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The role of ICTs for Ghanaian women in local government

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May 01 2010, Ghana [GH], Governance

A discussion paper by Esther Oduraa Ofei-Aboagye.

This essay begins with a reflection on the local government elections and the issues arising for information communication. It looks at ICTs and local government: what they are and their implications for the lives of ordinary people and particularly, women. It notes the low presence of women in local government structures and suggests that assemblies could relate better with women and women’s associations. It discusses the implications of ICT for governance and the digital and gender divides. It suggests that ICT could provide information for and solicit women’s inputs in ways that are widely available to large sections of women, at less cost, with less time wasting and on a non-judgemental basis. This information would be related to rights, areas of redress on concerns, information about services, markets, taxes and fees, initiatives women could benefit from, security and generally what the assembly is doing, where. It suggests that in all of this, women’s groups and associations could be a critical stepping stone to enhancing ICT literacy, making the infrastructure available and publicizing the requisite information.

It concludes that Ghana’s local governance process is intended primarily to deepen democracy and foster popular participation in governance. It is therefore imperative that assemblies are responsive to women in particular because it is women who ensure the primary well-being and sustenance of Ghanaian families on a day-to-day basis. Enhanced ICT is key to achieving this.

Introduction: the District Assemblies Election and Beyond

The year 2006 was district/local government elections year. For over a year, there was active work towards enhancing the participation of women and their presence in assemblies. This took the form of advocacy, public education, efforts at fund-raising and skills building for prospective women candidates. Various NGOs and the Ministry of Women and Children took the lead in these efforts. In spite of the considerable effort, there were enormous challenges.

Turnout at the elections was rather low and anecdotal evidence suggests that many people did not see what difference it made to their lives who their representative on the district assemblies was. Others complained that they did not know who the respective candidates were – campaigning had been ineffective and inadequate, particularly in the urban areas. The public platforms mounted by the Electoral Commission were on hand, insufficient to introduce the candidates to the public and on the other hand, in the urban areas, badly attended. This too, was blamed, partly on the lack of sufficient information. Another area of concern was the low patronage of the Women in Local Governance Fund. Contributions to the fund were far below the expected. Could have more information and advocacy encouraged people to contribute? Would it have been easier to generate contributions electronically?

A particular theme that is running through all of this is communicating information – communicating and sharing information about assemblies and what they do with the citizenry, particularly in the urban areas; about sharing campaign messages by candidates; and for advocacy and public education efforts.

Efforts to make the assembly system more relevant to the people must be spread over the four-year term of an assembly. Local government is essentially about the day-to-day lives of people and their families, in other words, “bread and butter issues” (or in this case, koose and koko issues). And koose and koko issues are essentially, women’s business.

Information on what assemblies are doing with which resources on our behalf must be available to the people in order to foster true participation. Assemblies, their staff and agencies and the decentralized departments – agriculture, education, health, water and sanitation, fire, security agencies, social welfare and environmental health, amongst several others – must be able to provide relevant livelihoods-related information and support to the citizenry more regularly, cheaply and in a timely manner. The citizenry must be able to communicate their concerns to the assembly members and staff effectively, without fear, expect redress and receive it. Given the long distances, poor communications, impediments to assembly members in the performance of the feedback role, how will improving information and communication be achieved?

What are ICTs?

Information Communication Technologies (ICT) can be described as goods, applications and services used to create, produce, analyse, process, package, distribute, receive, retrieve, store and transform information. It is a feature of the technological advancements of this period in history where there has been tremendous innovation in information management and communication so that in many countries, information and knowledge is easily conveyed, accessed and used.

The pace of technological change and what is available for use by people has revolutionized how they interact and socialize (by electronic communication for instance), do business, engage in politics including advocacy by technology, find health, improve their education and find recreation and entertainment. A recent article quoted Dr. Spio-Garbrah of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organization as saying that “the growth of mobile technology has cut transaction costs of businesses in both the formal and informal economies but remains a challenge for Africa to harness information and communications technology as a traded commodity for the interest of Africans” (“ICT: Africa’s Electronic Future” by Michael Addo in The Chronicle Friday October 6, 2006 edition. Page 14).

Very often, when ICT is mentioned the more recent modes of communication such as telephones (fixed lines and mobiles), satellite communication, computer hard- and software as well as the electronic media, come to mind. However, the more traditional modes of communication such as radio, television and print media must be included. Given the potential ICT has for educating people and assisting them to make decisions relevant to their lives, the implications for enhancing popular participation in governance.

Local Government and Local Governance

Local government consists of the structures or the machinery of government and administration at the local level or the lowest level of jurisdiction, where there is authority to make and implement decisions that affect the lives of the people living within the particular geographical area. Local governance can be considered in this paper as the process by which communities and people in a defined political locality steer their affairs. It is the joint management of public concerns through partnership by various stakeholders from the private, public, non-governmental and civil society sectors.

Through local governance, it is assumed that the lives of the people could be enhanced through better quality of basic services, more equitably distributed, more effective mobilization and deployment of resources, employment opportunities and more accessible and participatory decision-making can be achieved.  This is because decisions are taken closer to level of implementation and are expected to be more reflective of and responsive to the needs of the people. It is also about public accountability and public officials accounting to the people what they have done on their behalf and how they have used the powers and public resources bestowed upon them. Accountability mechanisms also should allow people to seek redress.
Local authorities and arrangements for local governance would include mechanisms to foster the people’s participation such as through their representatives – assembly members, councilors and other people they have elected or selected by other means- to make decisions in the public interest on their behalf. These representatives serve as a means of information and communication – conveying the needs and opinions of the people and providing feedback - between local government and the citizenry. However, the citizens need complementary means of information and communication about services, local economic opportunities, recreation and security, amongst others. They also need information about public disclosure, about fees, rates, taxes, in-flows of public resources, revenue and patterns of expenditure.

Women and local governance

Women have three main types of relationships with Ghana’s local government system: as local politicians, as staff of local authorities and as citizens or rights-holders. Over almost two decades of the assembly system of local government in Ghana, women’s presence as politicians in local authorities in Ghana has been rather low. Their participation as elected assembly members though increased from a low of 2.9% of elected assembly members in 1994 to about 5% in 1998. In 2002, 981 women stood for elections as compared to 547 in 1998 – an increase of 79%. Of this, 341 won, an increase of 73% compared to 1998. Indications are that, the number of women who presented themselves for election increased by over 80% in 2006. Government policy also made provision for quotas of appointed members for women in 1998 and in 2002.

Up until 2006, women had not made up more than 10% of assembly members. Similarly, women have not made up appreciable proportions of Chief Executives. Women have not made up more than 11% of metropolitan, municipal or district mayors. The considerable increase in the numbers of women offering themselves for the 2006 district elections suggest that more women are becoming interested in the business of local governance. More women may be seeing the relevance of local government for their lives and that of their families and businesses and are interested in influencing its processes and decisions to their advantage.

Women as staff of assemblies have been woefully under-represented in decision-making and professional positions – as coordinating directors, administrators, planners, environmental health officers and budget analysts. Women staff are predominantly in support services.

Yet women as citizens and as rights-holders consist of a little over 50% of Ghana’s population. In their triple roles, reproductive, productive and community managing, women’s interests in local governance are in various ways different from men’s. Women’s responsibility for ensuring the nutrition and well-being of the family and being the first line of healthcare, education and training has implications for their interest in the delivery of basic services at the local level. Issues around food security, the state of markets, homes, availability of accessible water and sanitation resources, family healthcare and children’s learning are more immediate for women than for men, by their duties.

Women’s economic activities reflect their pre-dominance in the informal sector and self-employment. National statistics indicate that over three-quarters of women in the labour force work outside the formal sector. Women are largely responsible for food marketing and distribution throughout the country. Women, as itinerant traders, retail consumer goods conveying these from urban to rural areas. Women’s industrial activities are small scale and agro-based – doing food processing, herbal and cosmetic preparations, textiles and increasingly, in telephone and communication services in urban areas. Women provide personal services such as hairdressing, grooming, dress-making and hawking prepared foods.

Therefore, women’s enterprises are often small, home-based, labour-intensive and technologically unsophisticated. They are the major users of markets as sellers and buyers (where local authorities make considerable proportions of their revenue). They are also the majority of hawkers, who incur the wrath of local authorities. Using their homes as workplaces is very important to women and residential areas have kiosks and table-tops for women’s economic activities. This is because women need to combine home management and childcare with their income-generating activities. This also has implications for their time use and the patterns of use of public infrastructure. For instance, it would be interesting to map the different patterns of use of public transport, public toilet facilities, courts, recreation spots, garbage disposal sites amongst others.

Women’s involvement with community management activities is important to sustaining social capital. Women’s links have kept family ties, prevented and resolved conflict, shared social information and executed social events like marriages, funerals and out-doorings. Women have been responsible for preparing sites and cooking communal food.

Women’s groups and associations have enormous potential for reaching women as citizens. The prospects for local governance include having these groups as sources of information on women’s interests and priorities; channels of communication to and public education for women; and as focal points for distributing and enhancing their access to resources. Women’s groups and co-operatives as economic actors also present prospects for a local authority’s initiatives for economic development. On the side of the citizenry, women’s groups and associations could exact accountability from local authorities.

It is therefore evident that women’s interests in local governance are wide, varied and different from men’s.

ICT, local governance and women

A growing body of information indicates that ICTs have enormous potential for promoting economic and social development. ICT development has been linked to innovations in economic activities, employment opportunities, social resources such as accessing health-related information and education.

ICT has been used by governments for various initiatives in sharing information. Various government organizations in Ghana have developed web-sites, have had documentaries made and presented information on resource allocation on the internet, such as the Common Fund Administrator’s Office. The National Statistics Office has presented population statistics on compact disc. The newspaper article by Addo referred to earlier indicates that mobile telephones in particular have enabled ordinary citizens to participate in governance processes and democracy through call-ins to radio and TV discussion programmes. Telephones have alerted law enforcement agencies to robberies and crimes. People feel better connected decision-makers and government officials because they can call them as well as public offices up.

Two issues come up for our discussion. The first is the ability of local authorities to use ICT and the forms of information channels that local authorities use. The second is women’s ability to use and access to ICTs.

Local authorities have considerable use for ICTs in the work outlined in the section above on “Local Government and Local Governance”. Local authorities need to share information and communicate with the citizenry. They can share information on

  • District characteristics of the population and the locality
  • District development plan priorities and budgets
  • Results of monitoring and performance against district targets
  • Economic and social opportunities and infrastructure: new markets, scholarships, credit, market trends, production figures
  • Impending public hearings
  • Announcements/information on government policy
  • Health information; skills and tips for farmers and entrepreneurs, amongst others.

District data-bases on properties, revenue collection, immunization figures, health statistics and other inputs for effective planning also facilitate local governance. District information sites could provide places for citizenry to communicate their concerns in anonymity and security and get answers; when sub-committees, district oversight committees for health and education and the general assembly are meeting.

Improved ICTs in local governance would provide resources for local government administrators as well as the citizenry. It would also provide information for investors and financiers of economic initiatives and other stakeholders. It should provide information sharing of best-practices and lessons learned.

Currently, assemblies in Ghana are using traditional means of conveying information: public notice boards, telephone calls, letters and advertisements in the media – dailies and periodic newspapers, local FM radios and television. The traditional word-of-mouth is also relied upon. Improvements in mobile telephone communication have assisted rural communities as well as individuals. However, electronic communication via internet has lagged behind because of the lack of infrastructure, delays in connecting communities in rural Ghana to the national electric grid and lack of local capacity and resources.

Some regions have attempted to develop intranet facilities within the region such as the Central and Ashanti Regions. Assemblies have been assisted to acquire and run computer facilities but have not all been linked to reliable internet facility providers. At a national level, various efforts have been made to provide information on districts. The Ghanadistricts.com is a private initiative that anticipates to provide opportunities for assemblies to showcase themselves, providing news about the local government sector, updated information about the administration, the population characteristics, investment opportunities and other attractions.

However, there are important advances in the sectors/services that could help local authorities. The first is the government’s ICT and education policy, which intends to place an ICT centre in second cycle schools in each district as well as the establishment of Community Land Information Centres. There is also the Community Health Planning Compounds (CHPs) collaboration between communities, assemblies and the Ghana Health Service. Assemblies can link into these advances. Secondly, many individuals have established internet cafes as economic ventures, with whom assemblies can collaborate in public private partnerships. The third area is in advances by mobile phone technologies to provide internet resources for consumers.

However, it must be recognized that individuals and communities can enjoy the benefits based on certain resources including literacy, computer literacy, ability to purchase the relevant equipment, the availability of the service and its maintenance, amongst others. Therefore, communities and individuals who are illiterate, poor and face language barriers are limited in their ability to enjoy technological advancements of the past two decades. In this regard, developed countries have enjoyed the information revolution to a greater extent than developing ones. Again, quoting Addo’s article, less than 15% of Africans own a mobile handset (2006). This unevenness in access has been referred to as “a digital divide”. It is interpreted as the differences in resources and capabilities to access and effectively use ICT for development that exists between countries, regions, sectors, localities, social groups, ethnic groups and sections of the population, generally.

Even though certain advances like the mobile phone has revolutionized people’s ability to communicate with each other, within Ghana, this divide is present. Anecdotal evidence suggests that metropolitan and urban areas have better and more access to ICT in the form of internet and electronic communication, mobile phone facilities, television and variety of FM resources. Poorer, underserved sections of the country such as in the Northern, parts of the Western and Northern Volta Regions are limited as compared to other parts of the country.

Between men and women, this divide is also evident. Anecdotal indications are that the trends in ICT in Ghana have provided employment and economic opportunities for women. Women have found employment and investment in communication centres, internet cafes and mobile phone businesses known as “space-to-space”. Yet lower numbers of women as compared to men, access and use ICT. In spite of the considerable proportions of women who find work as secretaries, still more women are afraid to seek information, access business resources like bank information and share information via computer. The higher levels of women’s illiteracy and women’s greater presence outside the formal workplace (where regular access to computers and internet could be had) could be impeding factors. Time constraints and socialization about what a woman’s interests should be could also be others. Traditionally, women’s interest in news and politics as relevant and appropriate pursuits for women has not been encouraged.

Therefore, while ICT could be a tool to be consciously used to promote women’s empowerment and bridge the gender divide, it could also increase the gap between men and women in access to resources and power if this situation is not consciously addressed. Interventions such as capacity-building-training, making the infrastructure available and demystifying the internet are important. Given the prospects for employment creation, the sector can also be targeted for fostering opportunities for women.

What could be the relationship between local governance, women and ICTs?

It is suggested in the newspaper article referred to above that ICT could ensure better governance in Africa; however, ICT consumers at the individual as well as corporate levels need to be better organized. Dr. Spio-Garbrah suggests that good leadership, effective public service agencies, an educated citizenry aware of their rights and responsibilities, a free and responsible media, efficient law enforcement and judiciary are all part of this effort. It is about policy, regulation, technology, finances, human resource development and consumer awareness. These observations are valid for local governance.

Decentralization is intended to benefit all sections of the population, including women. The advantages of government responsiveness to women’s needs and decisions made based on consultation of women must be geared towards their empowerment.

All of the business of local governance – service delivery, local economic development, governance and accountability – have gender dimensions, which ICT should help to address.

The information to be communicated and used must take into account women’s peculiar constraints, responsibilities and interests. It will be most effective when it is conveyed to the intended parties in a timely, accurate manner –through oral, written, audio-visual, electronic, internet and other means.

What essentially, ICT would do for women through local governance is to communicate with, provide information for and solicit women’s inputs in ways that (a) make these opportunities widely available to large sections of women at a time (b) at less cost and with less time waste – because it should not involve travelling (d) on a non-judgemental basis because women would not have to engage with an intimidating official. While it will not replace effective human contact, which has its place, with increasing sophistication on the parts of both the providers and users, opportunities for interactive engagement will improve.

What types of information do women need? Amongst other things, women need rights about awareness information; information about markets and production; tax levels and fees; modes of revenue collection; project initiatives that women can benefit from; and loan guidelines.

ICT should enhance women’s access to information on assembly provisions for and resources on services and service effectiveness. Information on rights and obligations, where to seek redress for low quality service and complaints would be an important contribution to service delivery, especially if such information is widely available on a non-judgemental basis.

Government initiatives aimed at poverty reduction have been little understood at the local level, particularly by women. Therefore, education on the National Health Insurance, the District Assemblies Common Fund (DACF), the Women’s Development Fund (WDF), the Social Investment Fund, the Learning Centres and other activities under the Community-Based Rural Development Programme (CBRDP) and HIPC resources could be spread through additional ICT resources than the current brochures and reports. Additional local audio-visual channels, internet-based information amongst others would provide much needed information on how to access the resources, eligibility and what these are doing in each district.

In enhancing women’s economic activities, local ICTs should facilitate problem identification and also give women information on feasible options in their businesses and work. Local authorities can use ICT to provide information on best practices, tips and lessons learned. Information on markets, bringing buyers and sellers together could be one service to be provided. Others would be information on infrastructure and appropriate technology for their activities. In other countries, women have found more employment opportunities within the ICT sector itself. Perhaps, assemblies in their employment generation efforts, assist women to set up such businesses as establishing internet cafes, mobile phone communication businesses and other related activities. Women’s economic groups and associations can be encouraged to advertise themselves and their products using websites and electronic communication more.

The role of the Regional Coordinating Councils (RCCs) in providing services and economic development  should not be lost sight of. Regional Coordinating Councils in PNDC Law 327 (the Civil Service Law) and Act 462 (the Local Government Law) have monitoring, supervising, coordinating, evaluation and technical backstopping laws.

Therefore, they have particular value in promoting women’s interests. They can backstop assemblies who do not have the requisite technical resources to undertake gender-sensitive and gender-biased interventions. They can access and publicize the relevant resources cheaply for assemblies and women’s groups. In their inter-district initiatives, RCCs could liaise with institutions that are based at the region but not necessarily available in the districts such as professional associations and business chambers of commerce to provide relevant information and support to women’s groups at the local and district level through ICT facilities.

In the area of governance and popular participation, local government laws and legislative provisions can be made available through enhanced ICT. These would set out simplified as well as audio versions and the roles and responsibilities of various parties and where women can turn for redress would be useful. Women’s advocacy efforts by using mobile text communications could work the same way as people have voted on talent shows and popularity events that require viewer participation.

Summary and Conclusion

This essay has tried to reflect on women, ICTs and local government. As per the terms of reference it began with a reflection on the District Assemblies Election and went on to look at the issues around ICTs and local government. These sections tried to explore what ICTs were, indicated the technological advances it had made, their implications for the lives of ordinary people and suggested that both the old and new forms of ICT into account. The paper discussed the import of local government and local governance and their relationship to women. It noted the woeful inadequacy of the presence of women in local government structures and the ways in which assemblies could better relate to women and women’s associations.

A section on ICT, Local Governance and Women discussed the implications of ICT for governance generally and referred to the digital divide. As a discussion on the way forward, the essay posed the question “What could be the relationship between local governance, women and ICTs? It suggested that essentially, ICT could communicate with, provide information for and solicit women’s inputs in ways that (a) make these opportunities widely available to large sections of women at a time (b) at less cost and with less time waste – because it should not involve traveling (d) on a non-judgemental basis. It noted that amongst others, women particularly needed rights awareness information as well as avenues for redress on issues of concern to them and their families; information about markets and production; tax levels and fees; modes of revenue collection; project initiatives that women could benefit from and guidelines for accessing these as well as information about their security.

In all of this, women’s groups and associations could be a critical stepping stone to enhancing ICT literacy, making the infrastructure available and publicizing the requisite information.

Ghana’s local governance process is intended primarily to facilitate national integration, deepen democracy and foster popular participation in governance at all levels. It is imperative therefore, that all sections of the population benefit from and participate in local governance. Assemblies must be responsive and accountable to all the people, especially women, whose business it still is to ensure the well-being and sustenance of Ghanaian families. Information and communication is critical to achieving this and therefore, an increased effort to promote and take advantage of the ICT revolution for these ends, is imperative.

For more information, contact Esther Oduraa Ofei-Aboagye through IICD at information@iicd.org.

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