Sunday, January 5, 2014

IN WHOSE INTEREST?

Often, the question of development accountability and efforts for a nation such as Ghana is confronted with the seeminly amorphous notion of the public interest. Indeed, it is a risky endeavour today, to attempt to define what the public interest is. In an increasing polarized society, diversed priorities, and celebration of individual and group identities, it becomes ever more challenging to appreciate who should be made part of the public-- and by implication the public interest.

Politics in Ghana in the past year, for instance, in many cases have brought this critical subject of development to fore. Let begin with the Supreme Petition on the election outcomes of 2012 that persisted for about eight months or more. Two main political parties, the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and the New Patriotic Party (NPP), contested the 2012 presidential election results at the Supreme Court of Ghana. The NPP was in court claiming irregularities and disputing the outcomes of the election. The NDC, the elected flagbearer and current president of Ghana, and the Electoral Commission (EC) of Ghana were the defendants. Immediately, three different interests surface; all of which has a bearing on public interest. 

Firstly, in the name of public interest, the NPP felt that the right of the people of Ghana have been voilated in that there is a president in power who may have not won the elections. And so, on behalf of the people of Ghana, they felt the need to contest the presidential election results. To the NDC, they also intimate that, in the name of public interest, the right of the individuals who voted their candidate into power would be voilated if the court overturns the declared electoral outcome. This sentiments also applies to the elected president who was also a defendant. The EC also felt that they are being voilated in that they were the custodian of the franchise of Ghanaians who voted to which they pursued freely and fairly. To suggest anything to the contrary is to therefore suggest that they may have been derelict in thier responsibility of protecting people's right to chose a leader. And throughout the process, the judges, journalists, commentators, lawyers (both street and practising), and the ordinary Ghanaian showed interests in the process-- making pronouncements that sort to suggest that they are presenting issues of public interest. In all these contestations, the argument put forward by these actors was seemingly to protect and defend the democracy of Ghanaians, the public interest, which invariable had different interpretations and priorities. 

Another major instance of public interest dilemma relates to the sale of Merchant Bank to FORTIS. The interests of government, Social Security and National Insurance Trust (SSNIT), SSNIT contributors, and FORTIS themselves tend to suggest how diverse and contentious public interest may be. Merchant Bank is in distressed and the board of Merchant Bank through their majority shareholder, SSNIT, seem to be of the view that selling the Bank to FORTIS is the right thing to do to protect their vested investments. However, contributors think otherwise, while government through the Bank of Ghana feels that no harm has been done. Think Thanks such as the Center for Freedom and Acuracy (CFA) whose executive director is in court suggest that the deal is flawed. Apparently, all these are acting in the name of the public interest. SSNIT wants to save a declining bank and the investments of their contributors who are members of the public. The Bank of Ghana actions tend to suggest that in the face of the challenges the bank is encountering, FORTIZ, having gone through the necessary regulatory processes, is an appropriate investor to take-over. Here too, the Bank of Ghana, in the name of public interest may be acting to protect investor confidence, employment, tax revenue, among others which inure to the benefit of Ghanaians; in this sence the public. FORTIZ on the other hand may be acting on their own interest (individual interests) but indirectly sees this as an opportunity to contribute their quota to the public interest by salvaging the employment of Ghanaians at the bank and investments of those who are saving with the bank; the public. The executive director of CFA on the other hand thinks that the public interest is being threatened by the deal as it does not offer value for money. Thus Merchant Bank is worth more than the deal that FORTIS is offering which by implication would mean that contributors to SSNIT may lose value on their contributions. Akin to the Supreme Petition, journalists, commentators, lawyers (street and practising) as well as SSNIT contributors have raised concerns either for or against the transaction.

Such constestations beg the question, in whose interest? Who is the public? And how are their interests mainstreamed in the public interest discourse. It is difficult to proffer an avenue of mitigation in such contested scenarios as many at times, these interests are entrenched-- with little attempt of groups to concede and accept opposing arguments. Nonetheless, relatively, it is mostly a matter of process and how these individuals, groups or better still, these interests are engaged with-- the public interest discourse. 

Fundamentally, if interested parties feel that they have participated enough; that is, they are made part of the decision process, they are privy to all the information, their challenges explained, mitigating alternatives to their challenges proffered, and a deligent and due process of transparency and inclusiveness is adduced, then there is a chance for entrenched positions in the public interest discourse to waiver. 

Yet, this is by no means an easy task. The Supreme Petition and the sale of Merchant Bank to FORTIZ are but two of such of the contestations that emerge when it comes to development in Ghana. These contestations would continue to persist. And as more and more people and individuals become audacious and empowered, more contestations would emerge. The strongest implication that bore relevance from this summary is an appreciation of a more polarized and diversed conception of the public interest. Defining public interest myopically is bound to raise heated contestations. Particularly for Ghana, where ruling parties tend to percieve almost every action based on their party lenses, it would be very challenging for decisions to be sustainable and more reflective of the population. It is within this context that we must think about development by asking again and again, IN WHOSE INTEREST?

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