Access to information:The Food Stats agenda


While this year's World Press Freedom Day came and went with no sign that the long-awaited Access to Information Bill would be discussed by Parliament and passed into law, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) CountrySTAT initiative, though not dealing with Access to Information Legislation, shows that it is possible to provide vital statistical information in the absence of an Access to Information Act.


The media has for some time now been arguing that an Act that entrenches the right to public information is for the good of all citizens and not journalists only. After all, access to information is guaranteed in the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi under Section 37. Most politicians, however, see such an Act as a lethal tool in the hands of journalists.


During one meeting which this writer attended, Members of Parliament clearly expressed their apprehension. They wanted to be assured that the Act would not be a dangerous toy in the hands of a naughty child.


"How are you going to assure us that this piece of legislation is not going to be used to harass people in the name of access to information?" asked one Member of Parliament.


Perhaps FAO CountrySTAT could help allay such fears with its emphasis on the importance of access to vital food and agriculture statistics and making access to such statistics possible. CountrySTAT is a statistical framework and applied information system for analysis and policy-making to organise, integrate and disseminate data and metadata on food and agriculture coming from different sources.


The primary aim of this web-based information technology system is to provide access to statistics across thematic areas such as production, prices, trade and consumption. This supports analysis, informed policy-making and monitoring with the goal of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger.


Various data are being constantly generated by government ministries, departments and many other organisations on issues of food and agriculture. There is, for example, data on meat production from both commercial and farm slaughter and on crop production by commercial farmers and for subsistence. There is also detailed data on food and agriculture trade and data on the labour force.


In CountrySTAT all such data is collected, processed and disseminated to users. Users can be government officials who are drafting policies or strategies, farmers who would like to carve a niche in the export and import trade of a particular agricultural product or indeed journalists who would like to write a well-researched article on food production.


Access to information is a right. By extension, access to food statistics could be said to be a right as well. The right to food is itself a right recognised by Article 25 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 25 (1) of that declaration states that "Everyone has a right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control."


In that context, CountrySTAT kills two birds with one stone. Firstly, it makes food statistics available in the absence of Access to Information Legislation. Secondly, it contributes towards ensuring that, based on availability of statistics on food, policy formulation and decisions on strategies relating to food security are well-informed.


According to the FAO CountrySTAT website, partnerships are established with government ministries and various offices whose work is relevant to food and agriculture as a way of ensuring that there is a working system. "Through national and regional CountrySTAT projects, FAO forms partnerships with statistical offices and the ministries of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry among others to introduce the system and build the national capacity to use it" states the website.


In Malawi, CountrySTAT has found a ready partner, the National Statistics System (NSS). As an acknowledgement of the ever-growing need for statistics for policy formulation and decision-making and the importance of making such information accessible, the National Statistical Office (NSO) in November 2006 launched, the National Statistics System Strategic Plan.


In the foreword to the NSS Strategic Plan, the Commissioner for Statistics, Charles Machinjili, says the plan advocates for a well-coordinated, standardised, and harmonised statistical system capable of delivering high quality, responsive and, reliable and timely statistical information.


According to the strategic plan, the main tasks of the NSS include promoting good statistics practices, coordinating statistical activities, standardising concepts and definitions, harmonising methodologies and recruiting, developing and retaining well-qualified and competent statistical staff at every level of NSS.


"It is important to raise the profile of statistics in development planning so that planners and decision-makers may begin to fully appreciate the importance of evidence-based development planning" states the Strategic Plan.


On agriculture and food security, the NSS Strategic Plan acknowledges the difficulties the statistics section of the ministry faces which make it fail to collect, compile and disseminate accurate, reliable and timely agricultural information. Some of the problems cited are lack of skills and competency and inadequate infrastructure.


This is where CountrySTAT is a welcome partner. According to the Principal Statistician at NSO who is also the coordinator of the CountrySTAT initiative in Malawi, Benjamin Banda, since its introduction in the country in 2006, the initiative has been supporting country expertise by providing the methodology, classification and coding system that allows them to collect, standardise and harmonise data coming from various local sources, thus improving data quality and facilitating data reconciliation.


"Since its introduction up to now, CountrySTAT has been organising capacity, building workshops and holding meetings," said Banda.


The work plan for 2010 which has been submitted to Country FAOSTAT in Rome, Italy, shows that capacity building will continue and statistical tables will be updated. The work plan also foresees the production of the second panorama report and the official launch of Malawi CountrySTAT.


"We have submitted our work plan for 2010 to Rome in which the official launching of the Malawi CountrySTAT is one of the main activities," said Banda.


These initiatives are important as agriculture and food security continues to be the current administration's top priority. President Professor Bingu wa Mutharika emphasised this point during his 2010 State of the Nation Address titled Building National Capacity for Sustained Growth and Development.


The President said that since the advent of his administration in 2004, agriculture and food security have remained high on the list of priorities.