Citizens For Justice Executive Director; Reinford Mwangonde recently gave an interview to the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Blog. OGP was launched in 2011 to provide an international platform for domestic reformers committed to making their governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens. Since then, OGP has grown from 8 countries to 69 participating countries. In all of these countries, government and civil society are working together to develop and implement ambitious open government reforms. In Malawi, the Office of The President and Cabinet (OPC) champions OGP with Citizens for Justice leading with Civil Society coordination.
(This interview was originally published by the Open Government Partnership on 25th February, 2016)
How can open government make a difference in people’s lives in Malawi?
Increasing citizen access to information improves the quality of development and governance outcomes in countries like Malawi, which have governance problems. Information enables Malawians to know how the government is running the affairs of the republic and its decision-making processes. Such knowledge increases citizen’s ability to hold duty bearers to account for their commitments and responsibilities, as well as demand for enforcement of sanctions whenever accountability deficit occurs.
How have you benefited from exchanging ideas with your government?
We have been able to get information on development initiatives and government policies that have an impact on Malawians. For instance, social service deliveries around drugs which usually go missing in our hospitals, progress on how the Government is battling corruption, and decision making processes around priorities that promote and protect the social economic rights of Malawians.
Such information has been useful when engaging the Government, including members of parliament and councilors who have been entrusted with implementing certain developmental projects like hospitals, schools and community halls with funding from the Government. We use that information but also pass it to communities in Malawi to conduct social audits and obtaining feedback on matters that affect them. Thus, citizens are able to make more informed choices and decisions, as well as respond better to opportunities. In essence, it helps influence budget priorities in order to address the needs of disadvantaged and marginalized groups.
Describe one OGP commitment from your country that you are proud of.
The Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI) is one key commitment in our OGP National Action Plan. I have personally done a lot of work in the Mining, Oil and Gas sector in Malawi and the region. There has been a concern of how the sector has turned out to be more of a curse than a blessing, and to deal with that, we have to start from a point of transparency. With that we can talk about revenue transparency, community support, responsible extraction, and the demand for social-environmental transparency. Citizens for Justice (CFJ), where I work now, has been lobbying for Malawi to adopt EITI since 2007 and it’s humbling to see that our efforts worked and Malawi is now a EITI candidate country. In our view, availability of information on revenue transparency will help citizens appreciate how much money the government receives from the sector and how that money contributes to national budget and translates to service delivery
How are you working to overcome challenges in opening up government in your country?
Section 37 of the Malawian Constitution guarantees the right to information and the Malawi Government adopted a policy on access to information but the country is yet to enact legislation and develop systems and mechanisms for citizens to have access to the information. We have been lobbying for the enactment of the access to information law, which underpins the need to realize the constitutional principles on the right to information.
How has belonging to the greater OGP community helped you / have you benefited from exchange?
In Malawi, the discourse on access to information has not been separated from transparency and accountability. Easy access to information increases transparency, which in turn promotes accountability by enabling citizens to hold duty bearers to account for their actions. Therefore, being part of the greater OGP community has enhanced our skills of how to contextualize these issues but also increase our networks where we share and learn what is working and what is not.
Why are you personally interested in Open Government- what in your background brought you here? How did you first get involved with OGP?
I work for a Human Rights, Good Governance and Economic Justice lobby organization. Sometimes governments with poor governance principles tend to abuse citizens’ rights. Information on human rights and breaches of these rights helps citizens to secure the protection of their rights. Access to information is also fundamental in delivering deeper, more inclusive and participatory forms of governance.
What is your biggest challenge working in civil society in Malawi (in relation to OGP if you like)?
It has been very difficult to access information from certain government departments without enabling legislation. Limited access to relevant information by citizens of Government’s actions undermines achievement of development outcomes, weakens democracy and frustrates enjoyment of all rights. Limited public access to information on Government actions perpetuates a culture of secrecy, which undermines public confidence in public institutions and its officials.
What do you feel is the greatest success of Malawi involvement in OGP?
The attempt for Malawi to let its citizens access information through the OGP is a good effort in the absence of enabling legislation as stipulated in section 37 of our constitution on the right to information. Furthermore, OGP in Malawi has also enjoyed the political will of two different presidents. The former President committed OGP and the incumbent who came to power in 2014 has also committed to OGP.
What is the greatest weakness in Malawi of OGP?
Malawi has signed up to OGP but one of the key commitments under the draft OGP National Action Plan is Access To Information (ATI), which has not yet passed into Law by Parliament. The ATI has been a bill for the last ten years and it is coming up before our parliament in March. We hope it will pass. Without ATI, citizens will not access information and it would be meaningless to talk about OGP.