One of the daunting challenges facing the development of parliamentary democracy in Ghana is the incessant pressure that is put on members of parliament by their elected representatives to provide the much-needed public goods and services in their constituencies. Members of parliament (MPS) are considered to be the ones who should fix the roads, repair deteriorating school buildings and provide potable water for their communities.
A study conducted by the Institute of Economic Affairs to sample public perception of MPs indicated, among others, that Ghanaians misconstrue the primary role of MPs. The study showed that 70 % of respondents were of the view that the MP`s role is either to undertake development projects or to assist their constituents. Thus, legislators` performance is judged by the extent to which they are able to make a change in the state of such facilities in their constituencies. MPs therefore make frantic efforts to provide these public goods and services in order to avoid losing their seats in future elections. Such pressures on MPs to provide material transformation in their communities could affect MPs` levels of commitment to parliamentary business.
This situation has been of great concern to stakeholders in the development of Ghana’s legislature, including members of parliament themselves. One such concern was expressed on Tuesday, February 3 2015, by Honourable ASK Bagbin. In contributing to a debate on the floor, Hon Bagbin, appealed to citizens to desist from putting pressure on their elected members of parliament to fix their material problems so that they can concentrate on their duties in the House.
Mr. Bagbin, who was then the Majority Leader, only echoed the voices of numerous other honourable members. As a keen observer of proceedings in plenary, this writer been witness to similar expressions of concern expressed by veteran members of parliament, notable among them, being Honourable Enoch Tei Mensah, former MP for Ningo – Prampram. There have been several lamentations among our MPs at the rate at which citizens point accusing fingers at them for not doing anything about the poor state of their roads and other infrastructure.
A Developing Country Syndrome
The pressure that is put on MPs to provide the needed infrastructure in their constituencies is not limited to Ghana; it seems to persist in most developing countries. In India, the Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MLADS) was set up in 1993 to provide resources for each member of the Lok Sabha to be able to take up some development projects in his constituency.
At the level of the state is the Local Area Development Scheme for members of the various state Legislative Assemblies. In Africa, the government of President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda introduced the Constituency Development Fund in 2005 following incessant appeals by MPs for funds to be made available for them to launch development projects in their constituencies.
In Kenya, the Constituency Development Act was passed in 2013. According to clause 3 of the Act, the Fund was set up to ensure that a specific portion of the national annual budget is devoted to the constituencies for the purposes of development and in particular to aid the fight against poverty. Thus, the law obliges the government to pay into the Fund 2.5 percent of all ordinary revenue collected in every fiscal year.
In Ghana, section 2 of the District Assemblies Common Fund Act, Act 455 of 1993, stipulates that Parliament shall annually allocate not less than five percent of national revenue to the district assemblies for the purpose of development. This is obviously unlike Kenya where the jurisdiction of the Fund is the constituency. However, in considering the formula for the distribution of the Common Fund in 1997, members of parliament by consensus resolved that a percentage of the allocation to the Reserve Fund be shared on parliamentary constituency basis and that the utilization should be for projects selected and approved by the MP. Should our elected legislators be saddled with fixing infrastructure in the communities? Why do our people consider their elected representatives as the agents for undertaking such projects?
Throw Back on The Separation of Powers
The answer seems to lie in the assumption that people all over the world vote for their political leaders to make an impact upon their lives, hence MPs being put under pressure to provide the public goods and services in our communities. Indeed, the MPs are the political leaders of their constituents, but there is the need for them to understand that the role for the member of parliament stands well above fixing the infrastructure and social services that their people need.
A basic underlying principle of democratic governance, the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers of government, places the physical development of communities and the provision of such public goods and services at the door step of the Executive arm of government. Indeed, the executive arm of government, in all democratic societies, is responsible for rolling out development programmes and projects across the country, Ghana being no exception.
In line with this principle, article 36 of the Constitution of Ghana enjoins the President of Ghana to, within two years after assuming office, present to the Parliament of Ghana a co- ordinated programme of economic and social policies, including agricultural and industrial programmes at all levels in the various regions of the country. Accordingly, every government under this Fourth Republic has come up with a medium – term development policy framework.
Currently, the Ghana Shared Growth and Development Policy Framework II is the one that is in vogue. In the short term, article 179 of the Constitution enjoins every government to present a budget and appropriation bill before Parliament, being the plan of programmes and projects and accompanying costs for the implementation of each fiscal year`s portion of the medium – term development framework. During the debates on sector – by – sector appropriations, honourable members have the onerous responsibility of voicing the concerns of their people – their needs for roads, schools, potable water, industries et cetera.
Apart from legal policies such as the appropriation act, parliament also debates and approves non-legal policies formulated by central government as vehicles for national development. Key among them, as already mentioned, are the medium-term development frameworks that successive governments formulate from time to time. By approving them, Parliament, on behalf of the people of Ghana, adopts such policies as national working documents. Other ones that the House considers include the formulas for the distribution of the various statutory funds – the District Assemblies` Common Fund, the Ghana Education Trust Fund (GET Fund) and the National Health Insurance Fund. All these funds provide much of the life blood of the development of the country.
At the international level, Parliament, in keeping with article 181, considers and more often than not approves loans and international businesses or economic transactions to which the government if Ghana is a party. These loans and business transactions of course inject funds into the development of the country.
How, does deliberating on the medium-term development framework, the budget and related businesses make our MPs development agents?
Law Makers as Development Agents
On this issue, a statement made by Hon Bagbin on Thursday, February 2, 2017 on the floor of Parliament is very relevant. This was what he said: “Mr Speaker we are still debating whether or not the member of parliament is a development agent. I have always asked people to tell me the of the definition of development agent. The people vote for us to go and make a difference in their lives, and then people say, we are not development agents. Then what are we? Why should people waste time to vote for us when we are not development agents?”
Indeed, the citizens vote for political office aspirants trusting that they could use their offices to facilitate improvements in their well-being. So, the colossus Bagbin had a point after all. But would this mean that Hon Bagbin was going back on the concerns he had earlier on expressed about constituents harassing their MPs to initiate development projects? Contrarily, Hon Bagbin in his wisdom tried to explain his standpoint by adding: “Is making laws not development? If it is not, then I do not know what it is “. Law making, as Hon Bagbin said in this contribution, “is part of policy formulation”. Indeed, all activities of central government are guided by policies. And the purpose of law making is not just to prohibit or punish wrong doing in societies but to set up the legal parameters for all organized human endeavours including the governance and development of a country. Parliament therefore is the centre stage for deliberations on appropriate arrangements for the development of our dear nation, and honourable members of House are the advocates of the people as far as these deliberations are concerned!
So, Hon Bagbin argued that law making places our MPs in the position of development agents. In view of his profound conviction, he added, “Mr. Speaker, so this debate about members of parliament not being development agents should be a thing of the past”. And he was very emphatic in his conclusion: “Members of parliament are development agents!”
District Assemblies and Community Development
In line with Ghana’s decentralized system, the implementation of the annual budget is centred at the district level. The district assemblies, according to clause 12 (3) (a) of the Local Governance Act, are “responsible for the overall development of the district”.
At the helm of affairs at the district assembly is the District Chief Executive, who is the chief representative of the Central Government in the district and therefore responsible for the day- to – day performance of the executive and administrative functions of every district assembly. It is the DCE who is therefore to be held responsible for initiating programmes for the development of basic infrastructure and provide municipal works and services in the district.
Contrary to popular expectation therefore, the District Chief Executive, rather than the honourable member of parliament, is responsible for the provision of such public goods and services. Unfortunately, most of our MPs themselves, rather than giving their constituents education on their roles, take advantage of these expectations among potential voters and go ahead to give the electorate all kinds of promises while campaigning for office.
Urgent Constituency Challenges
Apart from deliberations on such public businesses, Parliament has on its agenda for every Sitting, time allocated for honourable members to bring to public notice the development challenges in their constituencies that require the urgent attention of central government agencies.
A major item that appears on the order Paper (Agenda) for every Sitting in this regard is Statements. Honourable members may, under Order 72, make statements on matters of urgent public importance. Before the House rose to mark the end of the Second Meeting of this Session, on July 2017, honourable members had made statement on various issues of national importance including: “Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking “; “The rise in forced early marriages”; “The plight of the aged in Ghana” and “The underexploited bauxite potential in Ghana”.
Statements may also dwell on the developmental potentials and challenges of honourable members` own constituencies. During the last meeting, most of the newly- elected members of the House took the opportunity to lay bare the plight of their people in Statements, including the following: “The Age – Long socio – economic problems of Bosome – Freho and the Way Forward” and “The plight of the people of Fuveme and Kporkporgbor”.
By way of solidarising with their colleagues, other members of the House may comment on such statements, and the level of solidarity among our elected representatives on these occasions has been highly commendable.
There have also been occasions where the Presiding Officer has directed that a statement be referred to the government agency responsible for dealing with the subject matter at stake for their consideration. Alternatively, the Presiding Officer may refer the statement to the select committee that oversees the concerned government agency for consideration and report to the House. This implies that the committee can go ahead to engage other stakeholders on the issue and make appropriate recommendations for policy or urgent action to the House. Such recommendations are forwarded to the ministry, department or agency responsible for their consideration.
A more popular tool available to honourable members is Question Time, during which members put questions to ministers of state on urgent developmental challenges confronting their people.
This tool is used universally to seek answers from the horse`s own mouth, and to make honourable ministers alive to their responsibilities. Its application however, varies from one jurisdiction to another. In Westminster, “Prime Minister`s Questions” is the biggest event of the week and enjoys wide media coverage. The Prime Minister, who is a member of the House, stands before his colleagues to answer questions on various issues of public concern.
In Ghana, Question Time could be on the agenda for any sitting of the House and time allotted appropriately for it, and the ministers of state are enjoined by Standing order 60 (1) to attend the Sittings of the House to answer the questions asked of them. Standing Order 60 (3) obliges the ministers to whom questions are directed to answer them within a maximum of three weeks. A member could ask as many as three different questions on each occasion.
Apart from the one who asked a particular question, other colleague honourable members may also ask supplementary questions relating to the issue at stake. Thus, a member may on this occasion also enjoy the solidarity of other honorable members in raising awareness about the problem.
While answering the questions, ministers often promise to address the problem. These promises are noted down by the House and at various times, the Committee on Government Assurances invites the concerned ministers to brief the House about the status of their promises. So, the questions put by honourable members on behalf of their people are not taken for granted by the House at all. It is also important to note that sometimes, the ministers request the honourable member who put the question to follow up to their offices and work with them to deal with the problem.
A member may also ask urgent questions (without notice to the House) where the problem is an urgent one. For instance, if a bridge collapses in a member`s constituency and there is a sudden hold up of movement as a result, the Speaker may admit a question from the MP directed to the minister responsible for roads without any notice.
Honourable members of the House are also permitted by Order 76 (1) to make application to the House on any issue by way of a petition. Therefore, organized groups such as chiefs, the youth, women et cetera may petition the House through their MP. Petitioning the House invariably means petitioning the entire country. The House may refer the petition to one of its own committees to examine the issue and make appropriate recommendation for the consideration of the entire House. Subsequently, such recommendations may be forwarded to the relevant government agency for consideration. Alternatively, the Minister may be invited to brief the House on the issue.
Perhaps, the most important thing that happens to MPs` statements, questions to ministers and petitions is the coverage that the media gives them. Radio and television broadcasts of these events suddenly brings these challenges to the attention of all stakeholders including the President of the country. The entire nation beholds the difficulties that are present in the concerned community, and that in itself puts abundant pressure on the minister in charge of the sector responsible to attend to them. In this regard, it is only fair to say that the Parliamentary Press Corps has indeed been of great support to the efforts of MPs with regard to laying bare their people`s plight.
How would this nation deal with these pressures that its people have been putting on their MPs?
It is suggested in some quarters that the members of parliament constituency development fund be scrapped. The Parliamentary Commission of Uganda took this step in 2011 as a result of MPs failure to account for the funds allocated to them. Should Ghana do the same?
Whether the constituency development fund is scrapped or not, the most important tool that would reduce MPs` burden appears to be public education. One of the strategic objectives of the Parliament of Ghana`s Enhanced Strategic Plan is to increase public awareness of the work and relevance of Parliament. To achieve this objective, the Plan provides, among others, for a public education programme. Under the programme, a number of activities are outlined. They include: Workshops and seminars on the work of Parliament ; formation of parliamentary youth clubs; encouraging advocacy groups to clear misconceptions of a parliamentarian being the provider of all social amenities; maintenance of an effective parliamentary visitors` programme ; public – parliamentary education and designed training material for trainer of trainers ; publication and distribution of a number of a series of pamphlets on different aspects of Parliament`s work and having ready access to necessary documentation.
Of these activities, it is the formation of parliamentary youth clubs and the parliamentary visitors` programme that appear to have taken shape, thanks to the efforts of the Public Relations Department of Parliament. It does appear that the basic challenge to launching these educational activities has been funding. Publicity campaigns are generally very expensive and no matter how equipped the outfit is with expert staff, success will depend a lot on financial wherewithal.
In addition to the public education, parliamentary candidates would also help reduce their own stress if they would stop giving potential voters promises of delivering one facility or the other to various communities during their campaigns. Instead of the promises, they should join in the education of their people on their roles. In this connection, the Right Honurable Speaker of the House, Professor Aaron Mike oquaye in his opening remarks at the commencement of the third and last Meeting of this year`s Session on Tuesday, 3rd October, 2017, called on MPs to work hard to bridge the gap between themselves and the people they represent. Words of wisdom!
The media`s role in such education cannot be overemphasized. It would be highly beneficial if, in collaboration with the parliamentary institution as well as members of parliament, they would set this subject of the MP`s role as an agenda to be exhausted over the long term.
The government`s decision to have District Chief Executives elected in the near future would also go a long way to free our MPs of these burdens. It is believed that once they become the people`s own elected officials, pressure would be on them to work towards improving the lot of their electorate.
MPs are development agents. Development agents are they! But it is not their role to physically provide the much – needed public goods and services in our communities. That is the role of the district assembly which is headed by the DCE; the MP`s role on the other hand is to represent the people and advocate for the constituency`s and invariably the nation`s development at the national assembly.
Let Parliament strengthen its public education on the role of our elected representatives.
Let our MPs, rather than giving potential voters fantastic promises of delivering project A or B, tell them the responsibilities that they owe them as their elected representatives.
Let the media partner Parliament in educating the citizenry on the role of their elected representatives.
The writer works with the Parliament of Ghana as Assistant Editor of Debates. Contact: foyaw1965@gmail. com