Monday, 21 May 2012

Tanzania and OGP: Why it is going to fail.

As an ardent supporter of increased Openness and Transparency in government, I was delighted to hear that Tanzania had taken the bold step of joining the Open Government Partnership (OGP). Finally the years of promising a highly transparent government, as a means to fight the corruption problem, was making the transition to reality.

First, a brief history of the Open Government Partnership. This is a group currently comprising of 55 countries that have come together and formally declared a commitment to increase transparency and citizen engagement with the governance process so as to fight corruption and improve service delivery. The countries have also embraced the use of new technologies to give citizens unprecedented access to government-held records. This partnership not only involves governments, but also consults widely with civil society organisations in all member countries hence making sure that it gets a buy-in from all parties that will be involved in this process. Tanzania's commitments are outlined in a draft action plan that is available for public discussion before it is submitted to the OGP (which can be found here). This draft consists of an ambitious 25-point plan that promises things such as websites for posting government data, a platform where citizens can request information, setting up regular forums with CSOs to assess progress made in the OGP among other commitments. It is surprising to note that Tanzania is one of only 5 African countries to join the OGP, in a region that desperately needs to raise governance standards this is a shockingly low number.

The logic for joining such an initiative is sound. Giving civil society access to information will allow them to monitor government operations with the aim of uncovering illegal dealings and corrupt practices. This raises the stake for government officials to perform with the best interest of the citizen at heart or risk being exposed and potentially jailed. With the obvious benefit in mind, it would be wise to question the true motive of the Tanzanian government for joining this initiative. A question that begs to be asked: Is this an honest effort to clean up corruption and letting people judge the performance of their elected leaders on the basis of information made freely available or is it just another condition imposed by the rich donor countries for continued aid support? 

But now to come to the point of why I think Tanzania is going to fail in its OGP commitments. It is easy to come up with an action plan for improving government transparency. Many models are available and globally a number countries have been active in this area for many decades. The problem lies in the fact that the OGP treaty is not legally binding on any of its signatories and holds only on their good faith and trust, and therefore it is essential to setup some measure to enforce this within national boundaries. You can call me a pessimist, but I have little faith in the ability of bureaucrats to implement policies that may eventually expose the illegal activities of some of them. 

The solution? A law that lays down explicitly the conditions under which the government is legally bound to provide its citizens with information when requested. This law is commonly known as the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Even though most constitutions have guarantees regarding right to information, when this is not made formal by a FOIA, it becomes useless as citizens have no recourse when their request to access information is denied. A similar dilemma arises within the OGP for Tanzania. Despite all the ambitious promises made, these are not backed by any legal power which would force their implementation. Within the draft action plan, a commitment has been made to study global best practices of freedom of information laws for preparation of a POTENTIAL Freedom of Information Bill. It totally glosses over the fact that a submission of a freedom of information bill was made in 2006 but after serious concerns were raised this bill was sent to CSOs for deliberation and feedback, which dutifully reported back with its suggestions. Nothing has been heard of the bill ever since. It has been over 5 years and it appears that the bill has been shelved indefinitely! If the government of Tanzania is serious about its commitments to OGP, policymakers need to re-introduce the bill as soon as possible or else the OGP will just be another failed initiative.

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