Are social audits the key to reducing corruption in Guyana’s road construction sector?

In his book Making Globalization Work, renowned economist Joseph Stiglitz makes the point that it is important for developed countries to open their markets to developing countries. He tempers his recommendation with the sobering realisation that, “if the developing world has no roads or ports with which to bring their goods to market, then what good does it do?”

The development of a nation’s physical infrastructure has long been viewed as a key function of government and arguably a prerequisite for economic growth and social development. However, even though road infrastructure is widely viewed as a public good, it is paradoxically a sector that is susceptible to bad practices such as bribery, collusion, embezzlement and fraud. Transparency International (TI) ranks the $3 billion public works industry as one of the most corrupt sectors internationally. It is one of the most prone to bribery and circumvention of regulations, and often at a cost to the environment and public safety. As a result, the end user is saddled with poor quality roads and the nation with poor value for money. But is there anything that the citizens can do about this state of affairs? Can the public have a meaningful say in determining what their (borrowed) money is going into? This article explores whether participatory monitoring mechanisms like social audits offer a solution.

The primacy of roads to a nation’s development is hardly a new phenomenon. It has been a key feature from colonial times to the present day. Guyana, like many other agrarian colonies, developed a dendritic structure of radial road linkages that led to Georgetown – a setup that was conducive to the extraction and exportation of the country’s resources. Since independence, Guyana has continued to pursue a road network of primary, secondary and feeder roads capable of meeting local demand.

Fast-forward to the present day, Guyana’s National Competitiveness Strategy outlines plans for several major infrastructural projects, including the implementation of the Rural Transportation Programme and improvements to the Linden-Lethem road. In 2006, the government launched ‘An Alternative Southern Approach to Georgetown’. And in 2012, the Multilateral Financial Institution announced that it had approved a loan of US$66 million to maintain and upgrade several key road corridors under Guyana’s ‘Road Network Upgrade and Expansion Programme’.

Improved connectivity and access to markets and agricultural areas are clearly a priority for the government. But there is some evidence to suggest that the sector is hardly corruption free.  In August of this year, a Kaieteur News report surfaced of one such experience, that of Falcon Transport and Construction Services whose Managing Director raised the issue following the abrupt termination of the company’s US $2.3 million contract. The allegation levelled at the Ministry of Public Works was damning enough but the ministry rejected it and in turn accused the contractor of falsifying documents. The company raised questions about the motive for the contract termination (officially due to underperformance) and claimed that it was, “besieged by personnel connected of the ministry to give a kickback of 4% of the contract sum”.

Although Falcon’s claim was not substantiated, the allegation raised is not unheard of. However, because of the fear of losing contracts and favour, many companies feel obliged to remain silent, and pay the bribe (or transactional cost as some companies see it). The managing director stated that “blowing the whistle on corrupt officials could lead to a level playing field for all contractors for future government contracts”. In the same month, President Ramotar admitted that, “there is some collusion between contractors and engineers.”

Road infrastructure development is big business. According to the World Bank, “corruption in transport projects can account for as much as 5–20 % of transaction costs. Government investment in road transport alone can account for between 2 % and as high as 3.5 % of GDP suggesting that as much as one half of all construction is transport-related, and a considerable majority of government-financed construction (and related corruption) involves transport.” What makes it even more difficult to tackle corruption in the sector is the complexity. Several areas were identified in the process where the system is vulnerable, including planning and preconstruction, the bidding and implementation phase, road maintenance and operations and services.

Several interventions can address these weaknesses, including the use of oversight bodies, integrity pacts and codes of conduct. Social audits are another possibility. A social audit is a mechanism for participatory monitoring of government performance that can promote accountability and meaningful citizen participation. It is a mechanism of social oversight, that is, the control that citizens can exert on their government officials to ensure that they act transparently, responsibly and effectively. Social audits have been used in a number of ways, including evaluating programs, public services and policies. Several methodologies and approaches exist, including citizen report cards, citizen charters and service assessments.

So how does social audit work? If a road in being constructed in a particular area, a small committee is formed to oversee the construction. This is called a social audit committee that is well equipped and trained on the terms of the contract and what the contractor is expected to do. The committee is usually made up of persons who live in the area, or are knowledgeable of the site. These persons (usually about 6-8) are present at key stages of the process and are able to make spot checks to observe and in some cases even to oversee the receipt of materials and even to test the quality of materials being supplied. The committee never engages directly with the contractor but as part of the contract signed, the contractor has accepted that a social audit will be conducted.

If there are any issues with the road construction, or infrastructure project then these are referred directly to the main body, in this case the Ministry of Public Works that intervenes to address the community’s concerns.  Social audits have been successfully used around the world on a variety of road construction projects and usually give significant power to communities above the usual tokenistic consultation, or hotline. Social auditing presents a different way of working and requires political will, and a willingness to accept feedback and criticisms.

Social audits are only useful for the construction phase but cannot directly address other systemic issues such as bribery and other forms of underhandedness. It does demand significant community input in the form of commitment and time. Social audits can make a difference, but it would probably be most effective when combined with other controls.
As Guyana’s economy grows, as vehicular consumption increases, and as inter connectivity with other neighbouring countries gain greater importance, so too will the demand for greater and more improved road networks. As this occurs, the potential for corruption will remain rife. This should present a clear case for the introduction of more elaborate systems of monitoring.

The government need not do this alone; it is an opportunity for citizens, civil society organisations and private sector firms to play a greater role in building the Guyana that we want.

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