My Reflections from a Field Trip to Paga and Communities in the Upper East Region of Ghana

6 February 2019
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Open Society Initiative for West Africa (Dakar)

We arrived in Tamale Northern Ghana around 8:00 am. The fifty-minute flight from Accra was smooth despite the foggy weather due to the early morning showers.  We had a two-hour journey to Bolgatanga, the regional capital of the Upper East Region. We were scheduled to meet two different communities before dusk. Our CDD colleagues had prepared the necessary logistics for the team to hit the road immediately.

Tamale is known for its traditional breakfast of cooked rice and special beans with eggs, meat and plantain locally known as waakye. The visiting team insisted we took some time in the morning after arrival to have the delicacy before heading further north.

The objective of the trip was to get the first-hand experience from community stakeholders on their views on whether this flagship Social Accountability project adequately engaged them to participate in the development process of their respective communities. The project covers 20 Districts in Ghana working with communities and engaging citizens to be active participants in the development planning and budgeting process of their localities since 2015.

The social accountability model of the project is unique given its focus on strictly following the provisions for citizen’s oversight and engagement laid out in various national legislation and policy documents including the Local Government Act, Planning Systems and Regulations, and the National Popular Participation Framework (NPPF) in Ghana.

The Planning Systems and Regulations, for instance, makes provision for the establishment of District Communication Committees (DCCs) as an accountability mechanism within Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies (MMDAs). This committee, alongside the Public Relations and Complaints Committee (PRCC), is required to periodically engage and disseminate information to citizens.  The project, by making use of this statutory requirement and other actions provided for within the policy frameworks, has created the space and platform for community stakeholders to demand accountability from duty bearers and interrogate their development and service delivery programs.

Prior to the visit, CDD-Ghana had implemented activities such as the public education and awareness program using community durbars and radio to educate citizens on the plan and budget formulation and implementation processes of Assemblies (Local Governments) and the role of citizens in these processes. This was to deepen knowledge on how local government operates and to empower citizens to actively engage duty bearers at the town hall sessions. The town hall sessions and the radio discussions served as  platform for duty bearers and citizens to interact, dialogue and receive feedback from end-users on the projects and activities implemented by the assembly and its departments.

The team first arrived at the community in Paga Township around mid-day. Paga is located few kilometers further north from Bolgatanga. Paga Township connects with another big town Navrongo and is close to the Burkina Faso border. We paid a brief courtesy visit to the MMDA officials and proceeded to the community center nearby to meet with the stakeholders who had been patiently waiting at the community center.

The meeting hall was full of community stakeholders from a cross-section of society. There were assembly members, professionals from the education and health sectors, a representative from the local hairdresser association, market women, and MMDA core staff such as the district coordinator, development and budgeting officers, disabled, CBO representatives, students and the elderly (LEAP beneficiary). The energy and excitement in the room when the meeting commenced was very high.

The mission team (CDD representatives and OSIWA) encouraged participants to share first-hand experiences on how the project has facilitated their participation, sensitization, education and awareness in the development planning, budgeting and the responsiveness of MMDA to their needs.

We received frank, insightful and very engaging feedback from the community stakeholders. A woman member of the local assembly spoke up about the weak representation of women in the local assembly; only 4 out of 64 assembly members are women. As a result of this gender imbalance, district assemblies have excluded a major population from taking part in local decision making processes. According to her, there is a need to amplify women’s voice and close the participation gap.

In addition, there was positive feedback on outreach of MMDA officials to the public through the community radio stations. Citizens particularly liked the direct interaction with local government staff through the call-in radio programs. They were happy that they could ask questions and appreciated the feedback from the authorities.

Community stakeholders also appreciated the platform that the media provides for duty bearers and found it less expensive and sustainable. Similarly, the market women and hairdressers were appreciative of how their local taxes were contributing to fund development activities within the locality. They indicated their willingness to pay prompt taxes in the future and also mentioned to the team that they had agreed to support the collection of revenue following a discussion on the Internally Generated Funds (IGF) at the town hall meeting.

A LEAP beneficiary indicated she learned more about the LEAP program (targeted cash transfer safety net) through the projects periodic radio discussions and she was able to easily and regularly access her cash transferswith limited challenges. She also said the project opened the space for citizens to access information from local authorities in a transparent way. Other speakers recounted how they also benefited from some ongoing government policy initiatives especially in the agriculture, education and health sectors where they had the opportunity to ask a question and engage departmental heads on these policies during the radio discussions and town hall meetings.

The mission expressed concerns about the sustainability of the project’s successes. We wanted to know what plans were put in place to sustain the achievements of the project . The local government authority expressed commitment to continue to provide a platform and make space for citizens to participate in the development of their locality. They noted that the project’s design to involve the local authorities from the inception of the project was a sustainability measure in and of itself. In his closing remarks, the District Coordinator said “the work of the MMDA becomes far easier when citizens participate in the development process and know what to expect from their local authorities. It is therefore in the interest of the local government for citizen’s to own the participation process.”

A young community organizer representing the local partner (Rural Initiative for Self-Empowerment in Ghana) for the project, and also interfaces with CDD Ghana, the MMDA and the community, also expressed his appreciation for the work that has been done. He. He expressed that the project has given him the self-confidence to work with different stakeholders in different communities. There were also commitments by both the District Education Committee (DEC) team and professionals in the local government to continue the collaboration.  To cap off the meeting, CDD Ghana explained that it has given technical support to all the beneficiary districts to develop Social Accountability Plansto add to their annual budget as part of the sustainability measures.

Our visit to the second community a few kilometers away was almost similar to the first. Same stakeholders, local government staff, council elders and traditional authorities. We also had more local government professional staff and district assembly representation than average citizens in the convening. However, some of these participants were councilors who double as community leaders and enablers whom the project extensively relied upon in the community engagements.  The substance of the discussions was also similar to the Paga town hall meeting.

The representative form the National Commission for the Civic Engagement (NCCE) opined that the project has made his team more effective in educating citizens on their rights and he also appealed for local radio discussions to be aired in different local dialects for broader participation. The District Planning Officer noted that the medium-term development plan of the locality presented at the local radio station received wide coverage from participants and constructive feedback.

What we found very interesting was the impact of the program in fighting pests in the locality. According to the agriculture official, the education of farmers on how to use pesticides to fight pests through the regular radio education programs proved very effective.

we received repeated complaints by citizens that their assembly representatives were not holding meetings at the ward level and couldn’t be reached. The assembly representatives also said that they either lacked the resources to call regular meetings, given the expectations to provide transport allowance or incentives for participants.

To conclude, we found the meeting in both communities very useful, insightful and revelatory of how social accountability interventions can create a space for citizens to participate and be part of the local development agenda.  We got the sense that communities always want to be engaged in governance but lack the space, platform and opportunity to do so. We also found that local government authorities are keen to engage with citizens. They revealed that heightened awareness among the community stakeholders was good for them. Moreover, they assured that when citizens asked informed questions, it gave them the incentive to deliver better results and act on their responsibilities.

The team left for Bolgatanga late in the evening and even though exhausted, had a productive debriefing meeting over dinner.

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