Monday, 25 May marks Africa Day. What does that mean in practice? Our experiences as social accountability practitioners in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Mozambique, Malawi and South Africa oblige us to do more than merely celebrate the shiny ideals of Pan-Africanism on this day.
By Zukiswa Kota, Rachel Gondo and Semkae Kilonzo
Africa Day was originally intended to commemorate the erstwhile Organisation of African Unity (OAU), established on 25 May 1963. The OAU’s original objective was to fight against colonialism and its associated impacts. Remodelled into the African Union (AU) in 2002 – its Constitutive Act includes the promotion and protection of human rights in accordance with instruments such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
Today, 60 years on, we underscore the AU’s promise to establish the necessary conditions which enable Africa to play its rightful role in the global economy and in international negotiations as well as to promote democratic principles, inclusive participation and good governance. While the Covid-19 pandemic has set back the continent’s development plan – it also presents an opportunity for African leaders to remain resolute in working towards Africa envisioned in Agenda 2063.
On this Africa Day, we are alarmed by reports that journalists who have been vocal in their criticism of their governments’ Covid-19 responses in Zimbabwe and in the Kingdom of eSwatini have been subjected to intimidation. Barely a month after Press Freedom Day, some Southern African Development Community (SADC) member states are reneging on their commitments to support editorial independence which is particularly important in times of crisis.
The intensified insurgency in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado region is increasingly becoming a regional threat. The resulting instability and destruction of valuable public infrastructure can only worsen the impacts of Covid-19 in a country with a health system already overstretched by the burdens of TB, malaria and HIV.
The obligations of leaders and elected representatives to ensure the effective use of resources in responding to Covid-19 and to account for their decisions are paramount. We acknowledge SADC Member States’ efforts to introduce measures to mitigate the impacts of Covid-19.
These have included the suspension of non-essential economic activities, increased spending on social safety nets and accommodative tax measures such as economic stimulus packages and the introduction of solidarity funds. Given the multi-faceted nature of the impacts of the pandemic, however, we call on member states to do more by way of transparency and governance. In a letter sent to the SADC Secretariat on 22 May, we urged member states to take more decisive action and to reimagine systems in which inclusion is central.
On accountability and oversight
Regulations pertaining to accountability and reporting requirements may need to be modified during emergency situations. Public finance management systems need to be responsive and flexible, while ensuring value for money and minimising fraud and corruption. In South Africa, for instance, there has already been concern about corruption in procurement processes and non-compliance with public finance management legislation.
SADC members must ensure that wherever ex-ante controls are reduced, that these are replaced with clear, explicit, and credible expectations of ex-post controls. Establishing effective and robust monitoring mechanisms to ensure all donated and other resources not only reach intended beneficiaries, but that beneficiaries are able to provide feedback to support lessons learned is imperative.
Efforts to involve citizens in beneficiary authentication and fraud prevention has been shown to be effective in certain contexts. It is also paramount that governments ensure timely relief disbursement within justifiable risk parameters. This is cardinal in making governments’ response not only accountable and transparent, but also pro-poor in terms of reaching the most disadvantaged sections of society.
Effective support systems must underpin parliaments’ oversight over the executives’ interventions in the interests of their constituents. These include introducing participatory mechanisms to solicit public inputs such as through virtual meetings, television/radio broadcasts and accessible social media platforms like WhatsApp.
On access to information
Providing credible and clear information can save lives. Everyone must have access to information on how to protect themselves and others. Access to information also allows individuals and civil society to hold the state to account. In Zambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania, we are dissatisfied with the levels of transparency related to aid and the management of Covid-19 emergency response funds solicited from international and domestic sources.
All governments must disclose information on all Covid-19 procurement to allow independent audits of the same and to report these to the legislature, and the public. In the same vein, we note with grave seriousness the lack of the provision of information on the utilisation of Covid-19 funds and donations towards the cause.
On opportunities to ‘bounce back better’
This crisis too shall pass. How countries respond today will have a profound impact on post-Covid-19 Africa. The beauty of a crisis is its power to serve as a “wakeup” call. Africa’s Covid-19 response should focus on lasting progress that allows new forms of collaboration to take place.
African states must take decisive steps to address the current health disaster with a view to tackling our devastating levels of poverty and inequality. We call for a revitalisation of transparent and accountable governance to bolster the management of public resources.
This is as much a health crisis as an economic one. Countries within the region must prioritise economic recovery plans, which include stimulating employment by offering relief packages for both businesses and the self-employed hardest hit by the pandemic; meeting food needs of their most vulnerable by strengthening production, storage systems and reducing waste; and in the longer term, considering an emergency fund to enable countries to withstand shocks of this kind in the future.
The pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities and further exposing the most vulnerable disposition of women and children in our continent. Across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection, the impacts of Covid-19 are exacerbated for women and girls simply by virtue of their sex.
A lack of transparency in the distribution of aid meant for vulnerable households and those in the informal sector closely administered by a largely male leadership can only affect women more and leave them vulnerable as they are likely to be left out. This is a grave concern for women in Zimbabwe, for example, as they make up the majority in the informal sector.
We call on African leaders to ensure that women and women’s interests are represented in decision-making processes in this emergency response as well as beyond. In the home, women perform the bulk of care work, unpaid and invisible. Both are foundational to daily life and the economy, but are premised on and entrench gendered norms and inequalities.
Our continent’s economic response should drive towards transformative change that embraces unpaid and paid care work. Lastly, stimulus packages should look to achieve greater equality, opportunities and social protection. These three cross-cutting priorities reflect the UN Secretary-General’s recent Call to Action on Human Rights, which singled out measures that, if pursued, would have a meaningful impact on the rights of women and girls. These measures have become more vital in the context of the pandemic.
As social accountability practitioners, we stand ready to support governments’ efforts. We urge SADC members not only to foster collaboration in tackling Covid-19, but to chart a development path in which accountability, transparency and inclusive governance are the norm.
Zukiswa Kota and Rachel Gondo lead the South Africa and Zimbabwe programmes of the Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM). Semkae Kilonzo is the Co-ordinator of Policy Forum in Tanzania. Both organisations are part of the Community of Practice of Social Accountability Monitors. This article was first published here by the Daily Marverick.