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FOI: Through the Looking Glass

Paul Mitchell's picture

I was passing through Accra recently and while walking through the lobby of the hotel was stopped by a poster for a regional conference on Freedom of Information and at the same time ran into several colleagues and old friends. It was an interesting exercise to be very aware of an issue and personalities but be on the outside looking. The conference was well attended, drawn by the start power of former US president Jimmy Carter, his center and high level activist and political figures from Africa. The Carter Center which has been at the forefront of this work is able to draw attention to and raise the profile of the issue in West Africa.

But what did it all mean to local people? When I asked Ghanaians working or staying at the hotel about the conference, there was very high recognition but mostly it was linked to former President Carter. But the issue drew little recognition or excitement. Ghana did announce that after years of languishing on the books an FOI bill would be introduced into Parliament. But to the people outside of the conference this would have little impact on their daily lives. Their worries were much more about food, shelter, safety, schooling and the actions of the government in power on their lives. 

This is one of the first questions the conference raised (I have no complaints about the Carter Center or the conference, my remarks are related to the issue)– the issue is one for elites and not the electorate at large and even if they were more aware would not be very high on their list of concerns. While clearly important for governance, unless the issue gains more political backing from the electorate, politicians will never feel the pressure for reform. This pressure is simply not there. Only seven percent of African countries have passed an FOI bill. Unless the issue can be explained in ways that show its impact on citizens’ lives in concrete ways it is not going anywhere.

Activists at the conference and elsewhere also want to make freedom of information a human right. In this it joins a long list of issues that are claimed to be human rights but are far down the list of rights people would like to enjoy like water, food, housing, medical care and jobs. Today if proponents wanted to make FOI  a right in developing countries the percentage with FOI laws might drop to single digits.

People do crave information that helps reduce corruption or lets them obtain better livelihoods, but is pushing the issue with low political acceptance, in a way that lines it up behind many other issues and without support for implementation going to achieve success?

Many African countries are looking at creating more free information environments. But trying to pass laws couched as rights is not likely to be the way they want to go. Perhaps what might work better is to focus access to information in critical sectors rather than everywhere. Pry open extractive industries, budgets, financing, and transfers of money from federal levels to other levels of government one at a time. Let politicians see they need not fear more openness and people see that the information can have a direct impact. Laws are not even necessary – what good is a law that cannot be enforced or is introduced into a legal system that itself has problems?

It is rather an attitude and there are great examples of governments in Africa providing information, without a law that has all the attributes of the law. One of the best examples was the former Finance Minister in Nigeria (which does not have an FOI law) who made public the transfers of funds from the federal to state levels stirring up large reviews of spending and corruption at the state levels.

The other issue is implementation. Why introduce a law that cannot be implemented? This is a real problem in many African countries. They do not have the resources for records management, physical access to information, training and capacity building for government officials and people accessing information. Passing an FOI law would lead to implementation failure. Are we better off? Where are the funds and lending to government for this development issue?

Access to information is critical to development but this will unlikely be accomplished in Africa without a more pragmatic, incremental approach supported by the funds governments’ need to make it real.

Photo Credit: Flickr user lrargerich


In India, some of the poorest people use the right to information legislation to force local government to deliver on services like education, health and housing, and on welfare such as pensions and disability allowances. Indians surely demonstrate that the right to information is not an elitist exercise but is instead a fundamental tool to guarantee access to basic needs?

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