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Opinions of Sunday, 5 August 2012

Columnist: Neequaye?Theresa

Access to Information; An Essential Element for Democracy

Information is power they say. The Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) group in Volta Region can prove the truth of it. The group, based in Ho knew there were some government schemes that could benefit them but didn’t know what they were. They wanted to know how they can obtain information on the processes involved in applying for the Rogan Links Ghana (RLG) Free Computer Training package being offered to PWDs by the government of Ghana. Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) an Accra based non-governmental organization (NGO) that has been working on transparency in governance for over a decade, and is the secretariat for Ghana’s Right to Information (RTI) Coalition, helped them get the information. At a training program held in Volta Region in December 2011, the group was surprised to hear that as citizens of Ghana they could ask for information and government agencies could not deny it, at least not in law. Of course they could deny and delay the information to be given like bureaucrats will sometimes do. But with the CHRI training in hand the group was encouraged to approach the Social Welfare Department of the District Assembly.

In the absence of a stand-alone law that makes clear that citizens have a right to access government held information, CHRI had educated the participants on acquiring basic knowledge on their fundamental rights to access information using existing laws. Not used to ever demanding information the disabled folks group were amazed the possibility of getting information just by asking for it. But knowing is one thing and doing is another. Mostly they felt that they would be shooed away. But knowledge brought with it courage and the PWDs decided to try to put their new law found knowledge to practical use.

They decided to ask for information about RLG Free Computer Training Package for Persons with Disability in the District. They wrote letters to the Social Welfare Department in the District requesting for information and the processes involved in benefiting for the package. Follow-ups were made to ascertain progress being made on the request. The group held series of meetings with officials of the Department and finally obtained the needed information. Prior to their training the PWDs had contacted the Department of Social Welfare in the District concerning the matter. The Department could not give a specific response either, until CHRI intervened.

Mr. Francis Asong, Executive Director of Voice of Persons with Disability spoke about the value of the intervention when he explained that prior to the training, PWDs had written a series of letters to the Department but never got even the courtesy of a reply. But with the aid of the educational materials about “Access to Information for Persons with Disabilities” that had drawn attention to the 3% budget money allocated the District Assembly Common Fund in Ho Municipality, Adaklu Anyigbe, Ketu North and Nkwanta South Districts they could at least ask informed questions about how it was being spent and take benefit of it. It hadn’t been easy or quick to get the information. But the journey was worthwhile. It had not stopped with increased knowledge but had resulted in getting real physical benefits. By putting into practice what they had learned the group got access to computer training and could partake in the economic life of the nation and contribute to it as well as have the dignity of being able to achieve despite disadvantage.

This really small intervention of giving information about what is possible under government schemes is a real life demonstration of how more information, freely available can propel a nation forward in prosperity and in democratic governance. The Indian thinker, Amartya Sen in his analysis of poverty has famously said that poor people are not only poor in income but also poor in information. Lack of information traps them into cycles of poverty. People don’t have to be poor but they are often kept poor through being excluded from taking part in their own by being kept ignorant.

From colonial times it has been the case that governments have traditionally worked in silos apart from their populations. The colonial government was a foreign power. Secrecy was its hall mark. It told the people what to do and not what it was doing. But now today in Ghana where we are recognized across Africa as being progressive and democratic we cannot keep to those old designs of governance. The people are part of governance. Government must recognize this and not be afraid of taking the next bold step to move from a colonial mentality of dealing with subjects to working hand in hand with informed active citizens to build a genuinely democratic and prosperous Ghana.

By: Theresa Neequaye
Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI)
Africa office, Accra -Ghana