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The need for Access to Information law
  • By Panos
  • May 30, 2017
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The need for Access to Information law

PREDICTIONS for the year 2016 are that Southern Africa will experience significant changes in weather patterns, due to the El Nino phenomenon, leading to delayed and decreased rainfall which will reduce farm yields and households food security in the region. Chronic malnutrition is therefore expected in many southern African countries, including Zambia.

With such extreme weather patterns unfolding, it is important that citizens, especially the vulnerable rural poor and marginalised know on time what effects this weather pattern will have on them and their livelihoods.

ReliefWeb, a specialized digital service of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), says more than 29 million people are expected to have inadequate household food in southern Africa due to this El Nino effect. There are also fears that the negative weather effects will deepen and increase in scope with its effects lasting until 2017.

Other studies by Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf) and its partners show that the poor and marginalised need access to practical information on how they can identify and respond to these challenges presented by the El Nino, and how they can alleviate poverty.

Fortunately this information on the negative effects of the El Nino phenomenon on farming and food security exists. The government and its agents have been collecting solutions on how farming communities can protect their crops and produce from the negative effects of El Nino or any kind of drought. What we need are provisions to make this information easily accessible to citizens.

This wealth of vital information on the extent of the damage to be caused by this weather pattern and what climate adaptation remedial action is to be taken needs to be shared or made available to these affected agricultural communities or those that need it can mean life or death for these vulnerable groups.

Farmer groups, including poor women and youths in rural communities will be looking to have access to life saving information on the available drought resistant crops, available cheaper sources of early maturing seeds, expected rain fall period among others so they can adequately plan with precision their agricultural season.

“Access to information held by government or public bodies is the notion that the public can obtain information in the possession of the state for the purpose of being informed about the activities of the state,” says the Parliamentary Strengthening Organisation.

Access to information presupposes that this information is held on their behalf or for them by the government agents or public bodies. It supplements their right to information or their freedom of expression.

Access to information is necessary for promoting transparency and accountability in the administration of public resources. It also facilitates the active and informed participation of citizens, especially the poor and marginalized, in the affairs of their community and nation.

Having an access to information law enables government bodies to be transparent to the taxpayers in the management of government resources while keeping ordinary citizens informed of their government’s plans and actions.

This high level of awareness in the affairs of their nation improves the level of engagement by citizens among themselves and with their government thereby resulting in policies and laws designed with the input and participation of every interested citizen and stakeholder in the matter. This law also compels public institutions to make available research data and findings on numerous issues of national importance to researchers and scholars to use in their quest for a better society. This reduces problem solving time and helps save hard earned tax payers’ resources. It also improves the country’s research and development (R&D) technological efforts.

Without Access to Information legislation, citizens struggle in the dark and fail to take advantage of the existing collective wealth of knowledge readily available within government circles. Researchers repeat the same research not knowing that government researchers already found the answer!

Sadly for Zambia, Access to Information legislation has been elusive since the country attained independence in 1964. It is encouraging Zambia’s efforts to come up with this Access to Information law have intensely continued.

It is for this reason that on 14th January 2016, a PSAf team appeared before the National Assembly of Zambia Select Committee on Information and Broadcasting Services to plead a case for the poor and marginalised communities to have this favourable piece of legislation in place so vital and life-saving information which is currently gathering dust on many shelves of public institution offices can be access and fully utilized.

Further, PSAf believes that access to information helps fight corruption as the veil of secrecy and dark corner meetings are removed. Access to information also has a tendency to improve service provision in societies where it is found by creating a competitive frenzy among public bodies in trying to out-do each other in quality service provisions. In fact most of the countries with access to information legislation have strong institutions of governance and strong economies.