In midst of advocacy accompaniment, over a lunch meal is when I realise how powerful the meal is in building oneness in social activism as we share our varied uncertainties over that meal. The stories start with everyone being keen to be my best Venda (local language) teacher as I struggle to get one or two basic words in the vocabulary. The themes are varied indeed.
Nevertheless I realise there are real issues here. Arguments are around why public information should be like ‘Father Christmas’. I got more interested and soon get to understand that citizens seem to spend a lot of time talking about things like government policies, acts and budgets and the goodies likely to be brought by these and where they gonna get spotted! Who is Father Christmas in the first place? Legendary and imaginary are key terms. No-one has seen ‘Father Christmas’ and no one is really certain in getting the goodies that come with Father Christmas. For a while, as seasonal as Santa is, ordinary citizens get stuck on imaginations over the perceived ‘goodies’ from things like policies and budgets being drafted and passed. Amazingly, nothing is happening on the ground, just the same way the Festive season passes, the hope in citizens enjoying policy or budget benefits soon fades. For example, one year after the other, the budget is announced. Citizens wait in anticipation and soon the budget year is over when citizens hadn’t seen ‘Father Christmas’ yet! Metaphorically, who met ‘Father Christmas’, who got what from ‘Father Christmas’ (if there is anyone who did), who do we question over issues we have with Father Christmas; all that information is absent!
At last, everything in the discussion is so clear to me. These are ordinary citizens like me who are keen to understand their government’s actions such as how the revenue from mining is being used, and implications of government spending, taxation and debt management mechanisms to the general welfare of any other citizen. However, this information is defined public yet secret and in the absence of such information, abuse of power cannot be disputed.
One verse has marked an influence on my thinking about social change; what does access to information mean to African governments, in the face of democracy?
Uninformed Citizens: Subjects or Objects of Government interventions?
When public information is not public, political patronage and corruption affect the poorest and marginalised most. These rely most on services and cannot find alternatives. For the poor and marginalised to be empowered, through which policymakers become answerable to the citizens, access to information is an essential pre-requisite. People have to be kept informed about current affairs and broad issues – political, social and economic. This strengthens transparency and integrity basically builds on accountability. More so, access to information is a cornerstone of good governance and an important anti-corruption tool. Without information, citizens become objects in government interventions. Where information has been accessed, citizens have been empowered, like how citizens in India and Egypt attest to the power of information in unearthing anomalies in health service delivery. Access to information therefore is ensured not only by making the information available but also timely, complete, relevant, reliable, easy to find and understand.
Any hope for social change in the absence of critical information?
The question is, ‘How best can we unlock access to information from the respective governments?’ Ten years down the line, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights adopted a Declaration of Principles of Freedom of Expression in Africa to necessitate adoption of defined laws regarding access to information and recently the Model Law on Access to Information for Africa (as a guiding tool). In principle, while this is an effort at regional level to give citizens greater access to information, hardly has this been translated to the intention. In the presence of such laws, who gives effect to the right to information? Who takes stock of controversy presented in the access to information bills with some provisions to repress media? Who follows up on commitments to access to information that governments make on international forums?
What this means is that there might be a need to invest more resources and energy in exploring how governments, apart from regional commitments and national statutes, can be encouraged to promote access to information to build on citizen capacity to question. Some learning from Yemen where communities mobilised themselves to challenge secrecy in government and influencing change, bring hope in ensuring access to public information that is not public. In reality therefore, without access to information, level of advocacy in Africa will not pay off. How then should we unlock the doors to government information?
We welcome any thoughts or lessons that you have in promoting access to information for an empowered citizenry. Deepen the debate on twitter https://twitter.com/CAFODwire.