As an African who lives on the continent and works in the development sector, I am troubled by the persistent poverty many live in. The continent boasts of abundant natural resources and a vibrant and talented young population, yet the number of people living in extreme poverty is over 100 million—about the combined population of Canada, Australia and Spain. I believe the failure to eradicate poverty in Africa is a result of our failure to deal with corruption, inequality, lack of accountability and bad governance.
Open government has the potential to change the tide of Africa’s poverty situation.
Several open government initiatives, such as the Open Government Partnership and Open Contracting Partnership have shown that allowing citizens to actively engage in government processes holds government accountable on how it uses resources and improves the delivery of services. It fosters effectiveness and efficiency in the running of government and importantly builds trust between citizens and their officials.
Open government should be understood as the process of proactively providing citizens with the necessary data, information, and knowledge of government processes to have a say in decisions about their lives and to hold their officials accountable.
But the burning question is: are African governments ready for citizens to engage in government processes and allow the voices of citizens to be heard?
Africa’s record on good governance has been inconsistent over the last two decades. The engagement between citizens and governments has been diminishing. Civil society and media spaces are shrinking through the introduction of draconian legislation. There are several examples across the continent where governments feel threatened by the growing use of technology and the internet and are responding by placing restrictions on mainstream media, social media platforms and information technology. For example, Rwanda has been criticized for shutting down independent media, Tanzania recently passed a problematic access to information law, and Ethiopia continues to restrict and shut down internet access. All of this reflects a concerning clamp-down on citizen participation in governance and the possibility for political dissent.
Deepening inequalities on the continent can be attributed to the lack of citizen engagement with government and lack of accountability. Ten percent of the population enjoys eighty percent of the continent’s wealth. The high levels of inequality across the continent have prevented the ‘Africa Rising’ from producing a transformative change on people’s lives. The rich continue to accumulate wealth, while the poor continue to slide into extreme poverty.
To grasp the extent and effects of inequality and poor services on the continent, one must first understand the correlation with instability, protests and the refugee crisis in Africa. Studies have shown that the lack of basic services and inequality have contributed to the continuous movement of young people from Africa to Europe. In areas such as North East Nigeria and Somalia, young people who are dismayed by the failure of government to provide for education, proper health care, sanitation and clean running water have resorted to joining militia groups such as Boko Haram and Al Shabaab.
Open government is not the sole answer to poverty in Africa, but it is an essential ingredient. I believe that, in order for Africa to begin eradicating poverty it needs a genuine and honest partnership between citizens and their governments.
In small communities, we have seen such partnerships achieve amazing results. For example, Cameroon’s Fako Division of Buea community was able to save about 5 million CFA ($50 500 USD) for a school construction project after the Ministry of Public Contracts implemented open contracting. The Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI), a partnership between government and civil society, managed to recover US$2.4 billion from oil corruption.
Dealing with corruption requires a strategy for inclusion and systems that can root out the rotten apples. Implementing open contracting principles, disclosure of beneficial ownership information and budget transparency allow citizens to oversee the management of resources. Opening this information to citizens has proven to be effective in clamping down on corruption and allowing small businesses to grow. It allows fair distribution of wealth through equal opportunities and good service delivery.
Opening information to citizens enables accountability and builds responsible civil servants who have integrity in providing services to people. Open government strengthens the checks and balances within government and enables the identification of corrupt individual. Only then will we eradicate nepotism in civil service employment and procurement and have a government that serves its people—not the other way around.