Listen Up Politicians: Open and Participatory Governance is our only Hope
Soaring utility costs and taxes, high inflation, unmitigated fuel price hikes, general economic malaise, mediocre educational institutions, malfunctioning and inadequate healthcare system, chronic communal violence; these all aptly describe existing conditions in Ghana. Thus far, Ghanaians have exercised uncharacteristic patience and perseverance in spite of the occasional incendiary remarks by some opposition leaders. But conditions could be a lot worse; and things could get much harder before they get better. However, we need to come to terms with the fact that we must suffer these travails in order to emerge better off at some indeterminable point in the future. Collective self-sacrifice therefore symbolizes mortar in the current nation-rebuilding process following decades of decay; and we would do well to keep this realization in the forefront of our minds during this excruciatingly painful and frustrating transition process.
But nation-rebuilding requires that the Kufour Administration be willing and able to make hard choices that sacrifice political advantage and expediency in favor of open government, fiscal discipline and prudence, and social empathy. Most reasonable people would agree that for far too long the costs of fuel have unwisely been kept at artificially low prices, out of line with world prices. This fact invariably has contributed to the ongoing fiasco at the Tema Oil Refinery. Even so, this difficult decision could have been made with a human face, such as phased or incremental price increases to achieve parity with world prices.
Needless to say, the two-year old NPP government has come under biting criticism from some quarters of the opposition, the media, and the general populace in its responses to dealing with some of these tough issues. They point to what they believe is the NPP’s brazen adherence to supply-side economics, lack of transparency, and a poor consultative framework for engaging other stakeholders in decision making.
In the NPP government’s defense, though, few critics can deny that it is precisely the NPPs liberal democratic traditions and tendencies that have added a critical and essential dimension to our body politic that assures freedom of movement, speech, association, and all other trappings of a free society. But on face value these tend not to mean a whole lot to the vast majority of the population, which finds itself still mired in grinding poverty and with few prospects for near term improvement.
To digress a moment, poverty is the least liberating of human experiences. While short term poverty can serve as fuel for self-betterment in some individuals, sustained poverty crushes hopes and possibilities, stunts potential, encourages fatalism and even cynicism, and most of all renders victims susceptible to the vagaries of quick fix solutions proffered by unscrupulous demagogues.
Poverty is as emasculating as it is incendiary, which is why the fight against poverty requires leadership from government that is necessarily transparent, inclusive, and adaptable, and demands engagement of and active participation from all parties, including the largest stakeholder – the public. This is critical in developing countries such as ours; because it is only through genuine and informed partnership of all stakeholders can the goals of development and wealth creation for all be attained and a compelling sense of common destiny forged.
It is therefore imperative that the NPP appreciate that its electoral win in 2000 was not a political victory exclusively of its own making. All parties opposed to the policies of the previous ruling party, combined with the determination of the average Ghanaian, and not necessarily an NPP faithful, provided the bedrock support in bringing about this change. In other words, it was a shared national victory; a watershed event in our history based on a collective morality and vision of a better tomorrow; guided by the principles of social and economic justice; and for which all Ghanaians of conscience fought, bled, and died in past decades. It is important to note that a binding tenet of legitimate governance is that political victories void of moral anchors are pyrrhic and hollow and will eventually succumb to disillusionment, instability, and decay. We must heed this tenet.
In light of these facts, the NPP government is obligated to conduct itself with the greatest humility, graciousness, and openness in policy formulation. And openness does not mean transparency alone; it involves robust consultation and interactivity with a variety of groups.
Hard as it might be, the NPP government must come to terms with the premise that no one party or group has a monopoly on ideas or solutions; that while the majority of Ghanaians mandated it to govern, the burden of development, economic growth, and prosperity is a shared one in partnership with all stakeholders. Just as Ghanaians will no longer stand for an Administration that governs with impunity, neither will we countenance an Administration arrogant enough to ascribe unto itself all knowing on matters of national development. That era is over and done with.
The burden of this and future governments is to clarify a shared national vision and provide a lucid policy framework backed up by fiscally sound and socially appropriate implementation strategies and mechanisms in realization of that vision. But we all must also play our parts; we must inform this policy framing and implementation process, and government is duty bound to embrace, consider, and respect our inputs. That is the essence of participatory governance. We all have witnessed the resultant failure of a truly consultative process on matters of grave national consequence and the kinds of rabid reactions to these, such as the current furor over fuel hikes or the lamentable Dagomba Chieftaincy crisis. And in extreme cases, witness the sad situation currently unfolding in Ivory Coast.
The NPP has to its credit attempted to reflect the principle of participatory governance in the appointment of a number of Ministers and Deputies from other political persuasions. But that is not enough. The NPP Government must exhibit a more consultative ethic that robustly engages other parties and the public on important matters of policy.
Symbolism is the most powerful tool in politics; while the ruling party might already be involving various groups in the policy framing process, it is invisible to us lay people and therefore the prevailing assumption is that it is not happening.
In addition, although in politics, all is fair – foul or fair – the various political parties for their part need to appreciate when politicking is appropriate and when it is not and must therefore submit to a process that engenders mutual respect and places the long term benefit of the country first and above narrow, selfish, partisan interests. They must also appreciate that in the final analysis executive decisions must be made and sometimes will be purely on conviction.
In the same vein, the opposition parties and all of us have a mammoth role to play in rebuilding our country and must vigorously exercise this right, but for the right reasons and above the din of brash partisanship. The viciousness and venality of the current political climate is not conducive for our progress. The axe-grinding and tacit efforts at undermining development plans for political advantage must end. Otherwise, the growing distrust of politicians by the populace will eventually spill over into open hostility for all political authority and make military intervention a once again attractive governance alternative.
At day’s end, we cannot afford for Government to alone carry the developmental burden; to do so would be to abdicate our responsibilities and rights and would leave us un-empowered. Government on the other hand should never be so bold as to think of itself as all-knowing or all-omnipotent; it is not, nor is any one party or group. Ghana and her problems are a lot bigger than us all. Charles S. Hamidu Washington, D.C.
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