The tax miracle of Gothèye

A cure has been found for corruption: transparency and democracy. Both involve lots of hard work. A legal inspection of the Sahel state Niger ranked 106 on the Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International.

The farmers like to pay their taxes in the rural community of Gothèye in Niger. At least that would be the conclusion you would reach if you were to look at the local tax morals: in just a single year the number of households paying their dues rose from 17 to 64 per cent. Yet, at the end of the day the local residents’ pockets are still just as empty as before. The soil is depleted and it is barely possible to scratch a living from the land. Generally, the farmers are merely left with environmental pollution due to gold mining activity in the region. So how can such a tax miracle be explained?

The magic words are “budget participatif” or participatory budgeting. Five political communities comprising hundreds of villages with about half a million residents in total have signed up for this entirely new, participatory planning of local community finances. Since collective responsibility for the public fund is proving so popular, the method is now expected to be expanded. From 2015, five more communities in Tillabéri and Agadez regions are joining in – together comprising almost 366,000 residents. SWISSAID supports the initiative and is helping to raise awareness among the population as well as with the practical implementation.

Direct democracy in Niger

This new “approach” might sound familiar to Swiss ears: in 2011 two years ago residents first began to decide collectively what municipal tax revenues should be used for. In the villages under the mango trees a hard contest was fought for potential investment: do we need a new schoolhouse or a sewage drain, a hospital ward or more seed? Each village democratically elected two delegates – usually a man and a woman – who took local ideas from the villages to the superior municipal authority. The final discussion was made public and broadcast live on local radio.

“At last, women’s issues were listened to”, explains Hamsatou Boubacar, a 56-year-old farmer from Say, one of the five communities flirting with direct democracy. “The water problem was tackled, making life easier for us women in the village.”

Revenues and expenditure

The farmers are not the only ones boosting the local community’s coffers. For example, if a mobile phone provider erects a mobile phone mast it too must pay compensation to the local community. The state is also under obligation to divert back to the local community 15 per cent of revenues accruing from mining natural resources such as gold, uranium and limestone. This all sounds well and good, but in practice it involves strict controls.

The “budget participatif” is the ideal mechanism for this. The local communities publish their half-yearly figures in several local languages and disseminate them widely. By involving citizens, they are also able to identify any irregularities. This happened in the Agadez region where the French energy giant Areva mines uranium: here, the young people noticed a “payment arrears” by the government and were able to exact payment in favour of the local communities.

It’s no coincidence that SWISSAID’s long-standing partner organisations ROTAB and GREN are supervising the project in the villages and communities. These two organisations have spent many years campaigning for more transparency where extracting natural resources and cash flows are concerned.

If the figures are correct, then spending can also be initiated. Arlit community, for example, followed up several budget proposals suggested by their citizens and built a maternity unit and funded a gynaecological clinic. In general, local people’s ideas were taken into account: last year, 99 classrooms were built, two health centres were equipped, tools were purchased for the municipal vegetable gardens and sewage drains were installed.

Criminals caught red-handed

Transparency is a blessing on multiple levels. On the one hand, it leads to less corruption because of effective public control. That’s how, for instance, a local construction company was caught in the act of invoicing for the full amount to build school buildings, while using inferior quality cement.

On the other hand, the climate in the villages has improved significantly, since even the farmers have been able to keep an eye on the authorities and the local magistrates therefore have a stronger sense of obligation to the electorate. It wasn’t for nothing that farmer Hamsatou Boubaca remarked, “For the first time, I’m taken seriously by the authorities and can play a part.” Trust is one of the key words which has recently come to influence communal life.

The catch with this approach

There’s just one catch with the “budget participatif”: direct democracy is complex – and particularly in the first year it is also veryexpensive. Although the state of Niger facilitates these democratic processes through legislation, they are not prescribed. The local communities and villages simply lack the resources and knowledge to reflect on any such procedures and to set up direct democratic structures. Organisations like SWISSAID step into the breach. Together with long-standing partners like ROTAB, they initiate and endeavour to establish new processes.

After all, the success story is gaining more influence in the battle against corruption: in future, the German government-supported development aid organisation GIZ plans to promote the “budget participatif” in Niger.

Project number: NI 02/14/12

Duration: 2 years

Costs: 190,719 Swiss francs

Number of direct beneficiaries: 365,896 women, men and children