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African Regional Conference on the Right of Access to Information

The Carter Center, in collaboration with the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, the Media Foundation of West Africa, and the Open Democracy Advice Centre, held the African Regional Conference on the Right to Access to Information in Accra, Ghana from Feb. 7-9, 2010.  The African Regional conference served as a follow-up to the Carter Center's International Conference on the Right to Public Information held in Atlanta, Ga., in February 2008, where more than 125 persons from 40 countries convened, representing all the key stakeholder groups, to consider the challenges facing the right of access to information and to explore potential solutions.  Both conferences concluded with the issuance of critical findings and plans of action.

Goal and Objectives

The goal of this action-oriented regional conference was the advancement of the right of access to information in Africa.

The main objectives of the conference were to:

1. Identify and explore challenges and potential solutions specific to Africa;

2. Bring together stakeholders to enhance a regional community of practice;

3. Encourage multi-stakeholder national clusters to advance the right of access to information in their countries;

4. Create and disseminate regional findings and a plan of action.

This was accomplished through keynote speakers, panel presentations, working groups, country clusters, and plenary discussion. At the conclusion of the conference, the working groups produced prioritized recommendations, which formed the framework for the African Regional Findings and Plan of Action for the Advancement of the Right of Access to Information.

Preparing for the Conference

In advance of the conference, The Carter Center consulted widely with government, civil society and media leaders from the region, as well as representatives from international and regional multilateral organizations to identify the critical issues and gaps that should be addressed in the conference. Through these discussions and questionnaire responses, we found agreement regarding the key challenges to the right of access to information in Africa:   

1. Failure of political leadership;

2. Low public awareness; and 

3. Institutional barriers.

The Conference

The conference convened more than 130 persons – representing all the key stakeholder groups – from 20 countries in Africa to explore the key issues affecting the right of access to information. The action-oriented conference allowed space for sharing experiences, but with a primary focus on in-depth discussions of challenges, impact and future agenda items. The moment was ripe for a critical examination of the state of the right of citizen access to public information in Africa.  With fewer than 7.5 percent of the countries in the region enjoying an enforceable statutory right to information, the African region lags far behind the rest of the world in establishing access to information legislation. Yet, the notions of good governance, participation, and the need to fight corruption and impunity – all reliant on access to information – are increasingly understood as critical for the region's democratic development.  This may explain why more than a quarter of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa are considering draft legislation, and the African Commission on Human and People's Rights in 2007 "renewed the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression in Africa with the following amended title: Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa," and expanded her purview to promote access to information throughout Africa.

In addition to providing space for sharing experiences, the conference stimulated peer-to-peer learning and by convening people from the same region and engendered a more targeted debate and set of conclusions.  The conference culminated with the issuance of the African Regional Findings and Plan of Action for the Advancement of the Right of Access to Information, which serves as a supplement to the global Atlanta Declaration of 2008.

During the first day of the conference, participants reflected on the regional community of practice's experience over the past years and the state of the right to information. The opening session was facilitated by former United States President Jimmy Carter and saw leaders from the World Bank and the government of Ghana discussing the value of the right of access to information and the challenges that it faces. In addition, there was a series of plenary panels aimed to answer tough questions such as "Does Transparency Matter?" and "If Transparency Matters, Why is Africa Lagging Behind?"

The second day was dedicated to group work, with the participants strategically placed into five groups. The areas for exploration by these multi-stakeholder groups included four of the same issues considered at the global conference and one new topic:

1. Politics and Economy: shifting the balance toward openness;

2. Structural Context and Technology: creating an environment for transparency;

3. Nonstate and Multi-lateral Actors: examining roles and responsibilities;

4. Regional Norm-building: considering regional instruments and standards; and

5. Demand and Use of New Technology: engaging citizens and increasing awareness

These working groups explored the challenges to the passage and implementation of the law, constraints, and next-generation issues, as well as engaged the issue of impact – topics that without our consideration could undermine past advances or retard future gains in the right to information. Each working group was led by a substantively expert facilitator and rapporteur and tasked with creating a set of findings and recommendations for the regional action plan.

Under the leadership of former CNN Bureau Chief and Carter Center Board of Trustees Member Charlayne Hunter Gault, on the third and final day, the facilitators reported back on the deliberations and findings of their working groups. A draft regional findings and action plan was distributed, and participants were provided almost a full day to consider and deliberate over the document provisions.  As part of their reflection on the comprehensiveness and utility of the draft plan of action, conference participants met in country groupings.  This space allowed colleagues from each country to meet together to discuss whether the draft document resonated with the reality of their specific experiences, to suggest additions or amendments, and also provided an opportunity to plan future joint actions.  Ghanaian Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Betty Mould Iddrisu, chaired the country group report backs which proved to be a favorite part of the conference for many participants.

Follow up Activities

Following the conference, the Carter Center incorporated the substantive comments from dozens of participants into the findings and plan of action.  On March 4, 2010, we released the final version of the African Regional Findings and Plan of Action for the Advancement of the Right of Access to Information. The document is available in English (PDF) and French (PDF) and likely will be translated into other regional languages. The African Plan has been widely disseminated in both languages, and the final version and conference materials have been posted on our website making it available and accessible to all interested persons.  President Carter has sent the regional document with a personalized letter to all heads of government in the region and heads of key international and regional bodies, urging them to adopt the findings and take steps to advance the action plan. Finally, The Carter Center will complete a final conference report as well as continue to encourage and monitor the use and implementation of the plan of action.

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