Follow the Money: Why Omidyar Is Behind a Push for More Transparent Budgets

 Nigeria's capital city, Abuja

Nigeria's capital city, Abuja

In theory, attacking corruption in developing countries is a strategic way to leverage philanthropic dollars. If these places could end the vast hemorrhaging of wealth to offshore bank accounts, stop the appointments of incompetent cronies and relatives to key jobs, and so on, many more resources would be available to solve problems and government would be a far more effective agent of change. 

In other words, if philanthropy could really solve the corruption problem in poor countries, it wouldn't need to keep giving so much money to solve any number of other problems. 

In practice, though, corruption is an incredibly tough challenge for private foundations and donors to take on. Many development funders shy away from investing big here, despite the leverage potential, because these problems can seem so intractable. 

The Omidyar Network is one funder that's stuck with this work for many years now, and in a big way. It's challenged corruption through its broader mission to promote openness and transparency in governance. When citizens know what their government is doing—how it's spending their money and making policy—they're better equipped to hold officials accountable.  

Ensuring these basic elements of a functional democracy are hugely challenging in many places, but Nigeria had long stood out as a daunting place to improve governance. The country has been marked by extreme corruption for decades. It's also a leading example of the enormous costs of corruption. Poor governance has condemned a country rich in natural resources and talented human capital to chronic social and economic problems. Things have been especially bad lately, with the country’s economy experiencing its worst performance in 20 years.

So what can private U.S. funders do about endemic corruption in a large and complex African country with 175 million people? Well, we've kept an eye on philanthropic anti-corruption efforts in West Africa to find out. 

Recently, the Omidyar Network renewed its investment in the BudgIT, a leading government transparency outfit located in Lagos, Nigeria. BudgIT offers online and offline platforms giving Nigeria’s citizens access to government budget data and important information to help them understand public budgets.

As we've discussed before, a focus on budget transparency has been a key element of philanthropy's attack on corruption in developing countries for a while now, drawing support from a number of foundations. In effect, the strategy here is to empower people to follow the money.

That mission is well suited to a funder like Omidyar, which has a keen interest in how new technology and data can put citizens in the driver's seat of national life. 

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In 2014, Omidyar backed the organization with a $400,000 commitment and now, it’s offered up to $1.5 million in funding to help BudgIT increase its organizational capacity and expand its work in Nigeria's capital city of Abuja. Omidyar isn’t the only big U.S. funder with its eye on BudgIT. In late 2016, the Gates Foundation awarded the group a $1.4 million grant.

The Omidyar Network’s funding comes out of its Governance and Citizen Engagement Initiative, which aims to strengthen the relationship between people and their governments. It's on the lookout for catalytic projects that have the potential to promote change on a large scale and, in its grantmaking, particularly “favors solutions that leverage technology.” BudgITs work definitely fits that bill.

More broadly, the Omidyar Network is a key leader in the growing movement to promote civic technology. And while Omidyar focuses much of its funding attention in this space abroad, it also invests in projects in the United States, too, as we've recently reported. 

Related: “Civic Tech” is One Antidote to Trumpism, and the Omidyar Network is Doubling Down Here

The civic tech movement in the U.S. has taken on new urgency since Donald Trump's election and, by many indications, the Omidyar Network is ready for a fight. 

In late November 2016, the Omidyar Network partner Stephen King addressed this concern as well as others. Calling 2016 a “tumultuous year for global politics and the open government movement,” and civic tech an “early but important engine of change,” King went on to say that this is a time to “double down” on transparency and push for bigger commitments, actions, and demands for accountability.

Pierre and Pam Omidyar are not partisan figures, and the Omidyar Network isn't easily categorized in ideological terms. But the core values here—of open government, citizen engagement, and accountability—offer a counterpoint to corrupt and authoritarian rule everywhere, whether in Nigeria or the United Sates. 

Related: Sexy, No. Vital, Yes: A Million Bucks to Join Up Global Development Data