APRM: The Need for Transparency

Image: Flickr, African Union Commission
Image: Flickr, African Union Commission

By opening governments to scrutiny by citizens and continental peers, the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) embodies commendable ideals.

But as the APRM, the flagship programme of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) gains momentum, cracks threatening the legitimacy of the process are beginning to emerge – seriously jeopardising Africa’s attempt at seeking home-grown solutions to fix its problems. When African heads of state converge in Abuja, Nigeria next week to evaluate Nepad, they must be cognisant of the threats and take firm steps to renew trust in the process. They must be clear: Countries cannot sweep matters under the carpet and all countries will be held to the same peer review rules.

While APRM authorities have advised that civil society should be in the majority of the national governing structures created to manage APRM and that civil society should chair such bodies, some countries have put the process and council under the direct control of a minister. This double standard needs to be addressed urgently.

And heads of state need to persuade their peers of a simple truth: If leaders try to control APRM to obtain a favourable report, they will only deepen cynicism and distrust.

But when leaders embrace APRM, reassure the public that he/she will act on every problem that is identified and welcome news that problems have been found, they steal the thunder of all critics and can use the process to gain popularity.

That is why the process is much more than producing a report. It requires rebuilding trust and creating opportunities for dialogue, especially in countries where people are sceptical of their government. A realistic country self-assessment and a sound, achievable programme of action are paramount.

While countries are urged to take ownership of the process and tailor their own course, a lack of clear and consistent guidelines on how to conduct self-assessments inhibits the process and is proving detrimental to its overall goals. The Self-Assessment Questionnaire (SAQ) is divided into four sections: Democracy and Good Political Governance, Economic Governance and Management, Corporate Governance and Socio-Economic Development, with substantial duplication and overlap. The SAQ needs to be simplified to remove overlapping material, unclear wording and calls for excessive detail.

To boost the credibility of APRM and build trust countries must:

  • Plan Ahead, Together: Jointly establish the government’s and citizens’ expectations and create a road map to achieve objectives. Create platforms and opportunities for national dialogue, before setting plans in stone. Disputes have arisen in early APRM countries when government declares the process and governance structures without first consulting civil society. Rushing into a review without such joint planning could potentially exclude groups and damage confidence.
  • Use the Media: Print and electronic media should be utilised to inform the public about the process, the road map and create discussion forums where people can engage.
  • The media is an effective tool to win people’s trust and bolster the process’ transparency.
  • Mobilise Civil Society: A candid review depends on a strong, transparent and equal partnership between government and civil society. Civil society must enquire about the process and get involved from the start. They are often cash-strapped and participating in APRM is onerous.

To make participation real, governments need to allow ample time and resources to make public input meaningful.

With no rules on who should drive reviews, the process has in some instances been dominated by government.

Ministerial presence shows political commitment but allowing a minister to control the process stifles debate or curb criticism of their departments and thus potentially weaken, margi-nalise and exclude civic voices, as many are too afraid to raise pertinent and critical issues for fear of discrimination. Governing councils should be headed by civic groups.

This shows that government wants to listen to citizens and not suppress dissent.

Activities and submissions should be co-ordinated through a national secretariat, which should ideally be housed outside government offices and independent staff appointed to maintain autonomy and enhance credibility.

Encourage submissions. All stakeholders should make written submissions, but many will struggle to do so. Household surveys were an important innovation used in Ghana and Kenya to ensure that public views were captured in an organised way that reaches out to all constituencies and regions.

Utilise research bodies: The SAQ is overly technical and requires significant research. Appointing academics and research institutions to collate submissions and include evidence to support assertions improves the quality of the report but also its perceived credibility.

Inclusive editing and validation. The draft should be extensively debated and circulated before public events. The report’s credence relies on public support: excluding citizens will erode credibility. Consultation must be constructive – avoid public events with thousands of people who have never scrutinised the text – stick to a core group who can make objective input.

Compile a Tangible Plan of Action. A solid, realistic plan is fundamental to tackling problems and should be developed inclusively with stakeholders, costed, and strict timelines set. It should be central and not peripheral to national development efforts. APRM can only be successful if countries deliver on the goals and civil society has to hold them accountable.

APRM is challenging and complex, especially for civil society, but it remains an important opportunity to change Africa for the better. To exploit that opportunity, civil society must not wait for government but organise early, produce written reports and actively press government for an open, inclusive process led by civil society.

The process is clear that broad civil society participation is necessary and civil society should have a majority on governing councils and chair such councils. Continental authorities should clarify the rules on participation and leadership, but until they do it is up to civil society to assert itself and keep the process fair, transparent and candid.