Wed, Sep 25, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Grassroot revolution in West Africa led by ‘factivists,’ NGOs and innovators

Ghana is said to be one of the ‘lions’ of sub-Saharan Africa with the discovery of offshore oil, but the excitement is in the creation of a civil society demanding openness and democracy

By Tim Adams  /  The Observer, Accra

Ghana has recently become one of the first countries to sign up to the Open Government Initiative. The theory is that the government provides open access to its data on revenue, spending and outcomes, and that, seeing for the first time what they are entitled to, the electorate will use that data to demand better services. In this assembly hall the practice of that theory is tested.

The first problem raised seems quite a crucial one: Ashaiman district authority has apparently received not a cent of the money that is due to it from the central government capital fund this year. Nothing for road maintenance, schools or drains. One response to the long-broken promise to surface the main road has been a demonstration which shut down Ashaiman in June, residents making burning roadblock barricades. The local radio called it, with a nod to Tahrir Square, the Ashaiman Spring. Work on the road commenced the following week.

A man who introduces himself as the Hon BB Abdulai, who runs his own local non-governmental organization (NGO) for women’s health issues, and who is on the independent monitoring committee of the assembly, proves to be a master of understatement.

“There are cash irregularities. Accounting for money is a big problem here,” he said.

To counter such irregularities the monitoring committee of the assembly puts its faith in a simple idea: more data. The worse the situation, we are told, the stronger the resolve to collect true information and make it public, an open government initiative of a different kind. The monitoring group is part of the Social Enterprise Development Foundation (SEND), which has 11 members in each district of the 53 poorest regions of Accra. The network goes out into the community, fills in questionnaires, gathers reality, gives that information to the public in accessible reports online and --— set against the government’s promises — campaigns for justice.

Siapha Kamara is the chief executive of SEND. The stated vision on his business card reads: “A West Africa where people’s rights and well-being are guaranteed.” It is slow work.

However, it is also just possible that the future in this part of the world may belong to people such as Siapha Kamara and his grassroots team. They are, you might say, transparency revolutionaries, engaged in the hard grind of finding reliable facts in a place where knowledge has always been hard to come by, facts that can be leveraged for change.

Sanjay Pradhan, formerly the World Bank’s director of governance, and long a pioneer of what is called the Open Agenda for development has in the past called people such as Kamara “lonely warriors.” The good news is they are no longer quite so alone.

The ONE organization with whom I have been traveling in Ghana has a more upbeat name for people like Kamara: “factivists.” ONE, led by activist and singer Bono, is in Ghana on a dual mission. The first part of it is related to the organization’s efforts to hold Western governments to their promises on development spending, in particular their commitments to the Global Fund against HIV/AIDS which continues to save millions of lives on the continent.

The previous morning we had visited Korle Bu Teaching Hospital, which Bono had first come to in 2002, before the Global Fund was established, in the company of then-US secretary of the Treasury, Paul O’Neil on a tour that helped to convince former US president George W. Bush’s administration of its commitment to the cause. Bono is back here again now with a delegation from Product Red, corporate leaders who also commit a proportion of revenue.

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