent on children’s education was being lost.

The team then turned to Human Resources. Now, ASJ’s coalition Transformemos Honduras exposed a few years ago that 25% of teachers on payroll couldn’t be found in their classes. This finding prompted the removal of the Ministry of Education and an overhaul in processes such that now, that percentage has fallen to 1%. But there is still a long way to go for a transparent and accountable payroll system.

In Honduras, there are very specific legal regulations about the teachers that are supposed to be hired for public schools. Teaching candidates take a qualification test, and are supposed to be hired by rank – the highest-scoring first.

Practically, though, bribes and connections often find candidates their positions. Some teachers employed at the time of the audit had scored only 60% on their qualification test – which shouldn’t even be a passing grade. The TI team also found some strange documentation. In some classrooms were the qualification test had been given, every single candidate had passed the test, and, even more strange, with the same pen and handwriting.

Other documentation that could have shown such irregularities was never delivered at all. One department said they couldn’t deliver it because the previous committee had it all burned. (You know what that sounds like? Corruption.)

These findings were ugly. Not only were unqualified teachers teaching, teachers with misconduct accusations also continued in their post. Last year, 60 teachers were suspended for everything from falsifying tests to physically and sexually abusing students – 59 of these teachers would later be reinstated.

Though Honduras has taken huge steps forward in the last few years – thanks in great part to the work of Transformemos Honduras and a new receptive Minister of Education – it clearly has a long way yet to go. Reports like the one I have been working on are important because not only do they bring these problems to light, they hold public ministries accountable for fixing them.

After the President of ASJ stood up at a televised conference and presented these findings, the Minister of Education followed him. “We’re aware of these errors,” he said, “And we’re working to fix them.”

Chalk another one up to the power of research and investigation, of persistence and bravery and telling the hard truth. 

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