No Information, no peace: How parliamentarians will benefit from freedom of information legislation

While SA debates access to information legislation, how are other countries in Africa doing? Current parliamentary debate within South Africa on the proposed Protection of Information Bill has got NGOs like Idasa thinking about how the current weakness of many African parliaments leave them unable to legislate for the right to information, compromising this fundamental tenet of democracy. Comment on article by Nancy Dubosse, manager of research in Idasa’s Economic Governance Programme, who looks at the state of access to information in other parts of Africa. See print friendly version here.

No Info, No Peace: How parliamentarians will benefit from freedom of information legislation
Nancy Dubosse

Parliaments in sub-Saharan Africa are generally considered the weaker branch of government.  They are marginalized institutions with respect to national processes, being side-lined during high-level negotiations for foreign development assistance, budget formulation, and national development planning.  Without the right of access to information (ATI), parliamentarians remain second-class public servants, vulnerable to political party machinations and autocratic executives.  It is access to information that can assist them in tapping into what is a latent but inherently powerful role in development.

In March 2009, there was an international conference of African parliamentarians in Rwanda, the result of which was the Kigali Declaration on the Development of an Equitable Information Society in Africa.  This document recognized that equitable access to information is a right for all and that there are vast inequities to equitable access to information, knowledge and affordable communications across Africa.  It went on further to acknowledge that the quality of democracy is dependent on the rights of citizens to express themselves freely and to access information in order to make informed decisions.  It also stated that parliaments must play a role in promoting an equitable information society through the enactment of legislation, which ensures transparency, accountability, openness and effective oversight.  The declaration called upon all African parliaments to urge the development of policies and initiate and enact laws that promote equitable access to information, communication and knowledge. Unfortunately, only parliamentary representatives of 27 of Africa’s 53 countries are signatories to the Kigali Declaration.

Parliaments in developing countries are generally considered weak and ineffective.  Dependency on aid causes developing countries to become influenced by external interests, closing the space for national dialogue.  Donors have also committed to channelling the bulk of aid to the general budget.  These, coupled with the recent trend in development circles in favour of decentralisation, have tipped the scales of power towards the Executive branch.  This brief aims to show that without the right of access to information (ATI), parliamentarians remain second-class public servants, vulnerable to political party machinations and autocratic executives.  It is access to information that can help them in tapping into what is a latent but inherently powerful role in development.

Aid dependency and budget support
One example of how critical access to information can be is with regards to development assistance to Africa.  Aid dependency in Africa cannot be overstated, according to the World Bank’s World Development Indicators (2008).  In calculating net official development assistance as a percentage of central government expenditures, countries like Ghana are estimated to be at 26.09%; Burkina Faso, 98.17%.  Net official development assistance as a percentage of gross national income reveals countries like Malawi at 21.17% and Burundi at 43.88%.

Aid-dependent African governments have become accustomed to the increased budgets that aid provides. Aid is a vital resource with which these governments seek to deliver goods and services or other promises they have made. Thus, they are unwilling to take stronger policy positions or to chart a development strategy outside of the purview of donors, as they are afraid of risking reductions in aid that could undermine their political support and/or cost them the next election.   In fact, we are accustomed to seeing development assistance used as a foreign policy instrument.  The more aid dependent a country, the less policy space it has both nationally and internationally.

To exacerbate the situation, a reformation in the way that aid is managed and delivered is underway, guided by the Paris Declaration (2005).  This agreement, signed by nearly all countries, aims to improve the effectiveness of aid by, among other things, re-directing the bulk of it as general budget support. 

What existed before wasn’t any better.  It consisted of a complex web of donors directing resources at all levels of government and civil society, with absolutely no coordination and transparency; at times, undermining national vision and strategy.  This emerging ‘verticalisation’ of the new aid architecture, was undertaken to improve accountability; the lack of which is one of the reasons cited for the ineffectiveness of aid.  That is, donors must coordinate, rather than compete, with each by harmonizing their development assistance and recipient governments must ensure that their procurement, disbursement and audit systems are up to code.

As a result, there has been a perceptible shift in power.  Sector ministries, local governments, non-governmental and community-based organisations must all now lobby the Executive for their resource needs. 

This places parliamentarians in a difficult position.
 In most African countries, the legislative branch is side-lined from the budget formulation phase, in which allocations are made to regional and local governments.  The closest parliamentarians come to the budget is in adjudicating it, when it is tabled by the Minister of Finance, at which point, amendments are nearly impossible to make.

 Those from opposition and minority parties run the risk of having their local constituencies neglected by lack of infrastructure development and other social investments.  And will have to answer to them at election time.

A study undertaken by the Parliamentary Centre (Canada) on the level and scope of parliamentary involvement in economic policy found that parliaments were not given nearly enough time for considering the budget.  This came out in Tanzania, Niger, Ghana, and Malawi.  The study also found that Parliamentary Audits so far completed in Africa all show that Parliaments feel their influence in setting budget priorities is very low, and they are unable to have much input into budget planning.  The study concludes that in the countries under study, Executive control over budget planning, formulation and implementation is virtually absolute.

 To make matters more complex, parliaments are dependent on the Executive for the resources to cover the costs of operation and administration, undermining what is supposed to be an independent section of government.

National planning processes
National planning processes are critical to the ownership of the direction and quality of development and speak directly to the deepness of a country’s democracy insofar as consultations and participation are concerned.  These processes initially took the form of Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs), long-term national development strategies, which were requirements of the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative that aimed to alleviate the debt burden of sub-Saharan Africa.

The African Forum and Network on Debt and Development (AFRODAD) undertook a study  on the degree of inclusion in both first and second generation PRSPs, with some focus on Parliament.  Though parliament is meant to provide the platform for deliberation on key national matters including the government’s poverty reduction programmes, more than 54% of Ghanaian parliamentarians interviewed indicated their dissatisfaction with their involvement with the process which they think in inadequate.  In fact, the level of parliamentary involvement in the second Growth and Poverty Reduction Strategy (GPRS) is quite controversial. Representatives from opposition groups responded that their involvement was “less than satisfactory”, while their counterparts from what was the then ruling New Patriotic party (NPP) think that their involvement has been “very satisfactory”.

The study concluded that partisan issues notwithstanding, parliamentary involvement in the GPRS process has often been at implementation stages. The designing stage in Ghana has been heavily left in the hands of consultants. Effective execution of parliament’s oversight responsibility is crucial in ensuring meaningful achievements.

The picture painted in Mozambique was slightly different but equally worrisome.  Parliament did not participate in its poverty reduction strategy formulation, PARPA I, as it did not require parliament approval but that of the Council of Ministers.  They did participate in its monitoring through Government annual plans.

In Uganda, the contribution of parliament was basically in the form of making comments on the draft Poverty Eradication Action Plan (PEAP) document during the various parliamentary workshops on PEAP 2004/05-2007/08. Parliament also by law (e.g. the Public Finance and Accountability Act, 2003) has a supervisory role over the executive arm of Government and ensuring accountability and prudent utilization of public resources. This makes recent events in Uganda all the more perplexing (see box inset).
Within the context of development programme implementations, the lack of transparency surrounding Government procurement of goods and services directly impacts party politics.  Procurement processes are frequently marred by allegations of corruption precisely because of the scarcity of information.
The information deficit and the resulting power imbalance between legislatures and the executive is exemplified in a case dubbed the ‘Armsgate’ in South Africa.  In November 1999, cabinet announced the purchase of arms with a loan of US$4.8 billion from the treasury to finance the package.  Launched by concerns from an MP of a minority party, an investigation resulted in report by the auditor-general to Parliament.  In November 2000, the public accounts committee calls for a multi-agency probe.  Subsequent events include a reshuffling of parliamentarians on the public accounts committee, attacks from cabinet ministers on the committee, allegations about politicians who have benefitted from the deal in the media, resignations, arrests and police raids. 

Transparency in public procurement processes can give parliamentarians some political currency.

Development practitioners appear to have come to the conclusion that decentralized budgets and programmes constitute good governance.  What this translates into is that citizens will refocus their advocacy efforts to local government representatives and those who represent their interests in Parliament.

Indeed insufficient political will exists in Africa for ATI laws, but that lack of willingness comes from the management ranks of political parties, who do not necessarily feel the voter pressure from the ground.  Politics is key at a micro-level too, with individual MPs having to balance their party’s demands for them to support the Government, their responsibility to play an effective role in terms of legislation and oversight, and their desire to be re-elected by constituents who expect them, personally, to deliver on development promises.
Parliamentarians have to strike what is a delicate balance between furthering the party platform and representing the needs of their constituents.  In a single-party state this is easy enough to accomplish, but as interests diverge, party politics are such that if parliamentarians cannot report back to their constituents on matters that directly concern them, voters will exercise their rights during elections and select a more amenable representative.  That is, parties tend not to be able to negotiate in the space that is shared between local politicians and voters.  At that level, the influence of the representative to the party dominates citizens’ allegiances to the party in general.
A recent communications innovation in Tanzania has addressed precisely this tension.
Parliamentary proceedings are broadcast live on television and radio.  This is regarded as MPs’ prime opportunity to demonstrate to their constituents that they are working hard to promote their interests and has become popular among MPs and the wider population. The quality of questions varies, with those asking and answering questions hampered by a lack of access to reliable information. Nevertheless this does provide a useful way for MPs to engage with their constituents. 

The state of access to information in Africa is poor and embarrassing.  The right of access to information is considered a human right in the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights.  Adopted in Nairobi, Kenya in 1981, it states that every individual has the right to receive information and the right to disseminate and express his opinions within the law.   To date, of the 53 signatories, only five countries have passed legislation guaranteeing freedom of information (Angola, Ethiopia, South Africa, Uganda, and Zimbabwe); the implementation of which has been widely critiqued.

Trinidad and Tobago is considered a model country by the World Bank Institute  for legislators playing a leadership role in terms of setting the example of access to information. 
 Information must be published in newspapers, and public bodies need to gazette a list of documents that are subject to routine publication.
 There are sanctions against willful refusals of information requests or destroying information records.  Civil servants can be imprisoned for obstruction of access.
 Parliamentarians involve senior bureaucrats in their meetings with the public, to promote greater links, to demonstrate the importance of openness directly and to provide the public with a chance to interact directly with these officials.
 All public bodies are required to report to one ministry, which then reports to Parliament.

Federal government is a complex maze in which checks and balances are meant to keep the balance of power between the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches.  Without a provision for access to information, the balance of power tips towards the executive.

National parliaments have a mandate to preserve sovereignty and ensure accountability of the other branches of government.  Parliamentarians should look beyond their legislative role, to one of oversight and public accountability.  For this, they require information both to make decisions and to report back to constituents on financing, programme design and development and, ultimately, service delivery.


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