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

Wed, Sep 25, 2013 - Page 9

Driving through the streets of Ghana’s capital, Accra, a couple of weeks ago, on the way from the urban center to the slum district of Ashaiman, a trick question nagged in my head. It was a question that had popped up a few times in the previous days on a visit that had taken in fact-finding meetings with politicians, pressure groups, donors and entrepreneurs, journalists and professors all talking about Ghana’s future. The question was this: “What does transparency look like?”

One answer, it seemed, on that journey through Accra, at midday on Aug. 29, was: empty streets. The normally clogged and inch-forward roads to Ashaiman were traffic-free. There was a reason for this. It was, as the Accra Daily Graphic had it, the Hour of Judgment, high noon.

Last year Ghana narrowly re-elected its center-left President John Dramani Mahama. However, for the past 10 months that result has been the subject of legal challenge by the opposition center-right party because of alleged voting irregularities. The unprecedented court case to determine the truth has been shown live on television most afternoons of those months, a painstaking democratic drama with a cliffhanger ending.

The previous evening everyone I met in Accra told me two things: First, that they have no idea which of three ways it will go — ratification, a rerun or victory for the opposition. Second, that I should not go out in the markets the following day in case of violence after the result. Some people, remembering contested elections of the past, have stocked up on food and locked the doors. Hence the empty streets.

In Ashaiman the verdict eventually crackles through on the car radio tuned to Joy FM. After considering the evidence the 11 judges have decided that the technical problems with the vote helped neither party and the original result should stand. The opposition leader, Nana Akufo-Adda, who has fought the most determined of battles to remove the president, immediately comes out to endorse the judicial verdict. Mahama himself suggests that the waiting is over and his term of office can finally begin. And then: nothing. No protest, no unrest. People slowly come out to the markets, to go shopping. Ghana gets on with business.

Inside the Ashaiman regional assembly hall, a room with bare walls and floors, and a broken ceiling fan, local people — representatives of the assembly, leaders of women’s groups and youth groups, farmers and small businessmen — are gathered round a TV whooping and cheering at the result. They are, they explain, cheering not for any partisan cause, but for the openness of the process itself, of justice for once being seen to be done. “Ghana is the winner!” “Ghana has won!” You might say it is a triumph for transparency.

When that excitement has died down the people in that assembly hall sit to discuss another form of transparency, this one somewhat more opaque. The headline story of Ghana is of growth and transformation — in the financial pages the country is one of the “lions” of sub-Saharan Africa, with an economy expanding at 7 percent or more and, after the discovery of major offshore oil reserves, promises of prosperity and an aid-free future in the pipeline. Still, in a place such as Ashaiman, home to 200,000 people with nonexistent roads, squalid housing and drainage, brutally under-resourced education and healthcare, that promise seems a long way off.

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.

The hospital’s program manager, Nii Akwei Addo, extends his welcome: “We started 10 years ago from zero, and all we used to do was counsel and talk and watch people die. Now we have 72,000 people on anti-retroviral treatment all with support from the Global Fund. We have spread the money as far as we can spread it.”

The Global Fund is due a US$15 billion replenishment in the coming weeks of which 10 percent should come from Britain. Progress has been spectacular; in Ghana alone the crucial rate of mother-to-child transmission of HIV has been reduced by 75 percent since the advent of the fund.

Still, spend some time speaking to Adane Nsure who has lived with HIV for 14 years, and whose third, healthy child, a daughter, Happy, is asleep on her lap, is to believe it is money well spent.

The commitment to combat HIV/AIDS was one of the original Millennium Development Goals (MDG), envisaged 13 years ago now, by then UN secretary-general Kofi Annan as a blueprint for a new relationship between the developed and the developing world. The targets were to be achieved within 15 years, that is to say, by Dec. 31, 2015, a date which, particularly when viewed from Accra, now seems very close.

It has long been the fashionable cynic’s view that the goals — “the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger,” and so on — were hopelessly resistant to scrutiny.

Jamie Drummond, who was an architect of the Drop the Debt and Make Poverty History campaigns, and who is now director of ONE would not subscribe to that argument. Along with ONE Africa director Sipho Moyo, who is with us in Accra, he is quick to reel off some of the statistics about Ghana to back up his point; among them that life expectancy has risen by six years to 64 since 2000, child mortality has fallen by 22 percent and Ghana has more than halved extreme poverty levels.

Still, as both Drummond and Moyo accept, one of the valid criticisms of the original MDGs was that they gave the impression of being the imposed solution of rich countries on this part of the world. A new post-2015 framework, which is currently being debated, should clearly be more representative of the demands of Africans. To this end, Moyo, based in Johannesburg for ONE, has developed an initiative called Your Voice that has canvassed 200,000 Africans in the south of the continent and invited them to outline their priorities.

The answers emphasized jobs, inclusive growth, in particular measures to keep a bigger proportion of wealth from the extractive industries — of the US$2 billion earned from Ghana’s gold mines annually, for example, only US$38 million stays in Ghana — , more open accountability of corporations and government and donors, and an end to corruption.

If the original MDGs asked for an “aid revolution” this time around, therefore, they may well demand a “transparency revolution.”

ONE, along with many other organizations, has lately been working to understand and nurture what that revolution might involve. Having lobbied, successfully, over the last two years for legislation that requires US and European mining and oil companies to publish their contracts for concessions in Africa — the secrecy of which was previously the source of enormous corruption — Drummond and Moyo are in Ghana to examine the progress of the other half of that transparency compact. That’s the one which demands African governments be transparent democracies, open both about the money they receive from all sources, and accountable for where it is spent. Hence the importance of “factivists” such as Kamara, people who are slowly building and reinforcing the idea of civil society, demanding more robust and well-scrutinized institutions.

Over the course of a few days in Ghana we have met a lot of these people, heroically trying to piece together data that might hold governments and corporations to account, to follow in detail the millions that come in from mining concessions and donor organizations and to discover exactly where the money goes. Some are representatives of organizations such as Revenue Watch, who have been at this for a long time. Some are individuals such as Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi, a professor at the University of Accra,who sees progress in the fact that this year the ruling party asked for his analysis and data in advance.

Some, like Imani, are smart think tanks, and some are old-fashioned muck-raking journalists. If the transparency revolution has a Che Guevara figure in Ghana it is Anas, an undercover reporter who keeps his identity a close-guarded secret as he works to expose corruption in business and public service. He is one of the few contemporary journalists whose legend and exploits are retold by local rappers. In a recent interview he described his anti-corruption mission as a war.

“Corruption must be engaged in direct and full-frontal attack,” he said. “Institutions in Africa and other developing countries are not well developed... It’s a challenge. However, we are all on board developing this country — or, better, this continent.”

If Anas is the military wing of this engagement then its most effective secret weapon is technology. After the visit to the hospital, the ONE delegation pitches up at a “tech hub” called Meltwater. A privately funded incubator of digital start-ups, the Silicon Valley of Accra, which offers 20 places a year for budding tech entrepreneurs from more than 1,000 applicants. Gathered together at the institute for the afternoon are many of the young tech entrepreneurs who are already transforming the country’s digital economy, developing platforms that understand the local market.

As one delegate says, “we are not going to see the next Twitter or Facebook come from here, but we are going to see African versions of those things.”

The exciting part for factivists is that a lot of these apps and ideas serve to connect and inform and provide smart services in a myriad number of ways, empowering those not used to being able to control elements of their lives. Bright Simons, for example, is the founder of Pedigree, an app that allows patients to verify the authenticity of drugs, invaluable in countries where there might be 20 generic options, allowing a “smart regulatory system” and saving lives through the reduction in circulation of fake and substandard medicines.

Herman Chinery-Hesse, widely known as the Bill Gates of Accra, has developed a cheap and transparent payroll platform, democratizing accounting, and is working on a security network for poor neighborhoods that uses the spare capacity of private security firms allied to a network of friends and family.

An organization called MoTech sends voice messages to pregnant women in remote rural areas, particularly in the largely impoverished north of Ghana, reducing the necessity and cost of women to travel to clinics, and providing advice in their local language that reduces the still alarming rates of maternal mortality. The project was set up by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but is engaged with mobile companies who provide the service for free, and win the loyalty of whole communities in return.

Others point to the growth of platforms such as Ipaidabribe.com and WhereMyMoneyDey? which are creating an ever-growing network of whistleblowers across the continent, or to GCNet, which crowdsources instances of corruption at ports in Ghana with great success.

These are all small steps toward a more robust and open democracy in a country like Ghana, but taken together they perhaps begin to spread not only a notion of accountability, but a spirit of engagement.