Women carying wood. Photo: SarahTz (https://flic.kr/p/ncq6p7)
A cornerstone for citizen participation in Latin America is transparency. By providing greater access to public information and promoting transparency, Latin American governments can inform citizens about policies, improve social oversight of programmes, reduce corruption, advance human rights, and enhance accountability more generally. This process has been enabled through the strengthening of legal frameworks and the appearance of Freedom Information Acts (FIA) that recognise public access to information as a right. In Africa, FIAs are less common and civil society organisations have to find other ways to access public information and to translate it into ‘citizens’ language’ for social oversight purposes. The Centre for Environment and Development (CED), in Cameroon, which promotes access to forestry information, faces these struggles.
Patrice Kamkuimo-Piam was a Project Manager in the CED. He participated in a Learning Alliance under the ELLA Programme, a UK Aid funded south-south knowledge initiative that mixes research, exchange and learning to inspire evidence-based policies and practices. Together with FUNDAR, a Mexican think tank, Practical Action Consulting Latin America managed a Learning Alliance on Citizen Oversight in which Patrice and peers from Latin America, Africa and Asia discussed access to information, the promotion of transparency and other oversight issues. After a four-month dialogue, it was clear to Patrice and other participants that mechanisms for improving access to information are more likely to succeed if they are easily accessed and used by citizens and take their needs into account.
Drawing on his experience in the Learning Alliance, Patrice focused on the mechanisms to make forestry information more available and accessible to Cameroonian citizens. He considered that the situation in Latin America was “ideal” because of its more advanced legal framework. “In Mexico they have a specific law and the institutional mechanisms to enforce it (…) and they even have centres for citizens to ask for the information”, said Patrice in a recent interview. In Cameroon they do not have this but CED realised that there could be other ways to make public information more of a right. “We do not have a law but we realised we have opportunities in the legal framework that can be used for enabling effective citizens’ access to information. The Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) between the European Union (EU) and the Republic of Cameroon on Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade in timber and derived products to the European Union (FLEGT), represents the best legal tool for improving transparency within the forest sector ”. The VPA-FLEGT formally entered into force on 16 December 2011, following its ratification and respective notification by both parties (EU and Cameroon). This international agreement has transparency provisions with an Annex requiring parties to publish a specific set of documents and data on the forestry sector as well as all available information when specifically requested by any other stakeholder. CED has taken advantage of this demand for transparency in the Agreement.
Ekom Nkam waterfalls, Cameroon. Photo: Carlos Reis (https://flic.kr/p/A5C5g)
It is not an ideal framework like a FIA, but it is a “second best”. Patrice, together with his team, protected by the VPA, has asked for information from the government and shared it with remote communities in forest areas that are affected by commercial activities. Drawing on the experiences from Latin America, they are monitoring the effective implementation of the transparency annex by publishing annual reports, where they analyse transparency in the sector, identify limitations and weaknesses and recommend actions to government and to the private sector, to promote good governance in the forestry sector in Cameroon.
Patrice is aware of the power of national and regional legal frameworks to advance the right to information. He has discussed this with his peers concluding that strong legal frameworks provide civil society with the backup to demand rights and enhance social justice. CED has grasped the opportunity provided by FLEGT and for the last three years CED has been trying to get FLEGT reflected in the annex to the national forestry law and regulations. “We are trying at the national level to push the government to revise the forest law. We, as civil society, we have tried to push so that these provisions can be put inside the forest law and its implementing decree, so that we have a national law, which clearly specifies that information will have to be made public”, declare Patrice.
Stories like Patrice Kamkuimo-Piam’s and his role in pushing for more open government in Cameroon show that south-south exchange can contribute to change when there are windows of opportunity, and where programmes work with committed, capable individuals able to deploy the knowledge they picked up when the opportunity develops.
In the ELLA programme UK Aid bet on the benefits of south-south learning. Patrice’s story is just one case among the many registered by the programme. Knowledge exchange between regions of the ´global south’ can work, even where countries are very different, when sufficient attention is paid to identifying and understanding context. In this case, learning from Latin America helped Patrice to analyse and identify how to use the legal framework in his country in order to access public information for a proper citizen oversight of the forest sector.
|This article has been written by Alicia Quezada, Manager of Practical Action Consulting Latin America, and is based on an interview with Patrice Kamkuimo-Piam (1st March 2016) and programme reports, including a report on the ELLA Learning Alliance on Citizen Oversight “Module 1: strengthening the legal framework to ensure transparency and access to information”, the ELLA Guide “The Latinamerican approach to transparency and access to information”, and CED Annual Repor 2013 “État de la transparence dans le secteur forestier au Cameroun”.|
|You can contact Mark Lewis if you want to know more about the ELLA Programme and Alicia Quezada if you want to engage with Practical Action Consulting Latin America.|
|This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.|