Open government and Freedom of Information in Liberia – more than a Hollywood dream?

I am sitting at the University of Liberia campus, watching Erin Brockovich, the Hollywood movie. As it demonstrates the uses of the Freedom of information act in the US to uncover environmental damage by a chemical company, it is a demonstrative prelude to a distinguished Freedom of Information/Access to Information panel, moderated by Dep. Min. Tweah with US visitors from Department of Justice and The Carter Center, the Liberian Independent Information Commissioner, and former Minister of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism  – one of many events  lined up before the Right to Know day, on September 28, 2013.

 

Liberia has had the Freedom information Act in place for three years now and is one of the few countries in  Africa to have such legislation. The Independent Information Commission is one of its kind in Africa. BUT, things are not always so sweet. In a recent CEMESP study, only one of 92 FOIA requests resulted in a full, positive disclosure of information.

 

This is not to say a lot has been done. The Government of Liberia (GoL) has committed to greater transparency and, after years of instability, Liberians now have the opportunity to become more aware of what to expect and demand from government.

 

For example:

  • The government passed the Freedom of Information Act in 2010 (the first in West Africa);
  • has worked to pass a Procurement and Contracting Act in 2009 requiring GoL contracts or projects to be executed on a competitive basis;
  • has put in place an Open Budget Process to provide the public with information on the government’s spending; and
  • adhered to the Extractive Industries Transparency through the EITI Act.

 

 

In fact, Liberia has recently joined the Open Government Partnership (the OGP, an international initiative that aims to build concrete commitments from governments relating to transparency), and its action plan in this regard was endorsed by the Cabinet in July, 2013.

 

 

Despite all of this however, information is not easy to obtain or understand in Liberia. Accessing information in person at Liberia’s ministries can be a significant challenge. And as mentioned, the FOIA enforcement is not as effective as it could be.

 

iLab is proposing and looking forward to working on making information available to citizens in two ways:

 

  1. One citizen-centric place for knowledge that answers questions ordinary citizens have – how do I get a passport, how do I register a business, how do traffic lights work (yes, they are new in Liberia and no, people do not understand how it works)
  2. An open data portal, that gathers data assets (like statistics, demographic information, geographic information) into one place

Why open data? Martin Tisne recently wrote about it. Open data not only creates transparency, it can drive service innovation. Transparency, on the other hand, can lead to efficiency and improved citizen participation. Definitely goals worth striving for!

 

In time, information and data about Liberia should be as readily and easily available, as the Swiss portal https://www.ch.ch/en/, just recently launched at the OKCon conference.  A great example how a government website can be simple but elegant – and above all, informative for citizens.

 

Impossible to do in Africa? No. This information is and should be available. Examples of data portals, even in difficult contexts, can be found – for example in the Edo state in Nigeria http://data.edostate.gov.ng/ . “It won’t work here in Liberia” is no answer.

 

However, at the same time, not all good initiatives succeed, and it is important to learn from those. For example, the great efforts in Tanzania did not succeed as well as expected because it was difficult to get people to participate. At the same time, one of the end goals of transparency is to increase people’s participation – but it’s a long road there in many of the developing countries. Think big – but don’t expect too much right away.

 

In Liberia, it is important not forget those who do not have access to the internet. It s absolutely vital to make use of other media- print, radio, and even creative arts. One unique Liberian media is the Daily Talk, which has even attracted international attention. The principle is easy – chalkboard, sign and a location that attracts a crowd. There is no reason why this could not and should not be taken into communities.

 

So, a reason to be optimistic about the future of open government in Liberia? Sure – but it will take a lot of time and a collaborative effort between the various civil society organizations AND the  government to do it right! It’s a long way to a Hollywood ending.

 

At iLab, open government is one of the key themes we are passionate about and focusing on in 2013-2014. Would you like to partner with us? Contact us for more information.

 

 

 

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