Citizens stop 87% of education funds going missing by tracking budgets

The management of local primary schools in Uganda was chaotic in the early 1990s. Civil society organisations (CSOs) observed that, despite significant increases in budgetary allocations for primary schools, enrolment was stagnant. This led to a public information campaign that empowered citizens to tackle corruption by tracking monthly grants from government to schools.

Parents provided more than half the primary school budget, while Ugandan government funding for schools was through two streams: the Ministry of Education paid a share of teacher salaries while the Ministry of Local Government provided a capitation grant – a per student grant to schools to maintain their buildings, buy textbooks and fund any extra programmes that their students might need. A grant was paid to district governments as part of a single block payment that was then meant to be passed on to primary schools within their districts. However, there was no way to account for the funds, due to poor record-keeping.

So how much of these funds actually made it to the schools? In 1996, a team of researchers tried to answer this question using a public expenditure tracking survey. The researchers asked school teachers how much they had received, and the numbers were then compared with what the government records showed. Shockingly, only 13% of funds ever reached the schools: 87% of the money was being misappropriated or used by district officials for purposes unrelated to education. More than half of the schools received nothing and most of the funds ended up in the pockets of the local government officials in charge of disbursing grants to the schools.

There was an uproar in Uganda when the results were released. This led to the Ministry of Finance giving the main national newspapers and radio stations monthly breakdowns of how much money had been sent to the districts for schools, which was then reported in local languages. This became mandatory, and parents and school committees were urged to monitor school funding and were taught how to use the information to hold authorities accountable for the receipt and use of funds. Usually, government anti-corruption programmes target corruption in service delivery through agency auditing, but that would not work in Uganda as the legal and financial institutions were weak and corrupt themselves. So the government decided to take a bottom-up approach of citizen enforcement, by which schools and citizens monitor education spending in their own local districts.

This public information campaign, which highlighted the weaknesses in the education funding system, not only empowered communities to hold their local governments to account, but also led to a restructuring of the grant system which placed conditions on the funding being released. Subsequent reforms led to the introduction of universal primary education and the abolition of all primary tuition fees. This made it even more important that the government grant was used well.

With the newspaper campaign in place, schools monitored disbursements and managed to claim more money. Head teachers in schools in close proximity to newspaper vendors were more knowledgeable of the rules governing the grant programme and the timing of releases of funds by the central government. By 2001 schools, even those which had received no prior funding, were getting 90% of the discretionary money that they were entitled to, allowing for the purchase of much-needed school supplies and improving overall education services in Uganda.

Key lessons

  • A bottom-up approach of citizen enforcement can be successful where schools and citizens monitor education spending in their local districts.
  • The type of open data available and how to reach the right people are key; in this case monthly breakdowns were provided in newspapers and on the radio in local languages of how much money had been sent to districts for the schools.
  • The exposure of scandal can lead to widespread reforms.

Website: Fighting corruption to improve schooling (PDF)