Democratizing Access to African Law to Strengthen the Continent’s Inclusive Growth

The rule of law and its application in society is widely regarded as a central pillar for achieving inclusive growth, political stability, human rights protection and good governance. Its necessary corollary and accompaniment is a guaranteed access to information held by public bodies. This right to information is recognised and incorporated in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 16 in promoting the rule of law as fundamental to sustainable economic and social development through strong legal and judicial systems and institutions, as well as empowering individuals and communities to engage and participate in decisions that affect their lives. Global initiatives such as the World Bank’s Global Forum on Law, Justice and Development network or UNESCO’s annual IPDCtalks taking place this month in Paris are striving to put access to information on the global agenda.

Nearly 100 countries around the world (putting this in perspective: half of the world’s nation-states) have now adopted the right to information into law or policy (known as Freedom of Information or FOI laws), while a few technology-based transparency initiatives such as e-government or open data access (OA) are now becoming the norm. In an interview with IPDCtalks media partner Djembe Communications, Laura Neuman, Director of the Carter Center’s Global Access to Information Program emphasized that “Countries that have implemented [FOI] as a potent [legal] tool, offer their citizens better services and it gives them a better foothold in transform[ing] [their] lives”.

In the African region, one of the world’s fastest growing and most complex regions, there is a growing demand for quality, accurate information to allow its young population to explore facts, understand existing legal frameworks and policies guiding them, as well as fully utilise resources towards a sound legal environment. Furthermore, the continent’s pervasive use of mobile technology can transform e-data to becoming an enabler in empowering people, particularly millennials, in its inherent characteristic to provide instantaneous and, above all, free flow of information contributing to the gradual dissolution of geographic and economic boundaries including knowledge monopolies.

For African innovators and entrepreneurs, access to legal information (legislation, court decisions and legal writings) is critical for a better understanding of the legal environment into which they operate and in making swift business decisions such as protecting their intellectual property. For foreign investors looking at Africa, the legal system transparency level is decisive in measuring risks for potential long-term investments locally. For instance, they would need to understand how the judicial process works in a targeted country, particularly in areas such as health and safety, human rights, discrimination and tax law.

In response to the many growing demands for access to legal information, the current state of upholding African legal knowledge does not seem to be coping. In the vast majority of countries, legal materials are only accessible physically. This situation implies that citizens in remote areas, in the context of weak infrastructures, have to travel miles to access legal informational materials where they are housed. On the other hand, as for any paper-based materials, those resources can deteriorate chemically and physically, either due to their inherent properties as a result of poor storage or from a natural disaster. Poor access to information negatively impacts citizens’ lives as well as the legal environment of business. Therefore, a few laudable local initiatives exist on the continent to bring law online as the safest and most sustainable means for upholding and developing legal texts. A few successful government-led digital initiatives in providing free access to legal content include but are not limited to Kenya’s National Council for Law Reporting, South Africa’s Southern African Legal Information Institute, the Uganda Legal Information Institute, and Mauritius Supreme Court.

African countries championing open access to law are part of the Free Access to Law Movement (FALM), which has over 60-member organisations from around the world working on making legal information freely accessible to people. FALM members collaborate through data sharing networks or portals to share their experience and knowledge. Private endeavours in the field are generally run by major western commercial publishers, making access to legal content fee-based. In some instances, commercial publishers operate on behalf of national governments which often end up with locked-in software systems, without a possibility for technical knowledge transfer nor indigenous management of inherited systems.

With 55 countries as listed by the African Union, a review of the current state of bringing African law online shows less than 10% coverage of the continent. This is explained by the limited scope of most of the initiatives which are often national or thematic based. Also, many other online initiatives have been discontinued either due to insufficient funding, shifting national priorities or political turmoil. The consequences of such limited coverage include countries’ isolation in their pursuit to provide open access to information and slowed progress in achieving regional integration for a continental market size. For example, micro, small and medium businesses (MSMEs) in Africa typically face hurdles in accessing affordable financing. High transactions costs in securing loans prevents these small-sized businesses from operating sustainably and scaling up their operations. Therefore, MSMEs require access to adequate information and institutional support in order to thrive. In this context, it is important that Africa leverage open technology for a transparent and pan-African legal business ecosystem supporting its growth trajectory.

The African Innovation Foundation (AIF)’s African Law e-Library, is also uniquely pursuing the provision of open-source access to legal information that is accessible to all with a collection of over 4 million digitized materials in the region. By bringing law online, Information Technology Communication (ICT) clearly contributes to shaping Africa’s knowledge economy, legal awareness for its people and inclusive growth by encouraging the equitable democratization of access to information.

To learn more about important upcoming calendar events discussed in this piece on access to information and how readers can play a role, please visit the following:

By Walter Fust, Chairman, and Sophie Bussmann Kemdjo, Director, African Law e-Library Program, African Innovation Foundation