Home > News > Even with laws, access to information is a work in progress
204 views 9 min 0 Comment

Even with laws, access to information is a work in progress

Across Africa, few citizens are confident they could actually get a look at government budgets and contracts.

- April 19, 2024

In Malawi, community members traced covid-19 response funds to a dishonest contractor and got the new classroom block they needed for their primary school. In Uganda, citizens recovered eight heifers that a greedy local government councillor had hijacked from a cattle-restocking program. And in Kenya, an activist helped track down the sanitary towels that the government had paid for and schoolgirls had never received.

These success stories from the Africa Freedom of Information Centre illustrate the power of access to information (ATI) laws to make a difference in the lives of ordinary people. They also reflect the training and persistence – often repeated requests and follow-ups over many months – needed to make ATI laws work.

When Zambia became the latest country to pass an ATI law last December, headlines hailed the “landmark move towards transparency.” Many praised the step toward more accountable governance, even if critics were quick to point to weaknesses in the law’s provisions.

But as in the other 139 countries – including more than half of African states – where ATI laws now proclaim the public’s right to access information held by the government, the proof will be in the practice. Are citizens and news media in fact able to obtain information about government budgets, expenditures, development plans, and contracts? Are they confident enough to try?

Afrobarometer survey findings from 39 African countries suggest that the continent’s wave of ATI laws over the past decade has yet to translate into accessible public information – a fact that may have negative consequences for citizens’ relationship with their government. 

The public seeks information about government

Access to information is a right recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. As the Africa Freedom of Information Centre argues, this access is essential to participation, informed decision making, and accountability in a democracy. Afrobarometer interviews reveal that most Africans demand such access. 

Based on 53,444 face-to-face interviews conducted between late 2021 and mid-2023, the survey shows that a majority (55%) of respondents endorse the broad principle that information held by public authorities should be available to the public, rejecting the notion that such information is for government use only.

More specifically, more than three-fourths of Africans support citizens’ right to obtain information about local government budgets (81%) and local government bids and contracts (78%) (see Figure 1). A slimmer majority (55%) endorses public access to information about the salaries of government officials and teachers. 

Figure 1: Demand for public information | 39 African countries | 2021/2023

Africans support citizens’ right to obtain information about local government budgets (81%) and local government bids and contracts (78%), according to recent Afrobarometer surveys.
Surveys asked respondents: For each of the following, please tell me whether ordinary citizens and news media should have the right to obtain this information from government, or whether government should be allowed to keep the information away from the public?

Obtaining information is another story

Although demand for access to information is high, few Africans think they could actually obtain information held by public officials, even at the local level. On average across the 39 surveyed countries, large majorities say it is “somewhat unlikely” or “very unlikely” that they could access information about local government contracts (72%), local government development plans and budgets (71%), and local school budgets (65%). 

Figure 2: Likelihood of being able to access information held by public officials | 39 African countries | 2021/2023

Few Africans think they actually have access to information held by public officials, even at the local level. That's one of the Abrobarometer surey findings.
Surveys asked respondents: How likely is it that you could get the following information from government or other public institutions, or haven’t you heard enough to say: If you contacted the local school to find out what the school’s budget is and how the funds have been used? If you contacted your local government office to find out about the local development plan and budget? If you contacted your local government office to request to see a contract for a government-funded project or purchase?

None of the surveyed countries, in fact, recorded more than 40% of citizens who think they could probably get information about local government contracts (see Figure 3) or local government plans and budgets. In Tunisia, only 11% consider it likely that they could see local government contracts, followed by 13% in Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, and Sierra Leone.

Perceptions of the accessibility of public information vary remarkably little by respondents’ demographics. On average, confidence is slightly higher in rural areas than in cities. But other differences are more modest or non-existent, suggesting that no matter their gender, age, education level, or economic status, people are largely getting the same message – that information held by public authorities is not theirs to see.

Figure 3: Access to local government contracts | 39 countries | 2021/2023

None of the surveyed countries in Africa recorded more than 40% of citizens who think they could probably get information about local government contracts or local government plans and budgets.
Surveys asked respondents: How likely is it that you could get the following information from government or other public institutions, or haven’t you heard enough to say: If you contacted your local government office to request to see a contract for a government-funded project or purchase?

Does limited information limit public trust? 

A lack of official transparency may have implications for how citizens see their government. Government budgets and contracts involve vast sums – and countless opportunities for fraud . So it may not be surprising that in countries where people see access to information as limited, they are more likely to view their local government councillors, members of parliament, and the president and officials within the presidency as corrupt. Similarly, perceived lack of access to local government contracts and school budgets is associated with decreased levels of public trust in elected officials (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: Access to information and perceptions of government officials | 39 African countries | 2021/2023

For citizens of Africa, access to information matters. A lack of official transparency may have implications for how citizens see their government.
Surveys asked respondents:  How likely is it that you could get the following information from government or other public institutions, or haven’t you heard enough to say: If you contacted your local government office to request to see a contract for a government-funded project or purchase? How many of the following people do you think are involved in corruption, or haven’t you heard enough about them to say? How much do you trust each of the following, or haven’t you heard enough about them to say?

The push for transparent government 

While the push for government transparency has strengthened over the years in Africa and around the world, these findings suggest that making good on the spirit of the resulting ATI laws remains a work in progress. Until strong institutional oversight ensures visible compliance with their provisions, ATI laws across Africa appear to describe more of an aspiration than a reality.

Sophie Sunderland is a research assistant for Afrobarometer and a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at Michigan State University. 

Joseph Asunka (@joeasunka) is the CEO of Afrobarometer.