SA’s peer review tactics dishonest

Image: Flickr, waf1on1
Image: Flickr, waf1on1

IT IS an interesting reflection of the times that the word "denialism" has so easily slipped into everyday usage that any ordinary person immediately knows what the phrase conveys and the tendencies that create the need for such a word.

Instead of admitting the obvious and seeking solutions there is a tendency by the government to deny that problems exist or to attack the messenger. So it has been with crime, HIV, corruption and now with the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM).

The APRM is vitally important. If it is seen to fail, it would do incalculable damage to Africa’s reputation and to the confidence of millions who believe its promise of a new way of conducting political business in Africa.

But from the beginning of the South African review, the government has routinely asked intelligent people to accept that ridiculous plans are reasonable. It has grossly mismanaged the process, put forward deceptive statements and removed or distorted views put forward by participants.

The Cabinet this week issued a statement denying that the country had rejected the official APRM report, but they have missed a much more important issue than whether the word “reject” is fair or not.

South Africa’s broader conduct of APRM and its denial of problems is doing immense damage to its reputation and to the APRM process. I write in hope that the president will recognise this and instead of debating the semantics take steps to end the process on a positive note.

The Sunday Times ran a story last week that slightly overstretched the facts by asserting that South Africa had rejected the final report on its governance. The minister in charge of the process, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, responded that the report was “patently false” and that South Africa “has been meticulous in following the requirements of the process to the letter”.

Before assessing the Sunday Times story, let’s set the record straight.

As a researcher who has dedicated four years to studying APRM, I believe South Africa has violated the rules of APRM in letter and spirit in at least 10 significant ways.

First, the government formed its national plans before the creation of a governing council. It initially announced that it would do the entire process in two months and would not use independent researchers, as recommended in the guidelines. It waited four months before succumbing to pressure to use researchers, then gave them three weeks (later extended to five) to analyse all aspects of governance.

Second, with great fanfare, the government claimed it was surveying the public for its views. But when researchers asked to see the surveys the response was to scream into the phone. Researchers – contracted on February 16, 2006 – were given until March 10, 2006, to complete their work. But by March 13 the government – according to its own inventory of progress – had only received surveys from two provinces.

Two additional weeks were allowed but the researchers were never given sight of the citizen surveys from the other seven provinces and the reports from the provinces, which were supposed to analyse the surveys, largely arrived after research agencies were to have completed their reports. When I asked if the governing council had officially decided to ignore the citizen survey, the official in charge shouted that I was out of order and the question would not be answered.

Third, repeatedly during the process researchers said they needed more time to do quality work but those requests were denied. When researchers said it was unreasonable to meaningfully discuss more than 1 700 pages of draft text in four one-day workshops, officials refused to allow additional days and they refused to distribute the text to participants before the meeting so they could reasonably absorb the content.

Fourth, after the country self-assessment report was complete, it was extensively edited to remove issues, strip out most supporting evidence and compress pages of analysis into mere allusions to problems.

This was intellectually dishonest, but the government claims to have had the blessing of the governing council. Some members tell a different story. Either way the council grossly failed in its duty. The edits were so extensive and so one-sided that they resulted in a report that bears only passing resemblance to the version discussed in validation meetings.

Fifth, the government put a minister in charge of the governing council in spite of very clear verbal advice and written guidelines that say the government cannot be in charge of a process that is reviewing itself. In effect, it wanted to be both player and referee.

Sixth, in violation of common sense, they put a minister in charge whose own portfolio – leading the government’s anticorruption efforts and managing the civil service – creates a direct conflict of interest, given that analysing government efforts to fight corruption is at the heart of APRM.

Now to the Sunday Times article, which raises four other important violations of the APRM.

South Africa filed a formal response to the report, which it is entitled to do. It thanked the Panel of Eminent Persons who run the ARPM and did not say “we reject the report”. However, in substance that is what it did.

Considered against the norms of international processes and diplomacy, the official response was very rude. It challenged the motivations of the panel’s report, repeatedly asserted that they must be following an ideological agenda, and at one point implied that the report was not “honest”.

It asserted that problems were untrue, that the authors didn’t understand South Africa and that most problems were already being solved.

This is violation number seven: as a founder of APRM, South Africa ought not to attack the fledgling institution because such an open broadside has the effect of undermining the authority of the panel and the process.

The extent to which South Africa repudiated the panel’s report is evident in the Programme of Action (POA), which each country must produce to detail how it plans to respond to the panel’s recommendations and bring itself into line with the APRM’s governance standards.

Last June, South Africa put forward a very superficial POA. At the time it asserted that the POA should not contain anything pertaining to what the government alone was doing because it thought solutions were only supposed to be done jointly with civil society.

This caveat was used to rule out action on crime and a wide range of things for which the government alone must be the actor in any reform drive.

Once the final panel report was received, South Africa was required to revise the POA to deal with the issues identified, which were many and fundamental in nature – crime, corruption, violence, xenophobia, the party-list system, local government dysfunction, and a political party financing regime that is outside of the African Union, UN and OECD corruption codes, among other points.

Under the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that South Africa signed in acceding to the APRM, it agreed to involve civil society in developing the POA. However, no one in civil society has seen the revised POA.
Sangoco, which is on the national governing council, complained in writing but did not receive a reply. It has also officially notified the panel of this breach. That is violation number eight: failure to consult.

Officials have publicly claimed that the government need not consult because the programme of action has not changed substantially and they consulted last June.

If the POA has not changed, then the government is effectively rejecting the heart of the APRM report – its recommendations.

Very senior sources in the process say South Africa has only agreed to about 20 of some 180 recommendations. This is violation number nine.

Under the MOU the government agrees to act on the recommendations given to it in the process. Saying no to the recommendations is rejecting the report. Since no one but the government has seen the revised POA, it may be that they have responded correctly, but the APRM authorities suggest otherwise and privately express deep disappointment in South Africa’s conduct.

The last violation is also the most damaging: wilful refusal to follow the rules. APRM is a new institution that is trying to find its feet. It has put forward guidelines and issued verbal instructions.

Instead of choosing to obey those rules and thus to help strengthen the norms of good governance, South Africa has flagrantly ignored them. It has weakened the system and emboldened those who also hope to water down the process. In so doing it has tarnished Africa’s reputation in the eyes of the world.

Is there a way out? All of this could perhaps be chalked up to miscommunication if the government would throw a few key concessions to the process and to civil society.

In fairness, many of the recommendations cited by the panel concern very large and difficult problems. Rather than pretend we know what to do to solve the big problems cited by the panel we should pledge to form a national commission for each of these big cross-cutting issues.

We should pledge to embark on an extended programme of research, public debate and policy experimentation to find new ways to solve these intractable problems. We should open a round of public conferences to restore to the POA the many tangible solutions made by the public.

This would be an important concession to the process and would do what many citizens wish the government could do: acknowledge problems, stop the denial and get on with finding solutions.

29 Apr 2008