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Opinions of Monday, 6 August 2018

Columnist: Kweku Zurek

Have the fishermen won?

Good news: The Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development has capitulated to the fishing community. It now says the ban on fishing that was to have taken effect from August 7 to September 4, will now take effect from the third week of August.

Why the postponement?

The ministry says the decision was in consideration of the fact that August is the month in which many coastal communities observe their traditional festivals, most of which have ties to fishing, fish and fishery.

Question: If it is true, as we are told by Professor Francis K. E. Nunoo, the acting Chief Director at the Ministry, that the concept of a closed season had been on the drawing board since 1997, and if the Fisheries Management Plan, gazetted as far back as 2015, was promulgated after “two years of wide consultations with stakeholders, including fishermen”, how come that no fisherman told the minister in those two years of consultation that August was a particularly bad month to close the sea?

This is unbelievable. Were there no sociologists or communication specialists in those meetings? Is this what observers mean when they say Africa takes one step forward only to take 10 steps backwards?

Ghana, which consumes over 950,000 metric tons of fish annually, currently imports over 60 per cent of its fish. We need a close season because, in 2016 alone, the country imported US$135 million worth of fish because of a reduction of fish in the sea and other water bodies, so the measure is to ensure stock recovery to curtail the depletion of Ghana's fish stock.

Great. But a sociologist or communications person in those meetings would have pointed out to the minister a few truths about managing innovations in a predominantly nonliterate Third World country.

I believe it when we are told that there were wide consultations. What I suspect is that the ministry officials went into the meetings with a closed mind. Somebody high up may have decided that “scientists have said it; what else is there to listen to?”, or wondered to himself/herself: “Don’t those illiterate fishermen recognise that this is in their own interest?”

In the early 1980s, the Indian authorities were shocked when a community in one part of the country boycotted communal taps constructed by the government to provide pipe-borne water. The taps were provided because there were too many reported cases of water-borne diseases from the village as a direct result of the inhabitants’ reliance on the stream. The people were supposed to rejoice at the inauguration of the facility.

They did not. Communication experts later discovered that the taps prevented the women from walking in pairs all the way to the river to fetch water and do “communal laundry” (they washed their clothes on the rocks near the river). The researchers found that it was during these walks to the stream and during the laundry on the rocks that the women enjoyed their latest juicy gossip!

Subsequently, the tap project was redesigned with this factor in mind. Only then did it succeed.

The water-borne disease stopped. Sounds unreasonable? Maybe, but if “stakeholder consultations” are conducted to benefit human beings, then adjustments have to be made for “matters of the heart” in the order of human needs.

“Public participation” should include the promise that the public’s contribution will influence the decision. For projects that have social impacts, therefore, consultation will not be a single conversation but a platform to seek opinions, including the opinions of the uneducated.

If this theory had been heeded in the “closed season” case in Ghana, we would have avoided the situation where two weeks or a few days before implementation is when the minister embarks on a tour to the affected communities trying to persuade the intended beneficiaries of her plan.

Stakeholder consultations should not be opportunities for snack breaks. In a Third World situation, there have to be follow-ups down into the communities, in between formal meetings, to monitor reactions and ensure their clear understanding of the issues. That is where the researcher picks up “residual matters”.

I have a piece of advice for the Fisheries Minister, and indeed, everybody in the position of authority in Ghana. This is a country where politics is everything and where everything and everybody is NDCNPP. There are manipulators hovering in the shadows with political profit in mind.

In such politically charged situations, it is not unlikely for some stakeholders to claim that they were not consulted.

For this reason, and to avoid such claims, I advise that decisions at every junction of the consultation, in the form of communiqués, should be made public. The communiqués must be signed or thumb printed by representatives of all sides. That way, it is easy for the government side to throw back at unreasonable agitators their words, pledges, vows and promises.

So in the just-ended close fishing season brouhaha, I ask: Which side won or lost? In classical analysis, I would say the ministry lost - and it lost because either the minister lacked advisers or she might have decided she did not need them. The ministry succumbed only when it found its back to the wall.

Some say we are a nation running without any forward motion. Either we are running on the same spot or we are running backwards.


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