Executive Director of Africa Centre for Parliamentary Affairs (ACEPA), Dr Rasheed Draman has underscored the need for Parliament to continue engaging Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in its activities to enhance the country’s parliamentary democracy.
According to him, an effective engagement with the public and the CSOs could avoid a disconnect between elected representatives and the public they serve.
He observed that “public engagement supports parliament’s main functions by giving access to the breadth and depth of information and ideas that are needed for representation, law-making, public policy formulation and oversight that meet people’s expectations and aspirations. It is the means through which a fundamental tenet of democracy participation in public affairs can be practiced by all,”
Dr. Draman said these concerns at the 2023 Edition of the Speaker’s Breakfast Forum on Monday, November 20, 2023, in Accra.
He expressed the need for enhanced civil education and wider inclusion of marginalized voices and advocated innovative approaches involving Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and the youth to strengthen democratic institutions and promote accountability.
The theme of the meeting was “Thirty Years of Parliamentary Democracy under the Fourth Republic: Reflections on Citizens’ Engagement and the way forward.”
The meeting was aimed at consolidating the relationship between Parliament and CSOs and exploring new ways of working together for accountable governance.
The Breakfast Meeting was organized in collaboration with the STAR Ghana Foundation to commemorate its 5th Anniversary and Parliament’s 30 years of uninterrupted democracy under the 4th Republic Constitution.
Dr. Draman noted that when parliaments and CSOs collaborate, the possibilities for oversight and accountability are endless, emphasizing that, “globally, CSOs are recognised as advocates and watchdogs.”
“Collaboration between Parliament and CSOs can prove beneficial as each provides complementary forums for representation that is otherwise constrained by its selective structures and operations,” the Executive Director of ACEPA added.
Full Statement By ACEPA Executive Director
SPEAKER’S BREAKFAST FORUM
Gratitude and Commendation
Let me start by commending you, Rt. Hon. Speaker for your sustained interest in building an enduring relationship with citizens and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs). In your early days as Speaker, you reached out to CSO leaders and hosted us in Parliament to discuss your vision for the 8th Parliament. This was followed by a series of engagements between you and several CSOs. Your unflinching commitment to building bridges between Parliament and citizens culminated in the recent establishment of the Citizens Bureau – one of the very few in the world. I will return to the subject of the Citizens Bureau at the end of my remarks. Mr. Speaker, these efforts have not gone unrecognized as Ghana and Cabo Verde were recently ranked by International IDEA as the only two countries on the continent that have seen significant progress in the area of representation.
To STAR Ghana Foundation, I salute you for your unwavering commitment to ensuring that the demand for accountability is alive when you were a project and today as the leading philanthropic foundation in our country. You have touched and supported CSOs across the four corners of our country. For that, we are eternally grateful.
Mr. Speaker, we are gathered here today to celebrate two important milestones – thirty years of uninterrupted parliamentary democracy under the Fourth Republican Constitution and STAR Ghana Foundation’s 5th anniversary. Given the alignment of the core missions of these two important institutions – the pursuit of the well-being and interest of the citizens of this country, there is no better moment to reflect on how our representative institution has engaged the very people it is supposed to represent. The theme of this forum: “Thirty Years of Parliamentary Democracy Under the Fourth Republic: Reflections on Citizens Engagement and the Way forward” is thus appropriate and timely.
Mr. Speaker, allow me to situate the timeliness of our conversation within emerging data and evidence from two reputable institutions that speak to the challenge of representation and the inclusion of citizens in the democratic process, particularly the work of Parliaments.
First, according to the Global State of Democracy 2023 by International IDEA, democracy is losing steam. Half of democratic governments around the world are in decline, undermined by problems ranging from restrictions on freedom of expression to distrust in the legitimacy of elections and most importantly weak representation. Representation is currently an area of weakness across the continent (of course Ghana fares much better than most countries in this regard).
The number of backsliding countries – those with the most severe democratic erosion – is at its peak and includes the established democracy of the United States, which still faces problems of political polarization, institutional dysfunction, and threats to civil liberties. The Report concludes that globally, the number of countries moving toward authoritarianism is more than double the number moving toward democracy.
This depressing view is echoed by the National Endowment for Democracy when it recently noted that:
“The axis of authoritarianism is expanding and solidarity amongst authoritarian states is flourishing as they develop a shared lexicon around decolonization, anti-elitism, security, prosperity, patriotism, and sovereignty. …We need to design more inclusive language and ideologies for democracy. The growing toxicity of politics and elections; the personal benefits of state capture; a world order built on exploitation; and the demonization of the other all cripple the practice of democracy and undermine global stability”.
Second, the 2022 Global Parliamentary Report, released by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in June 2023 dwelt on the theme of this forum with a call on Parliaments around the world to engage with and empower the people they represent to become active participants in the processes that will help to shape our future. It notes that parliaments have a vital role to play in addressing the challenges of today’s rapidly changing world, by enabling people to connect with and participate in the law-making, policy formulation and oversight processes that impact their lives now and into the future.
The Benefits of Public Engagement
Mr. Speaker, I will not be revealing anything new if I state several obvious facts but let me do so for emphasis.
Representative democracy benefits from informed citizens who understand how the political system works and engaging with people on issues that matter to them can help parliaments remain relevant to the communities they represent. To quote Alberto De Belaunde, a member of the Peruvian Congress – “The mandate of representation must be understood as continuous contact between citizen and representative”.
Public engagement supports parliament’s main functions by giving access to the breadth and depth of information and ideas that are needed for representation, law-making, public policy formulation and oversight that meet people’s expectations and aspirations. It is the means through which a fundamental tenet of democracy – participation in public affairs – can be practiced by all.
In addition, effective engagement can help avoid a disconnect between elected representatives and the public they serve. It can show the community it is being listened to and heard, countering rising public distrust and negativity.
Furthermore, through engagement, civic space for public debate can be promoted and protected, evidence and opinions that assist decision-making can be brought to parliament, and barriers to participation can be tackled so that no one is left behind.
And the last obvious fact is that through public engagement, Parliament can present itself as a genuine forum for debate, and as an institution that is responsive to people’s views and needs.
Mr. Speaker, oftentimes, it is challenging for citizens to reach out individually to Members of Parliament and make tangible contributions to the work of the Legislature. CSOs are generally viewed as a bridge between citizens and Parliament to help articulate the opinions of the concerned citizens more constructively.
When parliaments and CSOs collaborate, the possibilities for oversight and accountability are endless. Globally, CSOs are recognised as advocates and watchdogs. Collaboration between Parliament and CSOs can prove beneficial as each provides complementary forums for representation that is otherwise constrained by its selective structures and operations.
Mr. Speaker, the world over, it is a fact that democracies that are effective and efficient, are ones that are open, with very well-designed structures through which citizens and CSOs can engage the institution constructively. Where Legislatures and their Committees work closely with Civil Society Organizations to create a common platform to advance the cause of oversight and accountability. Civil Society Organizations’ downstream role is a representation of and engagement with different sections of society that experience first-hand, the results of implementation of government policy and services.
Mr. Speaker’s inputs from CSOs in many countries have created added value to the policy planning and implementation process while enhancing the legitimacy, awareness of and longer-term applicability of policy and planning initiatives through a wide range of contributions. CSOs play an essential role in the context of state services or lack of services; and challenges in the development of areas such as education, health, governance, transparency, and accountability. Among the many areas they serve, strengthening democracy and contributing to development are the most crucial.
Mr. Speaker, regrettably, in many countries, rather than collaboration, we witness an environment of mutual mistrust between CSOs on the one hand, and Legislatures and their members, on the other.
The story of the Zambian Paramount Chief and an MP……
Mr. Speaker, let me briefly speak to the nature of citizens/CSO engagement with the Parliament of Ghana. In the last thirty years, there have been efforts during different legislative mandates, to streamline Parliament-CSO relations for the benefit of our people. The record is a mixed bag of a few successes and enormous challenges.
On occasions when collaboration has worked, not only did our country benefit, Parliament as an institution was also strengthened. Mr. Speaker, I am living proof that there is a lot to gain when Parliament collaborates with CSOs. Let me cite two examples.
Members of Parliament just returned from the annual post-budget workshop. For those who might not be aware, this is a legacy of the relationship between an organization that I headed, as Director for Africa for many years – the Canadian Parliamentary Centre and the Parliament of Ghana. The relationship started during the very first Parliament of the Fourth Republic with support to the Finance Committee and evolved into many things including the annual post-budget workshop. Today, this is a key annual event owned and led by the Parliament of Ghana.
Mr. Speaker, another example is the work of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). Around 2005, through a collaborative initiative between the Parliament of Ghana one the one hand and the Canadian Parliamentary Centre, the Department of Foreign and International Development (DFID) as it was called then as well as the World Bank, we developed a project aimed at eventually opening the PAC to the public as per the dictates of the Standing Orders of Parliament. Following several benchmarking activities and consultations in other jurisdictions, the Committee in 2007 identified practices such as specialization by Committee members, working in sub-committees and opening its sittings to the public as best practices that could enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of its work. On a bright morning in 2007 under the leadership of Hon. Samuel Sallas Mensah during the 4th Parliament of the 4th Republic, the PAC opened its sitting to the public.
Mr. Speaker, I believe there are many more sterling examples that different CSOs here present could cite. Clearly, there are benefits when there is constructive engagement.
It is important to note that what I have cited above and the untold positive stories from different CSOs have mostly been single-handed, uncoordinated efforts. The benefits could be unimaginable if this relationship is streamlined and well-coordinated.
Parliament, in its functions, requires information and reliable data and evidence to inform its decision-making. While Parliament today has much more resources than decades ago, the institution still lacks all the needed structures to support Members in the discharge of their constitutionally mandated functions. Mr. Speaker, let me cite one example in this regard.
Parliament has made efforts to set up a Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) since your days as Majority Leader of Ghana’s Parliament. What is a PBO…. I recall the work our Centre carried out with your Office at the time. Ever since these efforts have taken varying turns during different legislative mandates. To this day, there is no clarity about the PBO. In the absence of this important structure, Parliament could have benefitted from the work of many citizens and CSOs across the length and breadth of our country to support Members and Committees. CSOs could plug a capacity and resource gap to support MPs in the scrutiny of the budget and other financial agreements that come before the House.
Challenges – Parliament/CSO Relationship
Regrettably, we have not harnessed the power of this relationship due to several challenges, some of which I enumerate below.
First, the challenge with CSOs themselves. We are often fragmented and fail to coordinate and cooperate to present a common front and a common voice. Each CSO wants to deal with Parliament alone, leading to what many complain to be very high transaction costs. STAR-Ghana has been working to address this challenge.
Second, lack of coordination within parliament for development assistance work carried out by CSOs. Many years ago, there was a “Donor Coordination Unit” within the Office of the Clerk which assisted CSOs to interact with Parliament instead of jumping from one director to another and one committee to committee. While that Office seems to have disappeared with the retirement of Mr. Amevor, I notice in other jurisdictions where such an Office exists (i.e. in Uganda and Sierra Leone), significant progress has been witnessed in the evolution of that such Office. Sierra Leone, which copied from our Parliament has made significant progress and the head of that Office was recently promoted to the position of Director General in Parliament – she coordinates all Directors and provides a one stop that interfaces with CSOs and donor-supported projects.
Third, the huge financial cost of engaging Parliament. It is not a secret that engaging committees of Parliament comes at a huge cost. Moving parliamentarians out of their jurisdiction to avoid the distraction that comes with engaging them in the House and even in Accra. There are hotel costs to contend with, so are costs associated with moving an MP – security detail and drivers etc. This has led many organizations to shy away from engagement. To be fair, this is also partly because of the fragmented nature of the approach of CSOs. Attempts to pull our resources together in a united approach to dealing with Parliament have always been fraught with difficulties. If CSOs were united, their resources earmarked for working with Parliament would give them a lot of value for money.
Fourth, the current Corporate Strategic Plan of Parliament has one of its key objectives, building relations with citizens and CSOs. However, that objective, lauded as it is, was not guided by a clearly defined framework of engagement. In the absence of a framework, CSOs are unable to work together with units, individuals, and parliamentary staff to achieve a common goal. Furthermore, until recently, there has not been any parliamentary coordinating unit that communicates directly with citizens and CSOs.
A fifth challenge is the tiring nature of reaching the different key stakeholders in Parliament on important matters concerning the development of our country that CSOs want to advocate on. CSOs run around to reach Parliamentary and Committee Leaders sometimes with very limited success. This sometimes leads to apathy and diminishing interest on the part of CSOs.
Anecdote….. last week …..Affirmative Action Coalition……The Citizens Bureau could be the vehicle through which we do…..
Mr. Speaker, on July 31st, 2023, when you launched the Citizens Bureau, many of our compatriots commended you and Parliament for the laudable initiative that has the potential to enhance Parliament’s role, particularly in oversight and accountability. CSOs and citizens saw the establishment of the Bureau as the beginning of the creation of an official bond with Parliament.
Looking ahead into the next decade and beyond, there are two key questions we need to find answers:
- How can the relationship between Parliament on the one hand and citizens/CSOs on the other, be made much more mutually beneficial?
- How can the relationship be nurtured and grown?
Mr. Speaker, this is where I believe the Citizens Bureau is positioned as a “game changer” in the Parliament/CSO relations if the Bureau is properly developed, resourced and given the necessary mandate to be the interlocutor with citizens and CSOs.
Mr. Speaker, the Citizens Bureau could lead Parliament’s effort to do five things that will create an enduring relationship and build the much-needed trust with the citizens that they represent (some of which I borrow from the IPU Global Parliamentary Report).
- Co-Design a Charter for Citizen and Youth Participation
About 7 million of our compatriots are young people. They form part of a growing proportion of the world’s population. In order to remain relevant to this expanding group, parliaments need to connect and interact meaningfully with them. Parliaments can enliven their youth engagement by working with young people to co-design a charter for youth participation.
- Develop an Inclusion Action Plan
Parliaments have a special responsibility to ensure that groups that are underrepresented, and face disadvantage can participate in democratic processes. No one should be left behind in the democratic process. Parliament should elevate inclusion to a top priority and develop an inclusion action plan, working in collaboration with groups currently facing barriers to participation.
- Prioritize Digital Transformation
New ways of communicating, learning and working are transforming society. In order to keep up with the rapid pace of technological change, parliaments need to prioritize their own digital transformation, particularly in their approaches to public engagement. Across all facets of engagement, parliaments would benefit from developing a portfolio of digital tools to boost interaction with the community.
- Establish an Innovation Taskforce to Encourage Innovation
Effective engagement relies on parliament being open to the public and welcoming people’s participation. Openness also drives innovation by allowing for new ways of thinking, planning and working. It demonstrates a willingness to collaborate and co-create with civil society. One way to bring about a transformative cultural shift in public engagement by parliament is to establish an innovation task force. By embracing innovation in their own processes and leading public debate about the future, parliaments have an opportunity to present themselves as forward-thinking and forward-looking institutions.
- Work together
Worldwide challenges, transient populations and digital technologies that penetrate national borders all point to a future in which the global community will be increasingly interconnected. This presents an opportunity for parliaments to cooperate and draw on each other’s experiences, methods and solutions. Fostering a community of practice among parliaments will stimulate effective approaches to engagement across the world.
To sum up, the Parliament of Ghana needs to be strategic, inclusive, participatory, innovative, and responsive in its engagement with citizens. This will build trust and bring the institution closer to the people it is designed to serve.
May our Democracy continue to be one that is responsive and inclusive.
I thank you for your kind attention.