Media Rights Agenda (MRA) has launched a project to mentor selected civil society organizations from across the country on the use of the Freedom of Information Act to improve their ability to use the Law and enhance their effectiveness.
The objective of the programme, which is being implemented with support from the Democratic Governance for Development (DGD) II Project of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), is to enable the selected organizations to better appreciate the potency of the Act, identify various ways in which it can be applied to enhance their work, and ultimately mainstream the Act into their activities such that it becomes a tool which they routinely and regularly use to seek information from public institutions and private bodies covered by the Act in the course of their work.
The DGD II Project is a joint donor-funded project managed by UNDP in support of deepening democracy in Nigeria and is funded with contributions from the European Union, the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the Korea International Cooperation Agency and UNDP.
The mentoring programme is expected to create a multiplier effect in the usage of the Act as representatives of the selected organizations that have participated in the programme would be required to actively share their knowledge with colleagues within their organizations as well as partner organizations, to engender more widespread use of the Law by civil society organizations across the country.
Under the pilot phase of the project, which is commencing this October, MRA has selected two organizations from each of the six geo-political zones of the country to participate in the programme.
Explaining the rationale for the project, MRA’s Deputy Executive Director, Ms Jennifer Onyejekwe said: “We are dissatisfied with the fact that the FOI Act is currently being used mostly by civil society organizations with activist credentials. We believe that it is an important tool which all CSOs should be using routinely and regularly in their work but unfortunately, many CSOs are yet to take advantage of this powerful piece of legislation. We are therefore implementing this project as a way of helping the selected organizations see the immense benefits that the Act can bring to their work, including enhancing their effectiveness.”
According to Ms Onyejekwe, “we feel that it is imperative that civil society groups working in areas of transparency and accountability, democratic governance and sustainable development in particular should be mentored in order to use the law more effectively to access information needed in carrying out their mandates.”
The project is being executed in four phases.
Under the first phase, MRA will conduct an assessment of each of the selected organizations to determine their current level of usage of the Act, if any; their current projects and activities for which the deployment of the Act may be relevant or necessary; the types of information that they require in the course of their work; the various public institutions that they routinely engage with in the course of their work and those public institutions which may hold the information that each of the organizations requires; the potential and opportunities for each of the organizations to use the FOI Act in various aspects of their work; among other issues.
This will be followed by a second phase during which MRA will conduct an intensive training exercise on the FOI Act for the representative of the 12 selected organizations. The training, which will have theoretical and practical aspects, will aim to give the participants with a conceptual understanding of what freedom of information is and why it is important; and familiarize them with the key provisions and features of the FOI Act, how to make requests for information under the Act; compliance and enforcement mechanisms available to users of the Act; as well as other issues. The training will also include practical sessions and exercises on drafting requests for information relevant to the different areas of work of the selected organizations.
During the third phase of the project, beginning immediately after the training exercise, MRA personnel will, over several months, provide ongoing technical support and assistance to all participating organizations in drafting requests for information and in resolving other relevant challenges that they may have, including where they are denied access to information by public institutions. The technical support will be provided both remotely and through physical visits by MRA personnel to each of the participating organizations to ascertain progress made, any lingering challenges they may have and to provide additional hands-on assistance as they may require. This will also include providing training for other members or staff of the selected organization wherever this is necessary or required.
Under the fourth phase of the project, MRA will develop and produce sector-specific “Guidelines for Using the Freedom of Information Act” for each of the selected organizations to provide guidance to them and their partner organizations working in the same sectors on how to use the FOI Act much more effectively in their areas of work. The Guidelines will identify and list the likely public institutions that each organization will need to engage with in seeking information, based on the sector in which it is working. It will also identify and list the likely types of information, records and documents that will be relevant to each organization and the public institutions that are likely to hold such information.
The Guidelines will also contain a step-by-step guidance on how the organizations can use the FOI Act to request and obtain such information from the relevant public institutions and private entities covered by the Act.