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Opinions of Thursday, 30 August 2007

Columnist: Amegashie, J. Atsu

The Right to Information Bill and Politics in Ghana

A good system of checks and balances is a sine qua non for a well-functioning democracy and augurs well for good governance.

However, one cannot check what one cannot see or has not seen. Any monitoring scheme requires information. In a world of transparency and free access to public information, politicians and bureaucrats are likely to act in the public interest resulting in a judicious management of national resources. Furthermore, article 21(1f) of the 1992 constitution states that: “All persons shall have the right to information, subject to such qualifications and laws as are necessary in a democratic society.” While it does not explicitly refer to public information, one would be hard pressed to adduce reasons why the constitution would seek to guarantee a right to private information, unless such information was ultimately in the public interest.

Therefore, any reasonable argument must conclude that the framers of the 1992 constitution intended to guarantee the right to public information. It is for these reasons that the government of Ghana must initiate and pass the Right to Information Bill (ROIB).

In a 2003 paper titled “Do More Transparent Governments Govern Better?”, Roumeen Islam of the World Bank found that “More transparent governments govern better for a wide number of governance indicators such as government effectiveness, regulatory burden, corruption . . . voice and accountability, the rule of law, bureaucratic efficiency, contract repudiation, expropriation risk and a composite … good governance indicator”

Ana Bellver and Daniel Kaufmann of the World Bank construct an aggregate index of transparency in 194 counties based on more than 20 independent sources in a 2005 paper titled “Transparenting Transparency: Initial Empirics and Policy Applications”. They found that “…transparency is associated with better socio-economic and human development indicators, as well as with higher competitiveness and lower corruption”

We should put pressure on the NPP government and parliament to pass the Right to Information bill (ROIB) which has been on the table for some years. What is required is political commitment to transparency and zero tolerance towards corruption. Excuses about the financial implications of this bill or the lack of a system of storage and retrieval of information do not hold water. Uganda and Angola have passed this bill. The ROIB is very crucial to our democracy and therefore warrants the expenditure so required. It is is the embodiment and soul of the cardinal principle of checks and balances in a democracy. One need not belabor this point.

Indeed, Ana Bellver and Daniel Kaufman note, in the aforementioned paper, that achieving better transparency “is not a question of major financial resources”. According to them “… much progress can be attained without requiring inordinate amount of resources, since transparency reforms can be substantial net ‘savers’ of public resources, and often can serve as a more efficient and less financially costly substitute to creating additional regulations and/or regulatory or governance bodies.”

Of course, the right to public information cannot be absolute, unqualified, or unrestricted lest it imposes excessive demands on public administration. It also requires a sense of responsibility on the part of those who exercise this right. For example, journalists must seek information in the public interest as opposed to the needs of special interests.

Notwithstanding the preceding point, we still need to know, inter alia, how government officials spend our taxes in addition to loans and aid negotiated in their capacities as agents of the nation. This will be a tremendous boost to good governance and political accountability. To buttress this point, a study undertaken by the World Bank examined the effect of improved access to information as a tool to reduce the corrupt use of public funds. In a 2003 paper titled “The Power of Information: Evidence from a Newspaper Campaign to Reduce Capture”, Ritva Reinikka and Jakob Svensson examined an experiment that required the publication in newspapers of the disbursement of money to local schools as part of an extensive grant-financed school program in Uganda.

Prior to this experiment, the schools received about 20 percent of the money to which they were entitled. But with an increase in the quantity and frequency of information about the payments in newspapers, the amount of aid delivered to intended recipients increased astronomically from 20 percent to 80 percent.

Ritva Reinikka and Jakob Svensson concluded their paper by noting that “Through a relatively inexpensive policy action - the provision of mass information - Uganda dramatically reduced district-level capture of a public program aimed at increasing primary education. Poor people who were less able than others to claim their entitlement from district officials before the campaign … benefited most.”

In addition to the passage of the ROIB, there should be a serious commitment to a program of decentralization. Monitoring a huge bureaucracy or entity such as a central or federal government can be daunting. When we elect district chief executives (DCEs), we split the enormous job of holding politicians accountable to small and manageable units (i.e., tasks). This will complement FOIB, when it is passed. Moreover, the job of being a political watchdog is a public good. One citizen’s vigilance is a benefit to all. The public good nature of political vigilance means that the average citizen has an incentive to free ride on the efforts of others. However, this free-rider incentive is weaker in a smaller community than in a bigger community. It follows from these two arguments that decentralization (1) reduces the free-rider incentive thereby inducing people to acquire the information required to monitor elected officials, and (2) makes access to such information easier and cheaper. We cannot hold DCEs accountable if they are appointed by the president. Under the present arrangement, DCEs, like cabinet ministers, are accountable to the president not to us. They will only be accountable to us if we elect them, give them a sufficient degree of fiscal authority, and monitor them accordingly.

In a paper titled “Monitoring Corruption: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Indonesia” which appeared in the April 2007 issue of the Journal of Political Economy, Harvard economist Benjamin Olken found that increasing grassroots participation in monitoring had little impact in reducing corruption in a randomized field experiment of over 600 road projects in Indonesian villages. This was due to apathy and free-riding by most members of some of these villages. He, however, found that the impact was bigger in villages with limited free rider problems. Benjamin Olken’s study suggests that access to information will only be effective if (i) sufficient members of the community avail themselves of such information, and (ii) negative and credible information has serious consequences (e.g., voting corrupt officials out of office).

To be fair, the NPP government should not shoulder the entire blame for the inability to pass the ROIB. The NDC government could have initiated and passed this bill when it was in power for 8 years. But it did not. Both governments are responsible for this glaring disservice to the people of Ghana. Let’s pass the right to information bill. It is necessary, even if it is not sufficient, for political accountability and good governance. The time is now!!!

*The author, J. Atsu Amegashie, teaches economics at the University of Guelph, Canada.
J. Atsu Amegashie
Department of Economics
University of Guelph
Guelph, Ontario
Canada Email: jamegash@uoguelph.ca