2019 Mandela Washington Fellow Patrick Stephenson envisions a future where people in Ghana can make sure their needs are met by engaging with the political process in their country.
As the head of research at the Imani Centre for Policy and Education, Stephenson works on projects that encourage people to vote and educate citizens about the policies that affect their everyday lives.
He also currently works on nCLUDED, a participatory planning and development platform aimed at improving voter experiences and participation in public policy creation. Stephenson and his team at nCLUDED take action to increase voter participation across Ghana, especially among young people. He is passionate about this cause because he believes educating citizens will help them help them tackle issues in their communities.
“We don’t lack solutions to the problems, you know, in Africa. We have the solutions,” Stephenson explains.“The question is which solutions are we applying to what problems we have.”
Stephenson is working to bridge the divide between citizens and politics. He and his team collect information from the public about the issues that matter to them and what they want to see happen in their communities. They then look at what political candidates are promising to do in their communities, or what current politicians have already done, and determine if the public’s needs are being met.
He combats the spread of misinformation by educating the public on promises candidates make during their campaigns and whether or not their promises are feasible. Stephenson says his goal is to make politics easier to understand for the average person.
“For [citizens] to be empowered, I think, in our context, [they have to be] excited about the decision-making process itself, about the concept of, you know, transparency, accountability, and what it means for them as ordinary citizens,” says Stephenson.
Learn more about Stephenson and his commitment to increasing political involvement by listening to this YALI Voices podcast or reading the transcript below.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
YALI Voices Podcast: PATRICK STEPHENSON
PATRICK: So, I think the YALI network — and if they can hear me, I think it’s a very, it’s the most diverse, most representative group of young people that I have come across in any kind of engagement.
I am Patrick Stephenson, and I’m from Accra, Ghana.
♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪
VOICE-OVER: Welcome to the YALI Voices podcast, your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. Be sure to subscribe to the YALI Voices podcast and visit yali.lab.dev.getusinfo.com to stay up to date on all things YALI.
As head of research at the Imani Centre for Policy and Education in Ghana, Patrick Stephenson leads a team of policy analysts on several projects, including government spending and national procurement policies. He also works with nCLUDED, a think tank aimed at improving voter experiences and participation in public policy creation. And he is leading youth discussions around government accountability and active citizenship.
We begin our conversation with Patrick with some background on his work and the various tools he and others are creating to enhance citizen participation and civic engagement.
PATRICK STEPHENSON: Why the think tank work, you know, excites me, I keep saying that back home, you know, we don’t lack problems, and we don’t lack solutions to the problems, you know, in Africa. We have the solutions. The question is which solutions are we applying to what problems we have. And how representative are these solutions themselves to supporting and providing an opportunity for young people.
So that’s what I have been up to, and what has been exciting me the last eight, nine months, again around the same conversations of public policy. You have political parties that will typically tell citizens what they want to do, you know, before elections are held. It almost sounds as though the only time the citizens matter is during an election year, right? And so the vote is used to decide who runs the systems of governance and not what is provided for the citizens. And I always say something that people consider funny, that, I mean, in Ghana, an election cycle is four years. So every four years you go to the polls.
If the World Bank and the UNDP are right and your average life expectancy for a male like me is 60 years, what it effectively means is that if you start voting from the day you were born, you contribute to decision-making 15 times and you’re dead. So, question is: How do we improve the experience of voters such that when they wake up in the morning, you know, what are the needs to be provided is adequately provided? You may hear things like local governance and decentralization, but typically the real point of connection where you have to get citizens to contribute to the conversation is really missing.
And so for me, the last eight months has been finding the civic tech tools that helps hack that and get citizens to contribute to the conversation.
PATRICK: There’s a particular project we’ve been running for the last three election cycles, which has almost become expectant in the electoral calendar of the country, which is that all the promises that the various political parties make, we collate them, scrutinize them, and subject them within the fiscal basket of the country to be able to assess whether or not they make sense.
And whether the country can afford it. I mean, I remember in 2016, one of the flag bearers at the time said he was going to transform the Ghanaian economy using almond seeds, which, clearly, I mean, the entire almond market sits somewhere in South Carolina, right? California. So, again, these are some of the things that we have always brought to the conversation as far as elections.
But beyond this formal role, there is a lot of community-level engagements that I intend to pursue. And, again, based on nCLUDED, which is a civic tech social enterprise that I’m working on currently, we will collate the views of citizens and try to match that, at least at local government levels. I’m working on two local government units now — Adenta Municipal Assembly and Ayawaso West Wuogon. And the plan is to find out what the members of Parliament — those are the people that typically would be elected in these areas — what they say they want to do for citizens.
Parliamentarians are not development agents, so the point is to measure what they are saying and whether or not it is consistent with what citizens typically want and what the local government units themselves in terms of metropolitan, municipal chief executives in these areas, what they’re actually delivering, you know, to the citizens.
And so these are the sort of two direct roles that I’ll be playing. And of course, you know, the indirect one: Leverage social media. You know, try to speak to the issues as much as we can through the traditional media and get a lot of young people excited about increasing the 15 times that they’ll take part in the decision-making process.
PATRICK: Holding public officials accountable in Ghana is … is something that is very complex.
When 60% of the voting population of our country is below 35, clearly, empowering them so their views get adequately represented in the decision-making process, again, in terms of demand for accountability, I think, is something that’s extremely important.
For a citizen to be empowered, I think, in our context, first of all has got to be getting them excited about the decision-making process itself, about the concept of, you know, transparency, accountability, and what it means for them as ordinary citizens.
The majority of people have been disconnected from the reality that I vote, if there are issues and I say anything about them, nothing really comes out of it. Even when you have seen cases where, you know, government has not been transparent in decision-making, people actually don’t see, you know, the ultimate end of these decisions.
And so I think for me, the point has been making information available about things that look complex but providing that information in a very simple manner. So sometimes it will be what did the budget say? And how do you unpack the budget in a market woman’s terms?
And for me that is always the inspiration. If the market woman can understand it, the guy in the university can understand it. He doesn’t have to be an econ major to understand it. Once he can understand it, he knows when you tell him that you can grow the revenue of a country by 30% in a year when you haven’t diversified the source of revenue doesn’t make sense. So then he’s in a better position to contribute to conversations online, conversations in person.
You try to reduce and bring that conversation to something they can relate to. You have infographs around them and they connect with it, but I think what would be important would be the call to action off the back of that. So I have the information. What can I do?
And I think that a lot of it will have to move away from the leveraging of traditional social media to an actual community-level engagement.
PATRICK: Does the youth have a room for any sort of engagement in this space? Of course. There’s a lot that young people can do, and you find the political parties now actively recruiting a lot of young people into their fold. So for me that’s very interesting. There’s a lot of young people on social media now. A country of 29 million people, mobile phone penetration in excess of 39 million tells you that you have young people who think the power is in the mobile phone that is in their hands.
So the question is how do those of us that are young civic actors leverage that to still give them information that they need to go to the polls? Of course I’m not going to be in the booth with them on that day and know the exact incentives, but over time the expectation is that that is likely going to shift.
So for young people, I think the sort of economic opportunities that will be created for them or the prescriptions that both sides of the divide will talk about will equally be very important for them, and that’s where institutions like mine, myself and other civic actors, I think, have a very large responsibility placed on us, at least if not for anything at all, community-level engagement.
So for me, the work on nCLUDED is to try and see if I can work with the Council for Civic Education as well and see if we can leverage the infrastructure to be able to reach out to some communities. I mean, if there is community radio and you have 30 minutes to have a conversation about development in that community, I think it’s very important.
VOICE-OVER: We asked Patrick what actions he thinks young African leaders can take to effect change through civic engagement. He offered a way forward based on his own personal history and what he sees as critical lessons young leaders should incorporate on their own journeys.
PATRICK: OK, so a little bit about my background. So, I was born to a father who himself was born to a cocoa farmer mother and a cocoa farming father and a queen mother. So, typically, he’s supposed to be a chief, if I can say that. And now, somehow, custom demanded that the older, you know, son is the one who is supposed to go to school. The younger one cannot go to school, right? But he was smarter than his older brother. At least that’s what we heard.
So what it meant was that he had to, you know, practically put himself through school. That meant he met missionaries, and missionaries moved him about 400 kilometers away from where he was born at age 8. So he ended up developing his own value systems of what the world means, and they were very, for the want of a better phrase, dirigiste, not inclusive. When he carves a path for you, you are supposed to follow that path. But he ended up giving birth to children who typically were not of that sort. We are not going to keep quiet, and I’m a typical example. So that created frictions all throughout.
And I saw that as well when I went to school that there was really no conversation with young people. If you’re young, it means that it’s what the elderly people say that matters. And like from age 13 I battled with that. So that pushed me into, you know, the student leadership positions, but I always butted heads with the authorities that be, and today when I reflect, you know, having been here, it sort of appears to me that that’s why I find it relatively easy operating in this space than mainstream corporate. And I look around today, and I remember one of our talks back at the University of Delaware during the fellowship, and I asked them the question: If, at all, there is any conversation in your country today, and you sit around a table and make a suggestion or a submission, are they really going to take you seriously? Take away the fact that you’re a professional. If you’re sitting around the table with 70-year-olds, the usual thinking is that you’re not experienced enough, and you see that in government.
So I see my father in government, I see my father everywhere. So conversations about we’re not listening to young women: It is because of people that are old. I can have conversations with my friends who are very young women, dynamic and doing amazing things, and we think through what they can do. They’re talking about people with disabilities — are we creating opportunities for them? You need young people who have an understanding of the way the world is evolving now to contribute actively to the conversation. And so for me, that’s sort of been the ethos behind what I do. Like I indicated earlier, I’ve done a bit of investment, finance, banking, but all of that — if this is your calling, you won’t survive it. You stay there for a while, but over time you realize that you run into the same complications where corporates are not really seeing to the needs of citizens of a particular country, and so that for me is the motivation behind doing what I do.
So I guess my calling, the way I see it today, is try as much as possible to leverage all systems and tools that I can find anywhere to make sure that any conversation about something that must happen 30 years from today, it is those who are 30 years old who are having those conversations, because they will be 60 years old then. Don’t be 70 and be actively making decisions that have 30-year implications.
So, get the young people involved now. We are running private corporations. The average CEO in Ghana for the banking industry is somebody around 45 years old. The average politician is 70. So, and they generally value the private sector, which you leverage in taxes to determine public decisions. How’s that the case? So we need to start thinking creatively, and for me that’s the calling, that we must get to a point where, as a country, and I’m sure even across the African continent, there are critical conversations about what the future will look like. It’s really being shaped by young people. It’s not old men who have their WhatsApps being operated by their assistants.
But it’s a young man who can get on a mobile phone and understands that there’s a civic tech tool that can help him collect the views of 20,000 young people at scale, within the shortest possible time. That is inclusive governance, and for me that’s my calling.
PATRICK: You’re a young man, you start a brilliant business somewhere in your corner. Say you’re doing financial technology. So you develop all these nice fintech tools that should plug in to the banking system in Ghana. You’re not interested in politics. The industry evolves such that all of a sudden the regulator passes a regulation and says, you know what, now we’re doing KYC — you have to know your customer requirements. We expect to have this sort of information, so go use technology to be able to amass that information on scale. Then the politician sits in Parliament and says, no, we want to legislate this, and to legislate it, what it means is that we are going to only have one company — forget all competition — one company, we are importing the company from, you know, outside of the country, and they’re going to deploy that technology. That was your failure: not understanding the political context within which you operate. That company comes and deploys, you’re out of business.
So, the point is that we’re not saying be an active politician as a young man. We’re saying it is important for you to understand the politics of the country. And understanding the politics does not mean wear the colors of any of the political parties. Understand the mechanisms by which policies are being formulated, whether it’s in your area of work or not. Understand the mechanisms for the demand for accountability and transparency. This is what it’s about. So every young person, whether you’re a businessman or not. Today the banking industry again. I keep using banking industry because they’re been hot in the last two years. Some of them woke up, minimum capital requirements have showed up because the politicians agreed that it should happen. So you woke up one day and your bank is gone, because we jacked up the capital requirement by more than 200%. Right?
So don’t go and do the — and, again, the dirty politics, right? Anytime I’ve heard “politics,” people are painted as, you know, a bad profession. It’s not. Politics is just a system by which political decisions are made, and the political decisions are usually public policy decisions. How do we utilize public resources for the benefit of all? If you’re a businessperson and you don’t understand this fundamentally, you’re part of the problem, because then you are abdicating the responsibility for holding the system by which you are governed accountable. So to the extent that there’s a lot of young people who are desperate to succeed in their own private engagements, I think it’s quite important that they know and pay attention to this.
PATRICK: There’s nothing wrong with saying I belong to this political party or the other, but at the end of the day, it’s understanding how the public policy decisions align or not with your own work you’re doing and whether or not for me most importantly is inclusive, because I’ve always argued that if you have a lot of people contributing to a particular decision, people are forced to compromise, and because you have a lot of politicians and political systems back home that behave like my father, you hardly have negotiations. And that is how I see democracy: the ability to concede on certain positions for others to thrive. You can’t be a king in Parliament. You can’t be a king in a parliament and say, “Because I said this, this is all that matters.” And so I think for me, young people need to understand that and start engaging now and force both sides of the political divide to concede on things. The only way that can happen is if we are involved. If we’re not and leave the 70-year-olds, there’s a lot of ego. There’s no pragmatism. There’s a lot of ego in the room and hardly are you going to get, you know, continuum of policy, that’s one. You get cyclical policies. Somebody starts something. When he’s out of office, another egotistic person shows up and wipes it all off. That’s not going to help the country.
So I guess a single answer is that all political decisions, all decisions are political whether you’re in the economy or you’re a private businessperson or not, because what you do is shaped by the politics of the country, and it’s important you understand that.
PATRICK: What I find in YALI, now you have the network of about 600K across Africa, right? The elections in Ghana in 2012, for example, was won by just a difference of 40,000 votes. So what it means is that that alone is telling enough to shape the political future of any of the countries you have on the African continent.
And so if my fellow YALI networkers can hear me, we are the people that the future has been waiting for, and the focal areas of our work, as I have come to see it now, from business, from leadership, and from what you have in civic engagement, I think are quite instructive. And so it is important that we connect our experiences across the continent, we connect our resources. It is the only way it will work. If Cameroon, for example, has an internet shutdown and the young people there cannot represent their views, I am in Ghana. I should be able to write about that. I should be able to get insights from them and do that advocacy from outside, so they’re freed. It is the only way.
And if the struggle for independence on the continent, you know, economically and politically is anything to go by, this is how they worked. Nkrumah didn’t work alone in silence. He had the likes of Julius Nyerere to work with. They were not in Ghana. So that has always been part of our fiber, and I think that in a very tech-enabled environment now, we the young people who are part of this network need to realize that we are the strength the continent has been waiting for. And it’s not just for us. We should be able to engage other young people as well, friends of the network, further expand the reach. Six hundred thousand should be able to have an impact of, say, 2 million, you know, across the continent. And it’s doable. If everybody else is going to get online and say we’re running this course today, say internet free for all, or free the people in Cameroon. Every government is going to sit up, if all of a sudden there are 2 million tweets about an issue happening, you know, in Cameroon. I think that’s what we have as a resource, and we must be able to leverage that to support the sort of businesses we want to run, the sort of Africa we want to see. And so if they’re hearing me, hey, here’s to the future.
VOICE-OVER: Thank you, Patrick.
Be sure to come back for more inspiring stories from young African leaders on the YALI Voices podcast.
Join the YALI Network at yali.lab.dev.getusinfo.com and be a part of something bigger!
Our theme music is “E Go Happen,” by Grace Jerry and produced by the Presidential Precinct.
The YALI Voices podcast is brought to you by the U.S. Department of State and is part of the Young African Leaders Initiative Network, which is funded by the U.S. government.
The views and opinions expressed here belong to the author or interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of the YALI Network or the U.S. government.