CSOs make passionate plea to strengthen public health transparency and accountability

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Civil society organisations (CSOs) have made a passionate plea for stakeholders to develop strategies for strengthening transparency and accountability in the public sector.

This came out at the CSO meeting on the COVID-19 Transparency and Accountability in Africa Project – CTAP (a collaboration between BudgIT, Connected Development (CODE), Global Integrity, as well as partners in 7 African countries: Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone) held in Harare yesterday.

In his remarks representing the implementing partner, Daniel Chigundu, the Project Officer of Magamba Network said the lack of accountability by duty-bearers results in failure to provide public health services.

“Accountability does not end on closing loopholes but includes implementing commitments like the Abuja Declaration. As stakeholders, our discussion should highlight where we are and what we are supposed to do to ensure transparency and accountability in the sector. This will ensure that citizens are prepared even for pandemics like COVID-19 and monkeypox,” Chigundu said.

In her presentation, Mable Murambiwa, an Advocacy Officer for the Combined Harare Residents Association (CHRA), said there is a strong legal framework which support accountability in Zimbabwe.

She alluded to the Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment (No 20) of 2013 that provides an array of provisions that support accountability and responsiveness of the state and any agency of government at every level.

The constitution is the legal basis and foundation for citizens to use the law in exacting accountability when “justifications and explanations” on actions and decisions made by the state or agency of the government are not satisfying or violating human rights.

Section 3 (2)(g) provides for values and principles of transparency, accountability, and responsiveness to bind the state and agencies of the government at every level.

On the other hand, in Section 62(1) and (2) citizens, permanent residents and juristic persons have the right to access information held by the state or any agency of the government provided the information is in the interest of public accountability or required for the protection of a right.

“Section 68 gives citizens a right to administrative conduct that is lawful, prompt, efficient, reasonable, proportionate, impartial and both substantively and procedurally fair, this protect citizens from arbitrary decisions or actions which strengthen the two-way relationship between the duty bearer and the rights holder.

“The principles of public administration enshrined in Section 194(1)(e), (f)and (h) obliges public administration in all state or government institutions to respond to people’s needs timely, accountable to Parliament and to the people and foster transparency by providing the public with timely, accessible and accurate information. Section 44 on declaration of rights states that The state and every person , including juristic persons and every institution and agency of government at every level must respect, protect, promote and fulfil rights and freedoms. Section 76 provides the right to health care whereby every citizens and permanent resident of Zimbabwe has the right to have access to basic health-care services, including reproductive health care services,” Murambiwa said.

Reuben Akili, the CHRA Program Officer said COVID-19 demobilized residents’ capacity to demand transparency and accountability in the health sector.

“During COVID-19 lockdowns, people were not allowed to congregate in large numbers. They were limited to 20 people per gathering so citizen engagement was hampered. Petitions work and so does litigation. A court oder gives enforceability. After CHRA took the legal route, 36 council-run clinics were opened in Harare after CHRA obtained a court oder that compelled the local authority to provide health services,” Akili said.

Mukhtar Modibbo Halilu, the Community Engagement Manager of Connected Development said the CTAP rides on advocating and collaborating with governments to build proper and permanent systems for health sector accountability.

“We would like to encourage African governments, including Zimbabwe, to sign up to the Open Government Partnership initiative so as to promote public accountability and transparency. The COVID-19 Transparency and Accountability Project (CTAP) also seeks to raise awareness of the need for COVID-19 vaccine uptake in Africa with a focus on transparency and accountability in the public sector.

“We look forward to reaching 1 750 000 Africans via online platforms and engage 450 000 excluded citizens of the continent on an accurate understanding of the government commitments to COVID-19 vaccine delivery. We also intend to build the capacity for CSOs to engage in the co-creation process,” Halilu said.

Nqobani Tshabangu, a Programmes Officer of Transparency International Zimbabwe (TIZ) said there is a need to foster transparency and accountability in the health care sector in Zimbabwe.

He said at the height of the pandemic, the government spent over US$200 million in responding to COVID-19. There were large sums of contracts made with companies. COVID-19-related materials were procured through the National Pharmaceuticals Company (NATPHARM).

“In 2020, Natpharm released three publications through the Government Gazette on the companies that were selected to supply goods for COVID-19, yet procurement data indicates exclusion. There are challenges in accessing data on healthcare spending. Accessing information through legal institutions is not sustainable since it is generally an expensive and tedious process. The data generally takes time to be released and when that happens, the data shared is incomplete and has grey areas, affecting efforts of ensuring transparency and accountability,” Tshabangu said.

According to TIZ findings on the COVID-19 resource utilisation, there were public procurement anomalies in that the companies given tenders had limited experience in the health care sector.

“Some companies are linked to staff members within the health care sector or linked to politically exposed individuals. There was a discrepancy between donations pronounced through government institutions and what was received. In some cases, goods procured were not delivered. Most suppliers inflated the prices of goods and services. There was also preferential treatment in the public procurement process,” Tshabangu said.

He alluded to a number of corruption risks and vulnerabilities during emergencies like COVID-19. It emerged that institutional systems mandated to respond to public procurement were still new and inexperienced.

“The Procurement Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (PRAZ)’s centralised supervision model is ineffective. In an emergency where all these entities require procurement of certain requirements, the oversight systems are overstretched with limited checks and balances. The over-reliance on manual systems and human interfaces can be less effective compared to automation. Zimbabwe also has a risk of over-reliance on a sole or single sourcing method.”

Eustinah Tarisayi, a Senior Programmes Officer of the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development said her organisation is implementing the COVID-19 Resources Tracker – an initiative to keep track of all resources (financial and non-financial) pledged, received, and expended by the Government of Zimbabwe in response to the COVID-19 pandemic

The Tracker is aimed at strengthening transparency and accountability on COVID-19 resources while empowering citizens with information to hold the government to account for the allocation and utilisation of COVID-19 resources in line with Section 298 of the Constitution

“The tool is earmarked to monitor the COVID-19 response in Zimbabwe including highlighting who has contributed what? In spite of the disaster/emergency/pandemic situation, there is a need to be vigilant. Someone needs to be monitoring public resource management by pushing the government to publish information. Our tracker has evolved over time.Initially it was done manually but it’s now digital and the tracker is uploaded on a bi-weekly basis and is available on www.zimcodd.org

“Our advocacy approach to COVID-19 resource tracking is anchored on the following key elements:

Access to Information – Timely and relevant information dissemination strengthens transparency and accountability by the government to the public. ZIMCODD does this through Weekly updates of Tracker on the website and Weekly Economic Review

Accountability – Access to information empowers citizens to monitor and track whether public spending is consistent with the flow of COVID-19 funds against intended objectives. This guarantees timely and effective relief and/or public service delivery.

Inclusion and Participation – in disaster situations and in the management of public resources in general, civic participation remains critical as it allows for the efficacy of the government’s expenditure. It unlocks gaps in service delivery and COVID-19 response mechanism which improves targeting and allocation of resources.”

Tarisayi said the tracker mounted pressure for the government to publish COVID-19 resources, though a lot still needs to be done (started to publish in Sunday Mail on 3 May 2020). This led to the government also making a commitment to auditing all COVID-19 resources and the Special OAG report was released on June 24th, 2021.

The tracker exposed fragile governance processes characterised by limited checks and balances. As a Public Expenditure Tracking Tool, the COVID-19 Resource Tracker has exposed anomalies in the process flow of funds from the government to its intended beneficiaries (US$60million DraxGate scandal; Dr. Portia Manangazira’s case).

It was noted that bureaucracies, structural bottlenecks, and red tapes associated with accessing information from the government remain challenging.

As part of the recommendations, Tarisayi said there is a need to conduct a comprehensive COVID-19 resources audit to shed light on all donations, economic stimulus funds, borrowings and other COVID-19 earmarked resource expenditures.

To build strong institutions, there is a need to strengthen parliamentary oversight and scrutiny on health resource spending including procurements. Parliament is a key oversight institution to address challenges and gaps within the public procurement system which have paved the way for corruption and mismanagement of COVID-19 resources.