AAP’s political financing controversy: My take

With days to go for the Delhi state election of 2015, a group called the Aap Volunteer Action Manch (AVAM) held a press conference to expose 4 checks of Rs. 50 lakh each (a very substantial sum) that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had got from companies that earned very little income themselves.  AVAM argued that the companies were used as a front for money laundering i.e. illegal cash was given by AAP to the company which in-turn issued a check, converting the black money to white to use in the election.

Opposition parties, especially the BJP were quick to raise questions about AAP and to dismiss their credibility.  They have raised several important questions including:

1.  How can a company with little revenue give such massive donations – there must be some hanky panky here.

2.  AAP says that it has a committee that screens large donations.  How was such a large donation by a false company accepted?

3.  Such large donations do not come from unknown sources.  Some due diligence would have proved that the companies do not exist in reality.  The fact that these donations were accepted indicates that not all is correct with the Aam Aadmi Party.

These are very serious questions and it is clear that something is wrong in this picture.  It is a case that needs to be investigated and it should have consequences.  That is the only correct thing to do.

While AAP deserves to be questioned in this case, there is absolutely no doubt that they stand on a much stronger moral ground on this issue than any other political party in India.  This issue came to light only because of the fact that AVAM had access to the funding record, which was VOLUNTARILY put on the website by AAP.  There are many ways of obfuscating fraudulent sources of funding that political parties are well aware of.  These including not bringing the money to books and spending them directly on the campaign, and to say the least not disclosing the funding to the world thorough a website – especially on the eve of elections.  AAP chose to make the funds transparent that no one else does.

While the transactions in consideration are questionable, the very fact that they were voluntarily put online by AAP makes me give them a benefit of doubt, which I would not have done if the fact was discovered despite their resistance.

While these four checks need to be investigated, this episode only raises the importance of transparency of political funding.  I have not an iota of doubt that a very large volume of political funding in India is questionable and forcing parties to disclose funding will be a huge step in cleaning our political system. Not surprisingly, every major party in the country likes their balances without checks – neither checks issued by banks that are traceable, nor checks created by law that require them to disclose funding to the public.

BJP and Congress have both argued that they are transparent since they get their accounts audited. The episode under contention is a clear example of a transaction that would not have come out through the audit process.  An auditor would only have looked at the procedural integrity of the transaction i.e. was the fund received from a legitimate entity, was it received in a legitimate form (e.g. through a bank check) and was it accounted for in a proper manner.  No auditor would have looked at the balance sheet of the donor company to see if they had the capacity to donate.

The election commission that has put substantial measures to track election expenses does not look at the audit reports with a keen eye either.  Every party can thus get away with much illegal funding or at least illegtimate funding and produce an audit report to satisfy the letter of the law while trampling its spirit.

AAP should be saluted for the exceptional and unprecedented standard that it has set in transparency of political funding, even though the murky checks need to be investigated.  In the process, we must raise our voices for every political party to make their sources of fund transparent.  Unlike AAP, we cannot expect other political parties today to do so voluntarily.  Pressure from the citizens or a directive from the Supreme Court seem to be the only viable means of achieving that goal.


Addendum: A response on this issue by AAP that is incredibly mature and statesman-like.


Aiddata.org: Open data for international development

Aid funded road & water projects in India created in three clicks on the platform
Aid funded road & water projects in India created in three clicks on the platform

Aiddata .org provides over 1 million data points of information on aid flows from a large range of donors, creating an unprecedented level of transparency about international aid.  The information covers most official aid bodies (e.g. DFID, USAID, et al) and the latest version (3.0) also includes data on private charity organizations in the US and flow of remittances.  The data can be downloaded in full or visualized online.  There is also a robust API system to build apps on top of the rich database.

Based on a quick review of the datasets, I feel that it would be a great source of information for researchers and planners who would like broad level information.  I tried to explore the data wearing the hat of a citizen interested in monitoring funded projects, and found the dataset wanting from that perspective.  The location of the projects is not clear and description of projects included were too broad to be of much use for monitoring from the grassroots.  Perhaps a deeper exploration of the dataset may make me change my mind.

One potentially useful feature that they have created is to enable people to provide additional documents and to respond to information provided on various projects.  With some mobilization, such features can become highly useful for gathering feedback from the grassroots on various projects.

Despite the likely limitation that this is not a project meant for the grassroots, aid data provides a great platform for research and for building interesting applications.  It would be interesting to see its uptake beyond the academic community.

UReport Uganda

UReport Uganda is an initiative to do SMS-based polling among a large number of Ugandan citizens on different topics weekly.  The service boasts an impressive subscriber base of over 2,50,000 people as of Oct 2014.  While the base is large, the poll data on the website indicates that SMS polls are sent to a smaller subset of participants each week with responses ranging from 20-50% in the polls I reviewed.

The website provides a word cloud on the basis of responses and it also provides charts in case the question of the week had multiple choice responses.  Samples of text sent to the users are copied below.

The overview of the project and its scale are impressive.  It would be interesting to find out what model they used to create such an impressive subscriber base.  In my experience with using SMSes in India, I found that most low income people do not use SMSes for a variety of reasons.   Based on this experience, I have been asking others engaged in such projects in other parts of the world about the social class of membership in such projects.  Given that this is a text based project, that too in English, it would be interesting to learn more about who the users of the project are, and what implications that has for interpreting the results of such surveys.

A sampling of messages sent to the subscribers

Child Days Plus take place every April & October to strengthen routine immunisation. Make sure all children under 5 in your family & community take part in CDP.

Hi U-reporter! We are working together to be better prepared when or IF an emergency happens. Can U help by telling us: What emergencies are u concerned about?

Hi U-reporter. You told us that Security is important to u. What would u like to discuss on this topic?

Dear U-reporter: What topics would you want to discuss on U-report? a) Education b) Security c) Health d) Employment e) other (Specify)

U-reporter! Final question for this week is: What are the 3 common cases of Violence in your community? your reply is shared directly with the CPCs and CDOs


Unique ID for philanthropic entities – BRIDGE project

Gates Foundation in collaboration with other organizations are building a unique identifier for philanthropic organizations across the globe.  The project is called BRIDGE (Basic Registry of Identified Global Entities).  The hope of the project is to collate information from millions of sources so as to create greater information sharing and to enhance transparency of the philanthropic sector.

This interview with Victor Vrana of the Gates Foundation provides details on the ambitions of the project and how it came about.

Humanitarian Exchange Language (HXL)

Many organizations respond simultaneously during humanitarian crises and coordination between them is a challenge.  The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is working on information management practices for sharing and accessing information.  One component of this effort is to develop a standard vocabulary – the Humanitarian eXchange Language (HXL).  More information on the initiative can be found in the project website.

Copyright and the right to information

CC on orange by Yamashita Yohei
CC on orange by Yamashita Yohei

Infomediaries, people who help with communication of information play a key role in the digital communication ecosystem.  They often take public datasets and disseminate it to the public, adding value to it in the process.  For example, when I searched for apartments in the Bay Area, I used a service that took information from the police, railways, craigslist and other sources and plotted them on a map so that I can evaluate the apartments for rent by looking at the crime rate in the area, distance to the grocery store, availability of public transport and other information.

Such an app could not have been created without the availability of multiple datasets with ‘open licenses’ that the creator could access and disseminate in her platform.  Without the permission to redistribute, the use of technology for transparency could be seriously compromised.  To take just one case, Germany threatened to sue Carl Malamud for putting a set of public safety laws online.

I believe that without the help of infomediaries, we will never be able to use digital technologies to their full potential in creating a regime of transparency.  Their work can be compromised without clear legal permissions to use and redistribute information.  This is where ‘open licensing’ enters the picture.

Open licenses provide users of information a guideline on how the information can be used.  Creative Commons has created a spectrum of licenses that start with totally open licenses in which the use can do anything with the digital data.  Restrictions can be added by saying that the information should be attributed, should not be modified or that it should not be used for commercial purposes.  CreativeCommons.org makes it easy for anyone to create such licenses and it has legal validity in many countries.

While their work started with a focus on artists, CC has increasingly been working with governments on the licensing the release of public data.  Incorporating that as a part of the right to information can offer legal protection to infomediaries, which can go a long way in fostering such services.

The radical potential

The really radical potential for CC lies in creating public access for publically funded work.  As I have argued repeatedly in this website, there is a real danger to people’s right to information when public work is contracted to private organizations who are not covered by right to information laws.  If the contract with the organization specifies that the data held by the organizations should have CC attributes with few limitations, it can have radical impact in opening privately held public data.

At this point, this is an idea in motion, and a lot more needs to happen for it to materialize in reality.  Those who are interested in this should follow the work on Open Access and Open Educational Resources, and also the Open Policy Network.

The slide decks below by Timothy Vollmer of Creative Commons provides a great introduction to these issues.


See also presentation on copy right today compared to Creative Commons licensing: http://www.slideshare.net/creativecommons/dpla-webinar


Mobile payments curbing corruption in Afghanistan – A myth?

Last year, I started hearing references to how payments through mobile phone can curb government corruption.  I heard such comments during a seminar series I organise at Stanford and also in a series of conferences that I organised on technology and accountability.  Many people cited an experiment in Afghanistan to pay salaries of police officials through mobile phones, which is supposed to have reduced corruption by 30%.

I also found references to this claim in a USAID press release.  It was reported in media outlets such as Telegraph of UK and Tech Crunch.  The story was positively reported with headlines such as the ones below, leading readers to believe that the system has serious promise.

M-Paisa: Ending Afghan Corruption, one Text at a Time (Tech Crunch)

Program to Pay Afghan Police Through Mobile Money Transfers Could Curb Corruption (Government Executive)

Can Mobile Payments Reduce Corruption and Help Workers in the Developing World? (Tech President)

Considering how popular the idea had become, I started looking for a study that led to this conclusion.  While I was able to find a lot of references in media outlets and blogs, I could not locate any study online. I then decided to submit a FOIA application to USAID, which had initiated the experiment on a pilot basis.  USAID responded by saying that the assessment was not based on any study, and it was merely anecdotal.

An audit report by USAID painted a less rosy picture about the status of mobile payments.  It said, “So little information exists on mobile money in Afghanistan that it is difficult to gauge what the project’s results should have been”.  The report added that multiple grants for mobile money projects in Afghanistan have failed to take off.  Four-hundred teachers who were registered to get salary through mobile phones did not exercise that option and only 15 of the 87,815 people who registered to pay utility bills through mobile phone used the service – all of them were USAID employees.  I found no references online to this report, while the positive story was more widely reported.

A positive bias on technology?

The broader coverage of the positive reports and relative lack of coverage of sceptical reports on technology is an interesting phenomenon.  I felt this for the first time when a technology project I was working on was reported in multiple countries even after we had just done the first mock up in a hackathon, and the coverage happened effortlessly.  On the contrary, I have experience is struggling for coverage on much more significant things I had done in the past during my years with the right food campaign.

While I am an enthusiast for the potential that technology has the foster positive social change, I am troubled by the tremendous bias that seems to exist in how information about technology spreads. Such a tendency could leave us with false impressions about what technology could achieve, and thus invest on policies that are highly suboptimal.  In an era where technology is such a central source of our excitement, I worry that we will make many policy choices that reflect our enthusiasm rather than the reality.

Open contracting standards

The Open Contracting Partnership is working on a set of data standards for information on public procurement.  OCP explains the need for standards as:

Governments around the world spend an estimated US $9.5 trillion every year through contracts. Yet in most countries, information about these contracts is unavailable for public scrutiny, rendering the contracting process vulnerable to corruption and mismanagement. This project aims to enhance and promote disclosure and participation in public contracting by creating a simple, machine-readable and easy-to-understand open data standard.

The draft document on the data standards for procurement is available for public comments and comments will be reviewed after Sept 30, 2014.  Further information on the topic can be found in their data standards website: standards.opencontracting.org

Green SIM initiative by IFFCO, Airtel & ICRISAT

Green SIM is an initiative by Indian Farmers Fertilisers Cooperative Ltd (IFFCO), Bharati Airtel and International Crops Research Institute for the Semiarid Tropics (ICRISAT) to provide information on agriculture to farmers. The venture consists of low-cost mobile phones that are distributed through IFFCO centres bundled with Airtel SIM cards.  These “Green SIM cards” entitle farmers to receive from IFFCO everyday on issues such as mandi prices, farming techniques, weather forecasts, diary farming, animal husbandry, rural health initiatives and fertiliser availability.

While I do not believe that information dissemination of this sort will go as far as bringing a “second green revolution” as an Airtel press release suggests, I concur with various studies that that timely information could be of value to farmers in making critical decisions, and welcome initiatives such as this.

Practical challenges

As someone involved in a project of disseminating information to people in rural areas, I am curious to find what kind of practical challenges the Green SIM project is running into.  Based on our experience, I feel that the most important challenge that the project may face is one of a large proportion of calls being dropped or not picked up by the farmers.  This can happen due to a few reasons:

  1. Five messages every day could quickly become boring, and lead to drops in pick up rates.
  2. There is often a narrow window in which people are available and willing to pick up phone calls. If one were to make one or two calls in a week, it would be possible to identify times of the day when call pick up rates are likely to be high. Such a tweaking would be impossible while broadcasting five messages every day.  In such a case, it is possible that many important messages will not be received by the farmers.
  3. Generic messages are sometimes relevant to the users and sometimes not. The annual report (2013) of ICRISAT mentions that this service is a variant of an android application they developed called the Krisihi Gyan Sagar, which provides customised information to farmers based on their GPS location. The Green Sim initiative in contrast will provide only generic information to farmers.  Giving up on customised messages compromises the degree of relevance of each message, and consequently the interest that farmers might have in the system on the whole.

It would be interesting to learn about the innovations that the Green SIM project is trying in order to confront these problems, and to create a viable sustained system of disseminating useful information to farmers.

Tying the system to a provider

IFFCO is a public funded cooperative that is supposed to work for the benefit of all farmers in India. Ideally, any system of information dissemination of value that it creates should be designed in a way that is not tied to a mobile service provider. The Airtel press release cited above suggests that the company will provide up to 5 free phone calls in a day, which is a substantial advantage that IFFCO should take up. At the same time, I hope that alternative mechanisms have been put in place in order to ensure that information dissemination is not tied to one mobile service provider.

There is a lot more to learn on this project, and a would welcome it if any reader can give me pointers about this.

INGO Accountability Charter

The INGO Accountability Charter is a commitment of international NGOs to a high standard of transparency, accountability and effectiveness.  The Charter provides the only global, fully comprehensive and cross-sectoral accountability framework for NGOs driven by NGOs.

The Charter defines standards on areas of NGOs’ work, such as governance, programme effectiveness and fundraising.  International NGOs that become members of the Charter are required to report annually on fulfilling these commitments using a reporting tool developed for the purpose. 

The charter outlines 10 “Accountability commitments” viz: Respect for human rights, independence, transparency, good governance, responsible advocacy, participation, diversity/inclusion, environmental responsibility, ethical fundraising and professional management.

Given my interest in transparency, I have copied the declaration on transparency from the charter below:

We commit to transparency and honesty regarding our mission, structures, policies and activities. This will require:

·       The implementation of an open information policy which ensures timely, relevant and accurate information is disclosed in an accessible format;

·       and any exceptions e.g. due to data protection rights, are clearly and reasonably explained;

·       Complying with the relevant governance, financial accounting and reporting requirements in countries where we are based and operate;

·       Issuing annual reports describing: our mission and values, objectives and outcomes achieved in programmes and advocacy work, environmental impact, governance structure, processes and main office bearers, main sources of funding, financial performance, compliance with this Charter and a contact person;

·       Basing disclosure of information (wherever possible and appropriate) on existing formats such as those provided by GRI or IATI to allow better systematic use of the data.

It would be interesting to learn further about how far the charter has shaped the functioning of the members and NGOs that they fund.


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