Nigerian organization helps journalists find stories in complex budgets

Feb 20, 2020 in Investigative Journalism

Local, state and national budgets are typically overwhelming, especially to journalists who rarely take on such data-driven reports. However, they contain stories you can’t find anywhere else. An organization in Nigeria is taking budget reporting to a new level and fighting corruption in the process. 

What is UDEME?

UDEME is a social accountability intervention designed to hold the Nigerian government accountable for funds released for developmental projects. The Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ), with support from the MacArthur Foundation, launched UDEME, which means “my share,” in 2018 to advocate for a transparent government by gathering data on ecological and capital projects in Nigeria.

“The project entails rigorous fieldwork and physical examinations of national projects in states across the country,” said Loveleen Okereke, UDEME’s project officer. “The findings are brought to the public space to garner citizens’ awareness”

Okereke continued: “Before now, most initiatives addressing opacity around the implementation of government projects have done so by relying on budgetary allocations alone. UDEME goes a step further: to link appropriation to actual monetary releases for present and past projects.”

Since 2018, the UDEME project sent over 750 Freedom of Information requests to various government ministries, departments and agencies for information on developmental projects, names of contractors, years of the awards, details of the amount released, locations of projects and status updates.

“Afterwards, the team deploys field trackers to the locations contained in the documents received to ascertain the level of implementation: executed, abandoned or poorly done,” Okereke said.

Between 2018 and 2019, UDEME has tracked more than 1,500 projects in 21 states, which led to the production of more than 80 investigative stories published on Premium Times.

[Read more: Covering budgets: Tips for putting faces to the numbers]

Why budget reporting is important in Nigeria

“Embezzlement of public funds often happens during the budgeting process, where fake or non-existent projects are inserted [with] huge funds allocated for them,” said Dayo Ayietan, the director of the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR). “Most of the corruption stories and investigations we do are somehow tied to the budgeting process.”

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari promised to tackle corruption headlong when he was elected in 2015. In 2016, Nigeria joined the Open Government Partnership, and is making efforts to implement the National Action Plan for Combating Corruption.

Despite these efforts, large-scale corruption still exists in Nigeria. In 2019, Transparency International listed Nigeria as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, ranking it 146 out of 180 countries in its annual Corruption Perceptions Index.  

In April 2019, one of Nigeria’s anti-corruption agencies, the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, signed a partnership with UDEME to work together on anti-corruption efforts, Okereke noted.

“Over 80 contractors returned to sites to complete projects that had long been abandoned despite funds being released,” Okereke said, to highlight the result of the partnership. “Hospital equipment, ambulances, farm tractors, and other vehicles have been tracked and returned to average Nigerians who need them the most, and who would have been otherwise denied their use.”

Training journalists on accountability journalism

UDEME regularly organizes trainings and workshops for journalists across the country to equip them with skills to track and report on community projects that were allocated funds in the budget. 

For example, in 2019, UDEME trained 20 students from eight selected institutions on the basics of accountability journalism, including budget processes and public procurement. The students went back to their schools and communities and produced ten investigative stories.

“I have learned how to analyze budget documents, which in turn helps me hold public officers accountable,” said Oluwakemi Adelagun, one of the students at UDEME’s training. “It was very impactful and very practical.”

In order to assist citizens closely monitoring projects, UDEME started the online campaign #SnapandSend in September 2019. Citizens are encouraged to use their mobile phones to take pictures of abandoned or poorly executed projects in their communities, and to tag state governors and agencies in an attempt to garner their attention.

Today UDEME has a community of over 15,000 active members taking government accountability into their own hands at a grassroots level.

[Read more: Accounting and budgeting tips for journalism entrepreneurs]

Tips for budget reporting

It’s easy to overlook something like a budget, which is dense and difficult to read. But journalists around the world should learn the basics budget reporting, as there are more stories in a budget than one might expect. 

Here are some tips to get started: 

(1) Study the budget

The first step to do any story on the budget is to take your time to study it. This can be boring, especially when you are dealing with huge, confusing numbers, complex data and infographics. However, the outcome is usually productive, and many government agencies offer budget resources to help.

(2) Be patient and and thorough

If you are not patient or detail-oriented when examining the budget, it will be almost impossible to do a story. Don’t give up. In 2018, I studied more than 500 pages of budget documents for a story on the embezzlement of funds for a library project. It was a painstaking effort, but the outcome was worth it.

(3) Ask your superiors or other experts

Since budget documents deal with big numbers, you might want to reach out to a senior colleague, financial expert, economist or statistician to help make sense of them, especially if you are not a business journalist who frequently deals with a lot of numbers in their reporting.

(4) Tell the story

When you are done searching through the bulky budget document, work towards telling the story you find. Sometimes, when you’re bogged down with large numbers and data, you may struggle determining how to start. Take a look at what your colleagues have done, and read a well-reported budget story to understand how to make the numbers more meaningful to your readers, without making the reading process difficult for them.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash by Kelly Sikkema.