When President Jimmy Carter opened the Africa Regional Conference on the Right of Access to Information in Accra on February 7, 2010, he explained why the Carter Center had organized the conference. The main reason, he pointed out, was that with regard to access to information 'Africa has lagged far behind'. South Africa was the only good example he cited. Yet this is at a time when the transparency revolution is sweeping through the rest of the world. For instance, since 2000 an average of six countries per year have passed Freedom of Information Acts, and 80 had done so by 2008.
So, why is Africa lagging far behind? On the second day of the conference, I spent the day as part of a working group on the political economy of access to information in Africa. The group was a fascinating one, about 20 in size; we had three ministers of information, we had newspaper editors, activists, academics and others. The explanations we came up with are in the three groups CommGAP uses to analyze obstacles to governance reforms:
(1) Political will challenges
- Political leaders want to minimize risk for themselves and, in their view, access to information laws maximize risk.
- Leaders worry that transparency laws might lead to past mistakes long thought buried resurfacing.
- Freedom of Information laws rarely produce good narratives for governments, or so they believe. They are seen to produce narratives of incompetence and corruption.
(2) Institutional will challenges
- Civil servants do not like access to information laws, and are masters at blocking reforms they don't want.
- Implementing access to information laws is seen as very expensive.
- Planning and budgeting for an access to information system is seen as difficult, with very little sense of the cost and benefit of any proposed reforms.
- Ministries of Information in Africa tend to be very weak on the whole and have little clout except as ruling party megaphones. The two things complicate their roles as possible champions of reform.
(3) Public will challenges
- Public interest in access to information hardly exists and very few citizens see it as the activists do: a fundamental right to be fought for seriously. This is an example, in my view, of a global norm that has not made landfall in Africa in any proper sense.
- Pro-reform coalitions, able to solve the public's collective action problem, hardly exist.
- There is very little impetus coming from the region to energize national efforts.
Contexts vary of course, but the list gives you a sense of what the challenges are. The solution? Every national effort to improve transparency needs a strategy for tackling these challenges or it is worse than futile.
Photo Credit: Eric Miller, 2002 (World Bank)