Paraguay's transparency alchemists
Photo Credit: Cesar Olmedo

Paraguay's transparency alchemists

At midday on 5 May 2016, Paraguay’s education minister Marta Lafuente announced her resignation. She almost certainly never expected to lose her job and certainly not over something as trivial as a catering bill. This is the story of how the information on those contracts unearthed a wider spending scandal that triggered a formal investigation and outraged students who had grown weary of what they perceived as chronic mismanagement in their schools.

It should have been an unremarkable purchase. On 11 March 2016, the education ministry awarded a catering contract for a meeting with a group of international evaluators. There would be a cold buffet, fresh fruit, and savory snacks, hot and cold beverages, and audio equipment for the interpreters. But then a journalist saw the contracting documents and noticed some of the items had exhorbitantly high prices.

“Ministry of Education buys bottles of water for 10,000 guaranies and mate for 80,000,” the front page of the Ultima Hora newspaper read on 28 March. The ministry planned to pay 200 million guaranies (around US$35,000) for the refreshments, with some of the most expensive items including two-liter bottles of mate tea, known as “cocido”, which cost more than US$14 each, and half-liter bottles of water for more than US$1.70 each (six times the sale price in a typical Paraguayan supermarket).

The public outcry was immediate. People mocked the education ministry with social media memes. Students delivered the same goods mentioned in the contract to the institution, bought at the supermarket for a fraction of the price.

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