Stormy skies for weather amendment bill

I recently wrote about the South Africa Weather Service Amendment Bill. I admit that I posted about this because I thought it was kind of cute that the SA government was banning non-official weather forecasts. Maybe a bit silly — I hear that’s what blog-readers sometimes like in the middle of their otherwise very serious day solving the world’s problems. Perhaps the issue was even somewhat reflective of other SA government initiatives to control the circulation of information. But not because I thought it was a real, honest-to-goodness political issue.

Turns out that it is.

The Democratic Alliance circulated a press release describing how the amendment will limit information to those whose needs are not met by the South Africa Weather Service (SAWS). They argue,

A number of local operators provide excellent weather services for customers with specialised needs. For instance, crucial fire danger rating data may be available only from highly localised sources. Farmers need this information at the drop of a hat; it is therefore wrong that these sources may be in danger of breaking the law if they provide the information without permission.

A member of South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs, however, explains why the bill is necessary:

To further put these provisions into our current context  one of the accepted impacts of climate change is the possible increase in the frequency, intensity and range of extreme weather events. In order to ensure that we build our resilience to these impacts, we must ensure that our warning systems are efficient, effective and, most importantly, credible. With the real possibility of increasing extreme weather events, the potential for false, misleading and/or hoax warnings significantly undermining public confidence in, and/or appropriate public reaction to, warnings is of real concern.

He also notes that SAWS has been the only official provider of severe weather warnings, and this bill simply seeks to punish those who violate a rule that has always been in place.

No one likes a bad weather forecast when the weather turns out to be nice; and vice versa. But while we still live in a world where no government weather agency has anything remotely approaching a perfect forecasting track record, the SA government might do better to try to build trust in its own information, rather than banning competing ideas and predictions, even erroneous ones, from circulation.

Punishment… for unauthorized weather forecasts!

The South African Weather Services Amendment Bill will see citizens issuing any “severe weather or pollution-related warning” without written permission from the South African Weather Service, facing a multi-million rand fine and a possible 10 years imprisonment. (M&G)

Hmmm… I recognize that if citizens raise false alarms about severe weather, this can be a costly public bad… but why must the various arms of the South African state keep toying with instruments of information control? Seriously, fines or jail for unauthorized weather reports!?

Robust debate about secrecy bill in South Africa

As I wrote about last week, a proposed secrecy bill has generated strong reactions from various sectors of SA society, concerned about the threat to free speech and the potential silencing of whistleblowers. That the ANC’s two major alliance partners — the South African Community Party and the labor federation, COSATU — have come out publicly on opposite sides of this debate suggests at least that democratic deliberation remains vibrant.

Secrecy bill passed by South African National Assembly

The apartheid regime infamously detained journalists and editors; and it routinely acted to suppress the free flow of information. Among the many promises of the 1994 elections were a truly free and open press. Sadly, in what feels like a throwback to the bad old days, the government has put forward a “secrecy bill,” which was today passed by its lower chamber. The bill would create a law instituting stiff penalties for those citizens or journalists found in possession of state secrets or classified documents, and give substantial leeway in the classification of documents by a range of government authorities.

Journalists, civil society groups, and citizens have been protesting the bill — calling it “black Tuesday,” in remembrance of “black Wednesday,” when an extreme detention of journalists took place in 1977 (puts into perspective America’s “black Friday,” later this week, which is focused on buying holiday gifts…) There is still hope that the bill could get voted down in the upper chamber, or eventually struck down by the constitutional court. But it is a grim day for freedom of information in a country that had been accumulating democratic “stock,” with now more than 17 years since the first post-apartheid election.

Given South Africa’s high level of IT infrastructure, and the capacity of whistleblowers to post information on sites such as wikileaks, the notion that the state could have much success in restricting the dissemination of such information seems pretty naive. And now the ANC has really goaded civil society and its political opponents to an even more relentless search to find information that might be worth broadcasting.

Scary secrecy bill in South Africa

A so-called secrecy bill was almost tabled before the South African parliament this week, and if it is eventually passed, that would be a scary step for democracy in that country. The bill proposes lengthy prison sentences for whistleblowers who do not include a “public-interest defense.” Understandably, to many South Africans, this smacks of the police state that was apartheid, and substantial protests have erupted outside the constitutional court (see M&G). So at least for now, a vote has been postponed. Hopefully it will be canned for good.

Of course, one can’t be naïve about the need for discretion. Almost anyone who has run a sizeable organization would probably agree that some conversations need to be held behind closed doors — otherwise, fear of embarrassment or retribution would keep knowledgeable and authoritative individuals from speaking up. The Wikileaks scandals shed light on the types of “frank” exchanges within the corridors of power that certainly would not have occurred if those individuals knew that their words would be made public.

But democratic government implies that the people govern, and they have a right to know about what’s going on in their own country. One of the “dilemmas” of democracy is that such freedoms can sometimes hamstring effective government action, but that’s a cost people are willing to bear. And virtually all “whistleblowing” is in the public’s interest, which makes the bill itself largely nonsensical.

At the moment, South Africa’s press still remains vibrant and information circulates freely in that country. But in recent years, the state has launched several attacks with loose charges of treason against various journalists and news outlets. The ANC has not liked media spotlights on corrupt practices and the lavish lifestyles of some officials. When it comes to policy, it would certainly be easier to make decisions about environmental, security, and other interests without public scrutiny. But ugly revelations from years of post-apartheid “truth and reconciliation” should be a reminder of what can go wrong when state power goes unchecked.

Evidence for the information-accountability-school performance link

After months and months of proposal writing, revision, and planning, I was excited to learn over the past few days that Princeton approved the human subjects protocol and all the other bureaucratic details for an evaluation of the Uwezo initiative in East Africa. I described this project briefly in my initial post — but the main idea is that Uwezo will try to improve education outcomes in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda by providing various forms of information to citizens. First, they go to randomly selected households and administer a series of tests to children; second, they provide immediate results to the parents; third, they provide printed information for parents and for the school and community more generally about what they can do to improve education directly (e.g., read to kids) and through policy change and oversight; and fourth, they reinforce that information and put it into broader perspective through information campaigns that describe the results of the assessment. There are some other nuances that I’ll write about later, but that’s the gist.

In our work on this project, Dan Posner, Lily Tsai, and I will be trying to assess the degree to which information empowers citizens to effect meaningful changes with concrete benefits for the education of children. Much of the research will consider whether the information provided is actually “news” to parents and other citizens; whether such information changes people’s views on the services they are receiving; and whether it effects the likelihood of their taking any action. We’ll get started with extensive field research in Kenya this June.

But in the meantime, it’s worth discussing the highly relevant, recent World Bank study, Making Schools Work: New Evidence on Accountability Reforms.

World Bank, Making Schools Work

Education – Making Schools Work.

This is an excellent review of a series of recent studies that have sought to improve education outcomes particularly in developing countries. What’s particularly important about the study is that starts with the premise that there is a huge amount of variation that is NOT due to differences in resources allocated. We certainly know in the United States that money doesn’t solve all of the problems of providing acceptable universal education.

They focus on a series of studies that involved randomized interventions in various  countries, including efforts to effect teacher performance, and school management. But most relevant for our study is chapter two, which investigates a bunch of studies — conducted in India, Pakistan, and Liberia. So far, the results have been pretty mixed, and not terribly encouraging in the sense that information campaigns have not had overwhelming effects on citizen activity or educational outcomes. For example, Banerjee et al (2009) conducted a study in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India, and found that the provision of information about local governance and self assessment tools had only a slight effect on citizen awareness, and virtually none of participation, or learning outcomes, when compared with households from control villages. On the other hand, only a few studies have been conducted, they differ in several ways, and as the authors of the World Bank study conclude, this type of research is in its infancy, and we still know very little about whether and how such interventions can have a measurable effect. To our knowledge, no similar study has been conducted in East Africa. The idea that better information should help citizens to realize the promise of democratic governance is too important to discard based on just a few studies, and while we will let the results of our study speak for themselves, it will be extremely important to understand if and how new information influences citizen participation in development.