Right to Know Day
Information is the way to development: African citizens have a Right to Know – On International Right to Know Day – 28 September – the Institute for Democracy in Africa (Idasa) emphasises the importance of making information accessible to the wider public. Citizens’ access to information ensures that they take ownership of democratic processes and therefore can participate effectively. In 2011, the advocacy message is about making information on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) available to everyone. That access to information can be used as a tool to ensure that the wishes of citizens as set out in the Millennium Declaration are honoured.
The Right to Know Right to Education Project at Idasa would like to advocate for a push towards the attainment of the MDG that relates to education. With special emphasis on the Millennium Development Goal 2, which is on achieving universal primary education, the project seeks to promote the right of access to information to all citizens.
The specific targets of this goal are (a) Ensure all boys and girls complete a full course of primary schooling (b) Net enrolment ratio in primary education (c) Proportion of pupils starting grade 1 who reach last grade of primary (d) Literacy rate of 15-24 year-olds, women and men.
The project promotes the participation of both parents and children in the development of schools, hence the emphasis on the availability of information on progress on this MDG on access to education. There is a strong argument that can be made regarding the fact that communities cannot become active citizens in a democracy without information being readily accessible. Access to information is an enabler in realising participation in democracy. The project strongly supports the idea of having information available to parents and citizens in general on retention rates of schools, ensuring equity on the boy/girl enrolment ratio and the literacy of females and males under the age of 25 in poor communities.
According to an MDG report, “enrolment in primary education has continued to rise, reaching an impressive 89% in the developing world”. However, there should be concern around the findings in the report that “Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia are home to the vast majority of children out of school”. The report has to be simplified so that ordinary citizens may understand and break down the data it contains.
More effort should be put into ensuring much wider reach of the report’s findings. Further, recognition should be given to the reality that progress on the MDGs relies heavily on citizens in developing countries understanding and acting upon MDG-relevant information. Despite a growing consensus among civil society that information provision is crucial in the continent’s quest for development, the role of information has largely been left off the MDG agenda. Civil society organisations have argued that, for example, ICTs can improve the delivery of services and facilitate management and transfer of knowledge. To obtain sufficient understanding of citizens’ access needs in relation to development outcomes it is crucial to understand that the availability of information and access to different technology platforms in countries in development varies significantly across different population sub-groups; men and women, among educated and uneducated and between those living in rural and urban areas. Transparency in governance requires that information be made available to citizens. The tendency of governments to adopt FOI Bills with secrecy as an undertone is in contradiction to democratic processes and against development.
Despite last year’s introduction of a Protection of Information Bill in South Africa that had underlying secrecy principles, there have been some positive developments in other parts of the continent around this crucial issue. For instance, the new Kenyan constitution shows more recognition of the importance of the right to access to information for citizens. It has adopted the progressive Freedom of Information clauses as they were contained in the old South African constitution. The ratified Kenyan constitution, which was promulgated on 27 August 2010, should set Kenya on a path to greater development. The fourth chapter, which contains the Bill of Rights, is regarded as one of the most progressive provisions of the Kenyan constitution. It guarantees fundamental rights including the freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and belief, the right to equal opportunities for men and women, freedom of the media, the rights of arrested persons, and the right of an accused person to get a fair trial. Access to information should not be limited to being enacted into law – there is a necessity for it to be practiced by governments, corporations, international non-governmental organisations and national non-governmental organisations. It must be a habit that governs the day-to-day functioning of a democracy.
Idasa would like to advocate for freedom of information not just being a reserve for the media but for a more progressive outlook where all citizens enjoy the right to information as a basic right. Similarly, development cannot take place without consensus and so the active consultation of communities on the contents of the MDG report and the implications of these finding is pivotal.
Wider access to information allows and empowers ordinary citizens to participate actively in development processes.
For more information, contact Yolanda Taylor, advocacy officer, Idasa, on email@example.com, +27(012) 3920644 or +27(082)0934495.
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